How Keralites soared & then crashed to reality as the Gulf dream shattered in front of their eyes
Kerala is a state that runs largely on two sources of revenue – tourism and money orders. In this series on The Lede we focus on the latter – the dreams of oil wealth from the Gulf that lured many of Kerala’s youth and the boom gone bust which is forcing them to come back to a homeland that is not quite what they imagined it to be.
Saleem M, a native of Thripayar in Thrissur district of Kerala was 32 years old when in 2009 he set his sight on the Arabian shores that lay across the Kerala coasts. Having completed his B Tech and MBA, Saleem found his job as a Technical Assistant in a Kerala government run PSU stifling.
The SPSU specialised in manufacturing agro machineries for use by farmers and its HR policies meant that the ceiling for Saleem’s career growth was already set in stone. He was limited by his post than by his qualifications or skills.
Providing no means to upskill nor make his degrees seem impactful, Saleem decided to take off, to the Gulf - as the many countries on the other side of the Arabian sea are collectively referred to.
There, in Saudi Arabia, Saleem found a job as an engineer in the oil industry which made it seem worthy of his time as well as his qualifications.
“Everyone comes with the plan to work for five, ten or fifteen years and then go and settle back in Kerala,” says Saleem. “But that usually never happens. One or the other reason pops up which extends one’s stay till one has reached a point of no return.”
The reasons extends from repaying debts taken to go abroad to sibling’s marriages, one’s own marriage, construction of house, education of children, needs of relatives, marriages of children and so the cycle continues. In Saleem’s case the plan was to secure his family financially and to seek worthwhile avenues of employment for himself.
Back in Kerala, Saleem had a coveted government job which he did not want. In a country like in India where unemployment is so acute that even openings for sweepers and peons end up receiving applicants in the lakhs, many of them graduates and post graduates even.
Yet, many like Saleem in Kerala are driven to the Gulf and in large numbers.
Today it is estimated by the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) that close to 90% of all Keralites working outside the country are in the Gulf.
This is assumed to account for a number as high as 30 lakhs, though no authoritative numbers exist as yet.
To put things into perspective, Kerala’s population as per the 2011 Census was 3.34 crores, a slight increase from the 3.18 crore in the 2001 Census.
Thus, one out of ten Keralites live outside the state. As per the Kerala Migration Survey 2018 conducted by CDS, in 2013, about 19% of the households had an emigrant or one out of every five households had an emigrant.
Kerala was not always an out-migrating state before Independence. As per a book titled Dynamics of Migration in Kerala: Dimensions, Differentials and Consequences authored by Zachariah, Mathew and Rajan in 2003; modern emigration from Kerala consisted of four stages. The first wave of migrations started to places such as Malayasia, Singapore and other British colonies where they found work in plantations and the like.
In the 1930s, thanks to the Depression, labour ban was imposed on Indians migrating to these colonies. Keralites then went to other former British colonies such as Burma and Ceylon where teak and tea prevailed.
The second wave of emigration was to the African countries mostly as school and college teachers, which reduced when faced with labour movement resistance in these countries.
The third round of migrations started in the 1960s when driven by the labour shortages in the western countries, many took off and settled in the USA, UK and the like.
The last and final round and the most vigorous one was to the countries collectively known as the Gulf nations. This started in the 1970’s and was driven by the oil boom in the deserts. While earlier migrations were a one-off phenomenon restricted to a few, migration to the Gulf countries deeply impacted and transformed the state itself.
The causes driving migration from Kerala are unique to the state. Kerala’s history of social mobility in the recent half a century which fueled a trend of opulent consumerism and the general lack of resources and opportunities needed to sustain the economy are but some.
Amongst all of the reasons the demonstration effect that social mobility brought within a short period of time is most important – the demonstration that one can climb the social and economic ladder easily even if they come from humble beginnings like Raju Jose.
Raju was 11 years old when his father died. Running a small business in Chalakudy in central Kerala, his father, a failed businessman, had little by means of livelihood saved up for Raju and his two siblings, an elder sister and a younger brother. His mother sold the land and house they lived on and married off his sister to an employee working in Madura Coats - a stable job with high social standing; “the highest and the best available job back then,” Raju recalls.
At the age of 12, Raju being the eldest of the two brothers, took up work as a helper in a mechanic’s workshop. He continued that job for five more years with no means to pursue studies. In 1987, at the age of 17, Raju got himself a visa with the help of his maternal uncle and the travel agency that he was working in, citing his age falsely as 21 and went to Bombay and from there to the Gulf.
“I got work as a helper in a puncture repair shop,” he recalls. His experience back in Kerala gave him a heads up in his new job. A quick learner, he learned the trade and became a trusted head mechanic over the course of the next ten years. Though married at the age of 24, Raju says he “did not see the first born until the child was one and half years old.”
Now nearing fifty, Raju recalls how it was a blessing in disguise that he faced a crisis in 1997. “I was already thinking of returning home sooner than later like everyone else when an issue in the workshop made me ask the sponsor to get my exit visa stamped.” And so it was on a decision taken over an emotional outburst that Raju would return home, aged 27 and still young.
Back in Kerala, Raju was faced with the question of livelihood. Being a mechanic was the only thing he had ever done. He had not saved up much to afford other possibilities. “Another blessing,” he says. Many of his well-wishers advised against becoming a mechanic again but to start a small shop instead, a decent service job unlike the mechanic workshop which was blue collar all the way and coloured with grease and dirt. But Raju was wary. “I didn’t know anything else other than automobiles.”
“With what little money I had, I bought this small piece of land measuring 5 cents and started a small workshop,” Raju points to the land which has seen him through so far. “By the grace of God, I have been blessed. After working on the advanced cars in the Gulf, the cars here looked very basic and skeletal. You could figure out in minutes what the issues were,” he beams with pride at the headstart he got.
Later, he would chance upon the phenomenon of fitting of gas cylinders in cars by frugal car owners to save on the fuel expenses. Raju would himself learn the mechanism involved and start fitting gas kits.
“Every day I used to fit four-five kits at a profit of Rs 2000 apiece. I was earning Rs 10,000 a day,” he says. “This is in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s,” he points out. His business grew so fast that he became only the second person in the entire state of Kerala to be given a gas fitting license. With the money he earned and a little of what he had set aside from his savings, he bought another piece of land, “this time bigger, for three lakhs.” In a few years’ time he sold it for Rs 7 lakhs, fetching him a good margin.
Over time Raju would buy more land and sell them at an even higher profit. His appreciation reached such a level that Raju now lives in a 4000 sq feet house with six bedrooms worth Rs 1.5 crore. Raju has expanded his workshop which still stands on the same plot. Returnees like Raju inspire many. The social mobility many like him have attained attracts many more.
Today Raju is safely placed. His eldest daughter is studying for her postgraduation degree in Australia with possibilities for a Permanent Residency while his son is completing his Mechanical Engineering degree and plans to go to Germany to learn German automobile engineering after which Raju says he can get him a luxury car franchise with focus on servicing facilities.
His youngest daughter is doing a graduation in design. “I send them all to the best school here,” says Raju proudly. He has bought a few plots of lands and his workshop is running well.
His sister and her husband who had a secure job meanwhile suffered. Their social stock has fallen considerably as the company he was working in got locked out due to labour strikes. They have seen stagnation and lowering of social status in a state which in the meantime has seen SUVs and luxury cars multiply. “Now they are doing okay,” he adds. Two of her sons now work in the Gulf.
The Gulf nullified many social glass ceilings that existed in Kerala. “It was the land of opportunity,” says Raju. Within Kerala as with the rest of India, education has proven inadequate to secure a future by ensuring employment commensurate with qualifications held. The Gulf provided the perfect opportunity to work around such problems and move up the social hierarchy.
After working for five years, Saleem returned to his old job in Kerala in 2013. Owing to his father’s illness and his commitments of a married life with two kids, he decided against going back again.
But his hopes of a smooth life were thwarted when he realised that inspite of all the skills he had acquired over five years, his old job would put him at a greater disadvantage. He could not even get promoted in the already low paying job owing to not having enough years of service. “The salary is not really enough to survive,” he says recalling his stay back home upon return. The money he had saved up was running out fast.
“Everything is about money,” concedes Saleem. “In Kerala possibilities of starting industries is very less. Resources are less and hence possibilities are even lesser. Land being a major constraint, we can’t do anything else in Kerala other than hospitality and tourism. The other source of employment is government jobs and banks,”
“The competition is so high for such jobs that the only jobs one does get don’t often require your high qualifications,” rues Saleem as happened in his case. It was this inadequacy of the opportunity at hand which forced Saleem to move to the Gulf.
“I have a better paying job here in Oman,” he says after returning to his room post his daily shift. “I am working in a technical job in oil and gas industry,” he says. “In Kerala I was working in a job which asked for ITI as qualification, a job which offered me nothing, neither enough money nor job satisfaction. When I was in India the haunting thought was why I wasted my time getting degrees.”
Assistant Professor at St Paul’s College in Ernakulam, Dr Jose Bejoy, who is himself a Gulf returnee has an interesting way of looking at this. “With the current labour wages in Kerala, anyone who is willing to work can easily earn anywhere between Rs 20,000 to Rs 22,000 a month in Kerala itself depending on how many days he chooses to work, while those working in the Gulf doing similar jobs earn AED 1000 to AED 1400. This equates to nearly Rs 19,000 to Rs 26,000. “And yet they opt to go to the Gulf, even if they earn less than what they can in Kerala.”
“So the natural question is why?”
“One is that they are too qualified to take up many of such jobs in Kerala, the other and the most important reason is that the social status of those who work in the Gulf changes overnight.”
This false sense of status pushes them to the trap of the unending Gulf expatriate life.
“Everyone goes there for seed money, but they never define how much that is. Eventually they decide to continue as long as the flow of money continues,” says Dr Bejoy. Meanwhile newer expenses eat into the earnings and savings take a backseat, liabilities multiply.
“I went to Dubai with a plan to come back after two or three years. After six years when I reached a point of no return I saw through the vicious cycle, I just quit and returned home.” Having realised that it would be too late, Bejoy returned to Kerala and pursued his studies further.
“Earlier the pay difference was incomparably high, not anymore.”
Saleem is guarded in his assessment and agrees that “Gulf is no more what it used to be. Opportunities are shrinking. Many seem to be going back or are being asked to. But the lack of opportunities back home upon return and the high living costs” which a very high standard of living imposes are still making him look towards the Gulf with hope of a land where money can be earned faster.
“There are so many jobless youth in Kerala today, almost all exclusively engineers, so much so that I can’t even go to my relatives houses to tell them that I am leaving,” says Saleem. “They all want me to get them jobs,” he says.
Upon returning to the Gulf after five years, Oman to be specific, he says the mood amongst the expatriate community is different this time around. “Everyone shares a feeling that we are heading towards a problem. The feeling of uncertainty is omnipresent.”
Mohammed Jaleel, a native of Perinjanam near Kodungalloor in Thrissur district has been in Saudi Arabia for the past 39 years and is a Civil Engineer there. “That the good days of the Gulf are behind us is the general feeling amongst expats here for the last four years,” he says from Saudi Arabia.
The reasons for the downturn for emigrants are the policies of nationalisation and localisation by which the governments have started preferring local labour to migrants. “Since they can’t expressly deny right to work owing to WTO (World Trade Organisation) regulations, they are imposing local taxes and such other mechanisms by which it is becoming unaffordable for those from outside to work here,” he says.
“The plan is to send everyone back and restart from zero if needed.” The oil crisis resulting from the low prices for crude, increasing joblessness amongst locals and border disputes and instabilities and the increasing defense expenditures are the reasons cited for the change in policies.
“Unlike in India where we build infrastructure 25 years after the need arises, here the infrastructure for the next 25 years has already been put in place,” he explains referring to the infrastructure and construction industry which opened employment windows for decades. “The building spree has now stopped. What used to be big project announcements with very short completion periods have now disappeared almost.” The governments he says, have different priorities now.
“When I first came here in the 1980’s, the locals were mostly uneducated and naturally under-equipped to be put to employment.” The oil boom had changed the fortunes of an otherwise under-resourced people overnight. “Today, the youth here are all educated in world class universities, many of which started while I was here,”but there are not enough jobs for them.”
“Now with nationalisation and localisation policies, many spheres such as HR, accounts and administration are being reserved for locals,” he adds. “Naturally across the board immigrant jobs are being structurally terminated and they forced to go back.”
Jaleel now well over 60, the official age for retirement, has been ready to move back to Kerala for the last two years, but extensions by the company he works in to smoothen the transition has kept him there. But this is a “rare exception,” he explains. “Most of the time untimely returns are the norm. And it comes with terrible consequences for those involved.”
For the land they return to is not the land they dream of in their nostalgic memories.
(The second part of this series deals with the mental agony experienced by Gulf returnees who come back home to find that their families, their livelihood and careers are all lost to them.)