Depression, loss of livelihood and pride has hit Gulf returnees hard; what is the road ahead for them?
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.
“That the Gulf NRIs have contributed immensely to the overall development that we see in Kerala today is a fact which cannot be denied,” says the former Chairperson of the NRI Commission of Kerala, retired Justice P Bhavadasan.
Bhavadasan was the founding chairperson of the Commission formed by an Act in 2016 and remitted office a few months back.
“We owe our social, cultural, political and economic development to them to a great extent. What we have given them in return is a question that is being asked today,” he says.
“Out of 100 returnees, only 20 to 25 are affluent enough to integrate smoothly into the Kerala of today”, with the problems being faced by the Gulf. We cannot shut our eyes and feign that no problem exists.”
A problem with finding solutions for returnees is the absence of any kind of a definitive survey which officially quantifies the actual status of the returnees.
“The NRI Commission had made recommendations to the government to conduct a proper survey,” says Justice Bhavadasan. “Without proper numbers, how can we say for sure how big a problem it really is and what kind of solution need to be looked into.”
The state government too is thinking on the same lines. But Justice Bhavadasan differs with it on methodology. “The government has proposed plans to use Kudumbasree for this purpose. I don’t think that is the way to go about it,” he opines. “Data collection has to be accurately completed employing professionals,” he argues.
“Moreover Kudumbasree workers have their limitations. Why would someone who tries to keep up a high social standing open up about their problems to someone whom they might interact with otherwise,” he asks.
The false sense of pride he refers to is particularly high amongst some returnees who refuse to share their problems for fear of losing respect in society.
The only survey that does exist presently for Kerala is that which was undertaken by Centre for Development Studies which has been conducting such surveys for Kerala regularly.
Professor S Irudaya Rajan of CDS has this to say - “It is not only Keralites who work in the Gulf. Their problems are known as atleast some studies are being done. For India as a whole, we have no numbers whatsoever.”
“It is time we undertook a migration survey for India as a whole on a war footing,” he says. The only migration surveys that has been conducted in India other than in Kerala are in the states of Tamil Nadu (2015), Goa (2008), Gujarat (2011) and Punjab (2010) where one-time surveys have been undertaken.
“It is time we undertook a one-time nationwide survey,” he reiterates.
The first and foremost problem faced by the returnees start even before they land back in Kerala is to get dues. “The biggest problem faced by returnees is getting the employment dues cleared before returning,” says Justice Bhavadasan.
“Once they lose their job, it becomes illegal for them to stay back for long. The cost of staying back is also prohibitive,” he says. “So they return with whatever they are paid.”
To settle such issues, “one has to go through the labour courts there. In their courts only lawyers who are practicing in their countries can argue cases.”
This makes it difficult to employ a lawyer. “Returnees in turn find it difficult to follow up on their cases from here and give up.” The cost of the lawyers is also a factor.
“Almost 25% of all the cases the Commission hears is about these,” he says as a measure of how common a problem it really is.
The NRI Commission of Kerala, a rather recent entity, works as a complaint redressal and recommendatory body with powers to direct agencies to investigate cases as also having powers to summon. “Last year we heard 495 cases out of which 350 cases have been solved,” he says.
“The NRI Commission had made recommendations to have a panel of lawyers who can argue such cases on behalf of the worker. Right now the embassy directs them to a panel of lawyers they have empanelled but the costs have to be borne by the workers themselves.”
“Starting this year, we will be providing the pravasis, as the NRKs are called, with legal aid services, named as PLAT- Pravasi Legal Aid Services,” says Harikrishnan Namboothiri, Chief Executive Officer of NORKA ROOTS.
Established in 2002, NORKA ROOTS is the arm of the state government of Kerala to promote and execute welfare activities of Non-Resident Keralites (NRKs) across the globe. Key objectives of the agency are effectively addressing the challenges faced by the NRKs, protecting their rights and rehabilitating the returnees.
“Those who return to Kerala don’t know the land nor do they understand how things work here,” says Nizar H, Member Secretary of the NRI Commission. “They thus need to be sensitised as to what to expect back home.” he adds.
This he says will reduce the shock that results from expectations not meeting reality and make rehabilitating the returnees easier.
“Orientation, training and skilling are a necessity for rehabilitation,” says KN Harilal, member of the Kerala State Planning Board.
“Provisions to provide special loans and formation of cooperatives by returnees are also being considered as solutions,” he adds. “The government has been asking local self-government institutions to help the returnees and facilitate their smooth re-entry into society.”
“Had Sajan from Anthoor come to the Commission we could have solved his problems,” rues retired Justice P Bhavadasan, former Chairperson of the NRI Commission. “We have solved many similar problems such as his in the recent past. Maybe he didn’t know, maybe he didn’t think we could do anything.”
Not many returnees seem aware of the sittings that the Commission undertakes monthly.
“Technically speaking, NRI Commission is meant only for NRIs. The moment one returns home, one ceases to be an NRI,” he explains. “But we take a humane view and look into all cases raised by returnees.”
Perhaps it is also time to widen the scope of the Commission itself.
Nizar H, Member-Secretary of the NRI Commission explains what falls within the ambit of the Commission. “Most complaints that comes to the Commission are related to employment dues, property disputes with regards to red-tapism with local bodies and family issues and disputes troubling the returnees.”
“We hold sittings in every district and have a permanent sitting in Ernakulam, it being equidistant from all parts of the state,” he explains.
Re-integration into the society is where the need to find a source of livelihood comes in.
“There is no doubt that people are coming back to Kerala,” says D Dhanuraj, Chairman at the Centre for Public Policy Research in Ernakulam. “The falling remittance is a clear indicator as to where things are going.”
“Last year we have seen remittance fall from close to Rs 80,000 crore to Rs 65,000 crore. Now the question is what are we doing to solve the impending crisis.”
“There aren’t even any low hanging fruits that we can pluck from. The system we follow is very flat and we have failed to upscale small enterprises, neither do we have large enough companies who can absorb those returning with world class skills and experience.”
Citing the Middle East as an example, he says, “Government should simplify the rules and procedural necessities required to be fulfilled by returnees to start enterprises. Even though the Middle East is very conservative in their values, the freedom to do business is very high there.”
“Presently,” he opines, “small undertakings are not allowed to grow. If you look closely, there are no mergers and acquisitions in the small scale sector,” he says, pointing to a larger problem that ails the Indian ecosystem generally.
“The result is that most of who return to Kerala invest in hospitality and tourism and no one dares to go into manufacturing even,” he adds.
“The least we could do is improve the ease of doing business within the state.” For this to come to fruition, the organisational culture within governmental systems needs to change.
“Today, we have strong leadership in the state who can implement the changes. What any such change will disturb though is an ecosystem which has been there for 60-70 years. Even the third party here, with barely any presence, echoes the same old opinions.”
“Labour laws and the work culture it promotes is another problem faced by many of those who return. The state has to take initiative to solve the overbearing labour rules but the fact is that no one is willing to take the initiative for fear that employees will be exploited.” This fear he says stems from “a superficial understanding of the problems.”
“It is a vicious cycle, the question is who will bell the cat?” he asks.
Kerala and its labour rules have been notorious for their intransigency and for bringing many enterprises to a standstill. Now with the people who kept the economy flush with remittance money coming back home and in numbers, the labour is proving to be an obstacle.
“You just can’t work with the labour here,” says Saby Vargheese, a development project consultant. “We make schedules and plans as we are used to when working in a professional environment and here it comes up a cropper, because one or the other labour decides to take a day off for no particular reason. The work culture is toxic that way. It is very difficult to get good workers, and when you do get them, they have very high ambitions for which they aren’t ready to put in the time and the result is that they leave very soon,” says Saby.
While the effort to solve the problems with the labour in Kerala is slow in coming, efforts to help the returnees on other fronts have started.
As a measure to help with re-integration, NORKA ROOTS co-ordinates with those planning to start ventures within Kerala and helps them evaluate their ideas and recommends that banks issue loans.
Named NDPREM (Norka Department Project for Returned Emigrants), the scheme provides orientation and sector specific training after which the returnee would be helped with processing applications with the banks.
“We have tied up with 13 banks for this. Last year 791 people availed the facility wherein a total amount of Rs 15 crore was released,” says Harikrishnan Namboothiri, CEO of NORKA ROOTS.
“NORKA Businesss Facilitation Centre has tied up with Cochin Metro Rail Corporation which provides those taking spaces in the metro a 25% rate discount,” adds Harikrishnan N.
“The government has also been mulling an investment bond scheme wherein returnees can park their earnings with the government which will give them regular returns,” says Nizar H, Member-Secretary of the present NRI Commission.
The former chairperson Justice Bhavadasan though flags off a few issues. “Not many who return have savings big enough to be parked with the government,” he says.
“If there are investment schemes for NRIs such as government bonds, maybe many of the follies that returnees end up committing so often won’t happen,” says Dr Jose Bejoy, Assistant Professor at St. Paul’s College Kalamassery, Ernakulam. “Wasteful ventures can be and should be avoided,” he feels.
“Everybody cannot become successful entrepreneurs like Yusuf Ali,, is how Professor S Irudaya Rajan puts it. “Not all actors can become Rajinikanth either. Wherever profitable opportunities are there they have to move there.
What they bring with them are high skills otherwise unavailable in India. We have to make sure that we use it,” he opines.
“Policies should be designed to support re-migration to say a Japan or Malaysia or whichever country needs skilled personnel. The government should facilitate this.”
Policies which would ensure faster movements of skilled labour are the need of the hour he argues.
“A country like Malta, Kazakhstan or even Australia have requirement of labour such as the ones who return. The government needs to act like an employment exchange in this,” he proposes.
NORKA ROOTS does provide some such facilities, focusing mostly on the Middle East. “We are undertaking recruitment for domestic service workers since the last one year,” says Hariksrishnan Namboothiri, CEO of NORKA ROOTS. “We provide free training as well. We started recruitment for domestic service workers as it was here that the most exploitation was happening,” he explains.
“Through our recruitment facility for nurses, we have as of now recruited 2000 nurses and have a standing agreement with 25 employers,” adds Harikrishnan.
Asked whether NORKA has any plans for promoting re-migration such as what Professor S Irudaya Rajan suggested, Harikrishnan says - “We are planning on providing language training to equip those looking for re-migration. NORKA is the only agency in the world which is touching the whole cycle of migration right from training and recruitment to re-migration, rehabilitation and re-integration,” insists Harikrishnan.
“Given our limitations of land, dearth of natural resources and the high population density, polluting industries cannot be started in Kerala. Service industry being the only undertaking possible, the surplus labour has to spread out,” he says supporting the suggestions that re-migrations could hold a key to the problem for those forced to return to Kerala in the working age.
“We are here to promote quality migration,” he adds, and that most seem to agree is the way forward.
“Earlier, when there were issues which stalled migration to Ceylon, we thought that was the end of Kerala, then came the Gulf and the Western countries. There will be a transition period for sure. But opportunities will come and we will grab it,” is how Mohammed Jaleel, a Civil Engineer planning his return after 39 years in Saudi Arabia puts it.
“Maybe Africa, who knows,” he signs off.