Mathew had lost his job at an oil sector-linked company on 31 March, along with about 300 other Indians, as the twin shocks of a pandemic and an oil price plunge hit simultaneously. He says he tried—“really tried"—to find another job that would enable him to stay back in the Gulf region.
“I have been working there for the last 14 years. So, I used some of my old contacts and started applying for jobs. One or two had, verbally, made some offers. But when the city went into a total lockdown because of covid-19, the situation changed immediately," Mathew said. “Those who had offered jobs went back on their promise or stopped taking calls at all."
As virus cases began to peak in the Gulf, he finally decided to come back. So, when the first evacuation flight took off—flagging off India’s biggest peacetime repatriation exercise on 7 May—Mathew was on it. The bags by his side were heavy, as if he was returning permanently.
“It became certain that I will not get a job. In that situation, my first priority shifted to somehow getting back," he said.
It is within these shifts in priorities, made by thousands of people like Mathew, that the fortunes of a state like Kerala rests. Every fifth house in Kerala is officially estimated to have an expat in the Gulf. Likewise, every fourth Indian in the Gulf region is estimated to be a Keralite. They send home money like clockwork: more than ₹1 trillion arrived last year, accounting for almost one-third of the state’s total income.
Men like Mathew are the international variant of the blue-collar migrant exodus which has gripped India’s attention over the past two months. Whether they will return to the Gulf is unknowable as of now. Past shocks, from the Kuwait war to the global financial crisis in 2008, were blips in the long arc of steady exchange—of migrants and money. Will covid-19 leave more permanent scars?
One thing is certain though. Kerala’s financial pipeline is snapped for the moment, and the state is preparing for the worst. “What the state is currently doing is to understand the extent of migration, what kind of skills they have and what can we gain from them (once they return)," said R. Ramakumar, a member of Kerala’s planning board and an economist at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
Origin of the trail
Kerala’s tryst with the Gulf began as early as the fourth century B.C., when Arab traders in their dhows used to follow the monsoon winds blowing in from the west to the east and made a fortune trading in spices with Kerala. Malayalees have sailed back with many of these sailors for centuries.
By the time geologists came in search of oil in the Persian Gulf following the Great Depression, large-scale discoveries threw up new economic opportunities, and Malayalees, bound by history, geography and custom, were willing participants. Since at least the 1970s, out-migration has become an intricate part of life for the educated young in Kerala, experts point out. Most of Kerala’s emigrants move to the six countries in the Gulf regions—United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait.
The Gulf road to affluence even entered popular culture soon enough. In a popular 1989-Malayalam movie Varavelpu, which is about a Gulf-returned Malayalee man played by actor Mohanlal, self-worth is intricately tied to a job in the Gulf.
As it becomes apparent during the course of the film that the hero actually wants to stay back in Kerala, his stock falls flat among the local crowd.
And that is the puzzling question that confronts the Malayalee migrant of today: self-worth and economic agency. In the face of bleak employment prospects—home and abroad—what would these returning migrants do next? How could the state recoup the collapse in remittances?
Underlying such questions is also the future of the Asia-Gulf migration corridor, deemed now to be one of the largest of its kind in the world. It consists of an estimated 12 million people who live and work in the Middle-East, originating from countries across south and South-East Asia. Of them, the Malayalee migration pattern is seen as the oldest in India.
“The exodus from the Gulf may be the first major manifestation of a reverse globalization and could cause lasting effects," said Shajahan Madampat, a cultural critic and commentator based in the UAE.
Kerala is set to take the most severe hit, he noted. “Every day, about 500 new (virus) cases are detected in the UAE alone, where we have around 5-10 lakh Malayalees. A vast majority of them are unskilled or semi-skilled workers, and many of them survive by getting employed at small-and-medium enterprises. A lot of these high-risk, middle-class jobs may be lost," he said.
Reeling under the pandemic and a drastic decline in oil prices, the Gulf countries have also started adopting several austerity measures. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has allowed the private sector to cut the salaries of its employees by 40% for a period of six months. The fallout: At the risk of starvation, as well as illness, nearly four lakh people have registered to return to Kerala.
“We don’t expect all of them to come immediately. People may have been risk-averse and may have generally registered," said the planning board member Ramakumar.
“The state has already created a set of projects which we can offer to them as entrepreneurs. For example, we are looking at those who might have experience in poly-house or precision farming, which, if possible, we can encourage them to start in Kerala," he added.
But, he contends, there is no real way for Kerala to employ all returnees, especially the blue-collar workers, except by expanding its industrial base. It is something that the state has not had much success in for 63 years since its formation. It languishes at the 12th position in industrial rankings of India’s 16 major states. How would they do it now?
“We don’t know how many of them will stay back in Kerala. A lakh or two who have decided to leave the Gulf might go and work in other Indian states rather than staying back in Kerala," said Ramakumar.
In the short run, the state is expecting a huge decline in remittances—by as much as 15% in the coming few months. Add to it the fact that the southern state is quickly going bankrupt, things begin to look a little bleak.
Kerala is essentially broke, said the state’s finance minister Thomas Isaac to reporters on 25 April. “If we include what the Centre would give, we will be able to touch about ₹2,000 crore in revenues. The rest is borrowings. For the payment of salaries alone, we require ₹2,500 crore," he said.
Nobody has really figured out what happens next, except that it won’t be just in the hands of finance minister Isaac, but also his brother, Anthony Isaac, who is a migrant.
There is no Plan B
“I have been working in the Gulf for several decades now," said Antony Isaac, over the phone. “Post covid-19, I had to take a 10-30% salary cut to keep my job. They have drastically cut my allowances too. I’ve also been asked to take a certain number of unpaid leaves in a year," he added.
He says he has been getting several phone calls from people who are in an even worse conditions, which reminds him of the large-scale repatriations which happened after the 2008 financial crisis. “Many are sending their families back home first and then waiting out to see how bad the recession would be," he said.
But 2020 is more severe than 2008. The virus-induced economic freeze has already lasted almost three months, and has been much worse than 2008.
Last month, Joy Arakkal, one of Kerala’s richest expat businessman and owner of a $125-million refinery firm, Innova Refining & Trading Fze, jumped off from the 14th floor of his office building in Dubai due to “financial problems". The morning after he killed himself, Babu P.K. from Thrissur called a phone-in programme on the Radio Asia network and said the pandemic had torn apart his world.
The company that Babu worked for wound up in January and he has not been able to send any money home since then. He cannot come back home either because his visa is not in order. His wife and four children who remain in Kerala, he told during the call, are wilting away due to hunger. They rely entirely on the free rice provided by the government for survival, he said.
Babu’s voice cracked when Mint contacted him over the phone. “I don’t have any money for food, let alone to recharge my phone. My cable connection got cut off since I could not recharge. So, my only contact with the outside world is through an old radio handset," he said.
“Sometimes, I walk up to a customs office nearby. There are friendly officers who would allow me to use their WiFi service. That’s how I called into the radio programme. Some Malayalee aid-groups reached out to me after that and provided enough supplies that will last for some time," he said.
Yet, he said, he has not lost hope. He wants to come back home at the earliest, he said, but would keep looking for another job in the Gulf.
“My brother is a construction labourer. My wife’s brother is an auto-rickshaw driver. He also has had no work in the lockdown. I was supporting all of them," Babu said. “I was earning ₹30,000 a month and sent home ₹25,000 every alternate month. Can I save that much working in Kerala?"
For those who came back, the story is no different. After arriving in Kochi, Mathew and his fellow passengers are now lodged inside a college hostel and kept under quarantine. The free space in the rooms has grown crowded with more and more planes arriving. Inside, he says, they all have been milling about asking each other similar questions over the last few days: How something that was so close before, a job in the Gulf, seems irretrievably distant now? How soon can one get back to the Gulf?
“I have a wife and son to provide for," said Mathew.
“I also have a housing loan of ₹50 lakh. My younger brother is also in trouble. He was also in the Gulf in the hotel industry. His salary was already cut by half and they have now asked him to take unpaid leave. It seems, soon, he will also lose his job," he added.
“I want to get back to the Gulf if there is any chance. I know it is tough to get a job now, but what other option is there? How much can I earn here? How can I repay the housing loan?" he asked. “Going to the US or Europe is unfeasible; the job search and the processing alone would take years. We don’t have any network there as it exists in the Gulf. I’m hoping to return to the Gulf after things are normalized. As of now, there is no Plan B."
But even amid the gloom, there are silver linings. As men like Mathew were flying across the Arabian Sea towards India, Malayalee women were making the journey in the opposite direction. Most of them were nurses. On 10 May, 88 health workers, including doctors and nurses, were airlifted from Kerala to Abu Dhabi by the UAE, the same country from where Mathew had to make a hurried, unhappy exit.
The demand for nurses is set to skyrocket (nursing is an attractive higher education choice in Kerala). The southern state also has a good reputation for handling the public health crisis well.
Some jobs will actually get created abroad because of the virus, said S. Irudaya Rajan, a migration expert at the Center for Development Studies. Even the men may wait a while and then start looking for options, in other states or in new destinations like Singapore or Malaysia, he added.
“What will they do by coming back to Kerala? What have we got to offer them? If a chance comes, they will keep moving," Rajan said. “Once you are addicted to migration, you don’t get the same comfort at home. It is similar to drinking habits. If you don’t get rum, you might rush for the locally brewed arrack rather than deciding to stop drinking."