Eroor (Ernakulam): Oh, I miss Vicky!," Ravi says, in Malayalam, as he rolls up his sleeves. He is walking quickly back to his house from a protest—that quintessential Kerala activity. Breathing in the pungent chemicals of Kochi’s industrial belt in Eroor as he walks, Ravi (who did not wish to reveal his surname) keeps obsessively talking about his children who are alone at home, since his wife had also gone out. “If Vicky were around, I would have no worries," Ravi says. “He would have taken care of my kids. His wife even grooms my daughter’s hair every day before school. I wish they return soon".

For the record, Vicky is a trustworthy neighbour. But he may as well be from another world.

Vicky comes from a small village 2,600km away in Bihar. After escaping from a loss-making farm in Bihar, he operates machinery in a local factory these days. But home has a curious pull, no matter how far one travels. And every Chhath puja season—to the mild annoyance of Ravi—Vicky makes the annual month-long trip back home, along with thousands of others.

In another corner of the city, the Chhath exodus causes troubles far graver than the absence of a free babysitter. The season spells trouble for the Kochi Metro construction work, which is fast approaching a deadline.

“We have noticed that many labourers are disappearing in bulk during particular times of the year, like Chhath," says a labour contractor who did not want to be identified. “We now try to know the festival days of the northern states in advance in order to plan accordingly, so that our work is not interrupted," he adds.

These anecdotes are, in fact, snapshots of a society in flux. Kerala is going through a sea-change in its labour force and society, which may hold important lessons for much of India. As a clutch of relatively richer south Indian states begin to age, even as much of the Gangetic belt is projected to see population increases at least till the mid-2030s, Kerala is at the vanguard of an oncoming wave of mass labour movement—and the associated social stress and anxiety.

Nearly 7-9% of Kerala’s middle- and lower-income workforce vanishes during Chhath, says, Manish Sabharwal, chairman of TeamLease Services, a staffing and recruitment agency. Out of the migrant worker population, about 9.5% is from Bihar and an estimated 60-70% of them go home during Chhath, he adds. One out of every fourth adult male between 20 and 64 in Kerala is likely to be an inter-state migrant, according to a 2013 study by the state’s labour department. An estimated 2.5 million people from outside the state call Kerala home. Such sizeable numbers are only a reflection of what migration researcher and IIM-Ahmedabad assistant professor Chinmay Tumbe calls “the great Indian migration wave".

Nearly 7-9% of Kerala’s middle- and lower-income workforce vanishes during the Hindu festival of Chhath - Manish Sabhareal, Chairman, TeamLease Services

In a recent book India Moving:A History Of Migration, he suggests that work-related migration rates have increased since the 1990s, coinciding with increasing economic growth rates, particularly in a slew of southern states.

Brewing backlash?

Things don’t always go smoothly though. In India’s vastly diverse cultural landscape, those from outside a home geography are marked out for reprisals. In Gujarat, for example, over 20,000 migrant workers fled the state in October after protests broke out over the rape of a 14-month-old girl, allegedly by one migrant labourer. It is a dilemma for the locals as well. Sections of the Malayalee society resist accepting outsiders, but they do need these “bhais", as the locals call them, to get their work done.

In trains and buses, for instance, locals complain about migrants occupying the bulk of the seats. The Dhanbad–Alappuzha Express, which was in relative obscurity till about a decade ago, is now one of the top ten most crowded trains in India, according to a recent report. Seeing the consistent rise in demand, two airlines also have opened direct flights from Kochi to Kolkata this month—a first.

Close to Ravi’s house, half of the students at the nursery school are children of migrant workers. Moreover, around 50 students studying in a public school in Ravi’s neighbourhood are children of migrant workers, including Muhammad Dilshad, the topper in Class X. The students are as well versed in Malayalam (Dilshad even prefers to count numbers in Malayalam) as the teachers are in Hindi—a result of years of exchange. “Dilshad is our pride. I want to see him topping the board exams," says Sudeep TP, Dilshad’s favourite teacher.

The school now has a programme called “Roshni" to give special training to migrant children. It has brought in new strategies to encourage greater assimilation, such as holding the assembly in Hindi once in a while.

At least two churches in the locality have an Odiya service and Hindi service on Sundays. About 30km away, in Perumbavoor, an entire street speaks in Hindi on Sundays as migrants turn the road into a bazaar, which features products from back home—such as bundles of “Mukti" beedi.

The Social Network

The current generation in Kerala is having fewer children than their parents or grandparents. In fact, the population growth in two of the 14 districts has turned negative. The proportion of those who are aged 60 and above increased from 6% in 1961 to 13% in 2011.

The allure of the Gulf has only heightened an already troubling shortfall in the working age population. Every third house in Kerala has a man working in the Gulf. The “missing men" phenomenon has hit the labour market. Given the state’s successes in education, many menial jobs find no takers. The migrants fill this void. The fact that the payment for unorganized workers in Kerala is the highest in the Indian subcontinent, thanks to a legacy of aggressive unionizing across sectors, has surely helped.

As migrants change the local economy and society, their remittances sent back home trigger small transformations there, too- Benoy Peter, Centre for Migration and inclusive Development, Kerala

Benoy Peter, who runs the Kerala-based Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, says that Kerala’s migrants come from over 195 districts spread across 25 states. Karan Bharathi, a 29-year old from Uttar Pradesh, got his first job in Kerala a year ago. Bharathi, like many others, lives in a small corner room of a dilapidated, old house in Eroor, along with two other migrant workers. The room hardly has space for one person to move around, forget three, a proof of his community’s life as a shadow society in Kerala. Bharathi admits his house, back in the village, is much bigger. “But, what can one do? The jobs are all here," he says.

“I was looking after a relative in a hospital when I came to know of Kerala first. A man said there is work in Kerala and he needs ten people to travel on an immediate basis. My family was struggling (his father is a farmer) so I asked him to take me," says Bharathi, in Hindi. So just like that, Bharathi got a job. Or that’s at least what he thought. “When I reached here, that agent didn’t take my call. He cheated us. We were here for 15 days. Then, I met one person on the road who said he has an electrical job. I worked there for some days, but the payment was not regular, so I left," he said.

Ever since, Bharati has been on the move—from one job to another. He finally reached Eroor some months ago, but is already thinking of quitting.

“My 19,000-payment for last month’s work is stuck with the company. I will leave the moment they pay that," he said. Over the years, the migrants have built networks to search and locate jobs in Kerala, much like Malayalees in Middle East. It has led to the rise of “agents" who get a commission for connecting people to jobs. The rate is often half the first month’s salary, from both the job seeker and the employer.

Freedom from the ‘Gaav’

By noon, a crowd of women pressed on to the sides of a nursery home in Eroor, constantly chatting in Hindi. They have been called for a meeting with Sheena Rajeesh, the local head of Kudumbashree, a million-strong network of women in Kerala.

“They are asking for tailoring machines under one of the schemes of Kudumbashree. But we don’t know yet whether to trust them. What if we give them loans and they leave the place after a month?" asks Rajeesh.

But the women are persistent, she says. “We did not know about Kudumbashree until recently. Had we known before, we would have joined them earlier," says Abda Khutauna, who is originally from Bihar. “Kerala is such a beautiful place. We were never this free any time in life," she says referring to how social customs restricted her freedom to move around in the past. “Gaav (village) mein sab ke liye permission lena padtha hai (In the village, everything needs prior permission)."

Now far away from home, she is in the midst of a community of wives of migrant workers, who all want to be free and independent and live life on their own terms. Further, their children get decent schooling, with everything from textbooks and mid-day meals to uniforms being provided by the government, a result of the state’s strong social security system. “The kids are speaking more Malayalam than Hindi even when at home, but I can live with that" Abda says. “If I were born here, my life also would have been much different."

Remittance economy

As migrants coming to Kerala change the local economy and society, their remittances sent back home trigger small transformations there too. Peter says the remittance pipeline is probably larger than 200 billion per year.

Based on anecdotal evidence, the remittances are largely spent on housing, education, and the creation of new employment opportunities.

Peter set out on a journey to West Bengal recently to see the impact himself. In Murshidabad, once a prosperous silk centre but India’s poorest district now, the remittances coming in from Kerala is doing wonders, he says. “Any good house you see, ask them and they will have someone working in Kerala. People who have started businesses, bought vehicles, bought land, or built new apartments, they all have someone in Kerala," Peter says. “I took an autorickshaw ride in Murshidabad. My son and I were talking in Malayalam. Immediately, the driver turned back and asked us, naattil evideya? (“which part of the state are you from?"). We were surprised he knew Malayalam. He explained that he had bought the three-wheeler by working as a hotel staff in Thiruvananthapuram for a couple of years," he adds.

Clearly, as migrants move across Kerala in pursuit of that next job, a slice of the state travels across the country.

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