God’s own country and shattered dreams
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.
The remittances from the Gulf are a major contributor to Kerala’s economy. S Irudaya Rajan and KC Zachariah in their paper International Migrations published by the Centre for Development Studies and The International Labour Union note that remittances constitute 36% of Kerala’s net state domestic product which is also equivalent to 60% of the debt of the state.
The total population of Kerala is about 3.388 crore and the total remittance of the state is Rs 71,142 crore, a per capita remittance of Rs 21,000, they note.
“Unlike migration to the western democracies which eventually end up or hold hopes of citizenship and permanent settlement, migration to Gulf countries comes with the rider that except in really exceptional cases, citizenship is never even a possibility,” says Professor Irudhaya Rajan making the distinction clearer.
“This means they send all their earnings back home,” he explains, unlike those going to the west who try to save up and build a life for themselves there.
“If you go to the Gulf you have to come back it is as simple as that. And now because of all the problems that Gulf countries themselves are facing, the number of migrants returning are going to increase further.”
“As per our estimates close to 15 lakh migrants have already returned,” Prof Rajan estimates.
It is when they come back that they face the real crisis. The God’s own country they expect is very different from what welcomes them.
“As it is, they come back on a low having lost not just a job but also the status that comes attached with being in Gulf,” adds Professor Irudaya Rajan.
“Coming to Kerala on leave for a month is very different from that of returning home on Exit Visa,” says Nazar Jaleel. “One has to live through it really to be able to understand it.”
Nazar spent close to 32 years in the Gulf across UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman without ever getting a financial break of sorts. He finally exited the Gulf in 2016 determined never to return. “I had decided no matter what others say, I am not going to return.” The first and foremost question for those who return to Kerala is “What next?” The Gulf was once the answer to all such questions.
Nazar had foregone studies and went to the Gulf in 1979 in the belief that it was an easy source of money like many others who flaunted wealth had made it appear. The hardships he faced there broke him and his willingness to put in a redemption struggle.
“Gulf NRIs are jailed in the Gulf by circumstances,” he says. “They are sentenced to life, there they work for their family, their village, their state, country and everyone else but themselves,” he adds. “And when they eventually return, nobody wants them anymore.”
“I don’t have much regrets, I never worked like a workaholic there, but what I see around me are pained, disappointed, broken and depressed returnees who can’t even share their hurt with their families as they are too full of fake pride,” he adds. “And anyway now it is too late for them to share.”
Nazar worked as a driver initially and then worked in a pharmacy towards the end of his expatriate days. By his own admission, he didn’t forego all and everything, sacrificing one’s own life like most others in the Gulf. But he didn’t lead a charmed life either. He says he has seen the hard life. He coped with the cramped life in rooms shared by 12 and more and his weak body gave him frequent trouble.
“Attending to nature’s call is the biggest luxury I have here at home,” he quips in a hushed voice, giving a glimpse of the life that he lived. Having lived with a toilet shared by two rooms, each having 12 occupants, he says all they got was half an hour to forty five minutes for all twelve to dress up and leave for work on time. “There have been times when I have had to pass urine in the sink hose.”
And it is from this life that the expats save up money and send home. “My roommates saved up without drinking tea, eating snacks and avoiding non-veg,” he opens up. “They won’t even see the nearest town until returning home on leave”.
“When they survive by eating Kuboos or porotta, their families would be having biriyani, chicken and mutton every other day.”
“Due to the endless nights of needs and liabilities the expat never sees the dawn,” he says poetically. “They just keep increasing their list of needs driven by their families who don’t understand the hardships they suffer.”
The reason behind this is that they “never even reveal the true state of affairs to their family,” so this ends up creating a false image of prosperity and opulence owing to which the families themselves start living outside of their means.
“Even when he might be starving for want of money, every time the family asks for money, he will arrange for it by borrowing from someone without asking anything.” This, Nazar says, leads to many unwanted expenditures and unsustainable expansion of living standards back home.
“What drives this is also the false pretense of surplus that the expats exhibit when home on leave,” opines Nazar. “They stock up stuff months on end before coming on leave. And once here they try to double live the experience of the homeland by paying all and sundry.” This results in a slew of unwanted expenses.
“They take cars on rent and drive around like there is no tomorrow. They buy fish and meat over and above the market rates, they pay labour more than the standard rates.” The families in turn imbibes the lifestyle and lives this way even after their return.
“There is a reason why expats do all these things, they just live for a month when they are in Kerala, rest of the year they struggle and work, but the society doesn’t understand that. They feed him with false pride and push him and his family further into spending more.
“Once the lifestyle goes up, it is difficult to bring it down,” says Nazar. “Even if the expat upon return is willing to bring down the lifestyle, his family and relatives won’t allow it to happen.”
“Anyway, people working in the Gulf don’t think about saving up as it is. They convert their sweat and blood into brick and mortar and that is all that remains for them once they return,” he says referring to the many mansions they build.
“Once the meter stops, meeting running expenses becomes difficult, savings is like a bucket of water, it can never be an ocean. One can’t draw from it forever.”
“Eventually friends, family and relatives will force him to go back. My neighbour who is 65 years old now has gone back. He doesn’t have any other means to keep the house running,” he adds.
Saby Vargheese was 24 years old and had secured a small job in Kerala when he got an opportunity to go to the Gulf through his brother who was already working there. Now in his forties, three years after returning to Kerala having worked for 18 years in the UAE, he works as a project consultant while his wife, an interior designer, works on a project basis for clients.
The attraction towards the Gulf for Saby like many others had been cultivated over time.
“When we were kids we used to sport items gifted by relatives in the Gulf as a matter of pride. Even small things like pencils, pens, bags all had novelty value attached.” What Saby refers to is the advent of the opulent consumerism, now second nature to Kerala. It has a firm rooting in the deprivations of the socialist era of India.
“In the pre-liberalisation era, the many small gifts from Gulf were seen as out of this world and unique,” he says. A time when even what may today seem like the ordinary printed round neck t-shirts were a novelty, beyond reach for even the otherwise well-off. “In an era of that rare black and white television set, houses with people working in the Gulf showcased colour TVs.”
“Neighbours’ envy really took off back then, fuelling an urge in one and all to acquire all latest comforts,” recalls Saby. “First came the fancy audio systems and televisions and then the big mansions, all newly constructed.”
Today, Kerala is dotted with castle-like houses, many empty and unoccupied, awaiting the return of their makers, many a time lonely couples in their old age.
“There is a perceptible cultural change in Kerala from the time when I left in that consumerism has sort of exploded,” he notes. “This consumerism means that even the labour wages of Rs 700 to Rs 1000 a day is never enough to meet all aspirations even for those at the lower end of the spectrum.”
The workers’ wage for unskilled labour in Kerala has risen continuously over the past few decades driven by a very bullish construction industry motivated by demand from the expats, which for now seems to be cooling off. The high wages and acute labour shortage reached such levels that it attracted internal migrants from the states of Bihar, UP, West Bengal, Odisha and the like.
The exact numbers are still unknown though studies suggest internal migrants in Kerala might have neared a total of 25 to 30 lakhs in 2013 and were expected to be around 40 lakhs in 2019 had construction kept pace. “For them Kerala is the new Gulf” is the idiom on the streets across Kerala.
While employment opportunities for the qualified population never increased in Kerala, consumerist ambitions pushed more and more people to emigrate and stay put.
Spending patterns of the expatriates from the Gulf who expended all their year’s earnings in a month’s visit home fuelled this consumerism further. New houses came up everywhere, lands came to be acquired in a jiffy and cars came to be changed overnight. Everything became expensive over time and Saby fears - prohibitively.
“Today there is a trend of demonstrable consumerism in Kerala. After the consumer market came to India post 2000, the common man in Kerala had started amassing all that the Gulf NRIs used to flaunt and more,” he adds. “Whether one has a lakh or ten really doesn’t make any difference. It is never really enough.”
“It is into this climate of consumerism that the Gulf returnees land into,” says Saby Vargheese. While it may have been manageable to live on a high consumption habit when on a month’s leave, those returning permanently find that what they had saved up is not enough.
“People who come back to settle, whether planned or unplanned don’t foresee nor expect the kind of expenditures that they have to incur on a daily basis when in Kerala,” says Dr Jose Bejoy, Assistant Professor at St Paul’s College in Ernakulam and a Gulf returnee himself. Afraid of running out of savings, they search for jobs or ventures to bring in income.
“It is when one starts searching for jobs that one really realises the extent of damage a professional does to his chances by going to the Gulf and returning midway,” says Dr Jose Bejoy.
“I had six years of work experience working in India and then another six years working in Dubai in a good job. Upon return I realised that neither of it counted for anything anymore.” This is not limited to high end professional jobs either.
“Kerala is very different from what it looks like from across the sea,” says 37 year old Abdul Latheef who returned to Kerala a year back having spent 10 years there.
“Coming on leave to visit and exiting is altogether different, even though we are coming to the same place, it is never the same.”
“For instance when on leave, if you ask for money, everyone will be jumping to lend you, but after exiting, if you ask for money to be lent from one person, you will see many others avoiding you. That is how hard it gets. You are made to feel worthless,” says Abdul.
Abdul worked as office help in Saudi Arabia. He had studied till 10th standard and had been teaching in a Madrassa before going to the Gulf. Having worked for ten years, Abdul found himself without a job in the present crisis looming in the Gulf and was forced to return.
The biggest trouble he says, is to find a job. “When I say that I am a Gulf returnee during interviews, they immediately say that they can’t give me a job as I might go back again.” Faced with such scenarios, business or entrepreneurial ventures are the only options for most returnees.
“I don’t have that kind of money to start anything on my own,” Abdul rues.
With much trouble he eventually found a low paying sales job in Munderi, in Malappuram district where he lives and hails from. His three children, two girls and a boy are all studying in a government run school. “The school seems good,” he says.
When asked about his experience in the Gulf he replies - “Those who go to the Gulf don’t go to leave behind this land. They go to work, to make their families and their villages secure.”
“Once we reach there our perspective changes. The value of India and love of our land and the freedom we all enjoy in Kerala becomes more evident. Kerala really is the best place to live and then we all long to return sooner than later.”
“Also, my liabilities increased because I went there. It was pointless that way,” he says. But, he “will go back again if he gets a chance.”
“That contradiction is always there. What else can we do when even your closest people try to push you out saying, there is no point in staying here?” he asks. “All the time people keep asking me why I am staying here and not going back. They might be well intentioned but it definitely hurts.”
“The pressure from the society and the existential problems of everyday survival is forcing me to think of going back. The expenses are way too high over here.”
A harsh fact for the NRIs returning home is the cold treatment they receive back home, says retired Justice P Bhavadasan, the founder Chairperson of the NRI Commission of Kerala formed in 2016 to look into the issues of NRKs (Non Resident Keralites).
“Having lived a life where they spent 60-70% of their earning on their families, 10-15% on the country they live in and a low 5-10% on themselves,” many expats upon returning home expect the warmest welcome and a peaceful retired life ahead, having struggled enough. What they fail to factor in are the costs of running a family on a day to day basis.
“Once their income ceases, many become unwanted at their own homes. Teenage children see them as a limitation on their freedom, wives look down on them as useless, and society prods them to start earning again. The situation is especially bad for those who return due to sickness,” he adds. “Many just silently live through the neglect.”
“Those who return home have no roots left in Kerala nor do they belong to where they come from,” and this puts enormous mental pressure on them.
“Many a time, immediately after marriage men leave to work in the Gulf leaving behind young wives who head the family. Devoid of any emotional bonds, and only having financial bonds, even the wives don’t see any need for the husbands when they cease to be the money machines they had been.” With the money drying up, family life too hits roadblocks.
“In one case, the man had bought a house in his wife’s name who later threw him out after he returned,” he cites an example.
“There are close to 20,000 Gulf returned NRIs who are homeless,” he says. “This is so big a problem that the Commission had thought about the possibilities of care homes for Gulf returnees.”
“Some are tricked by relatives and friends to lend them money for which they often have no proof,” says Justice Bhavadasan.
“When cases of cheating such as these comes to us and we ask them why they didn’t take any guarantees or got any papers signed, they just say, ‘we gave it out of trust’.” And such betrayal of trust breaks their beliefs in all relations and pushes them to live an inward life cutting them off from the society.
Driven to despair by the question of what next, many returnees with enough money turn to starting ventures in attempts to stay afloat. But this comes with its own set of problems.
(The third part of this series deals with the desperation of Gulf returnees who attempt to start businesses of their own but often end up getting cheated and losing their savings, without knowledge of the ways of Kerala.)