The crumbling dream

The plight of Malayalis in the Gulf region is a shock to Kerala’s economy

29-Nisha-Ponthattil Nisha Ponthattil

LAST MONTH, one of the richest Malayali businessmen in the Persian Gulf—Joy Arakkal, of the $125-million Innova Refining and Trading FZE—jumped off his 14th-floor office in Dubai and died. He had been battling financial problems related to the economic crash triggered by Covid-19.

There are only two types of NRKs here ---those who have lost their jobs and those who have had massive salary cut. One gets to hear only sad stories from all over the Gulf. —Nisha Ponthattil, IELTS trainer

Anil Nair (name changed), an engineer at an automobile company in Oman, came home to Palakkad in early March for the birth of his child. He has been stuck in Kerala since then. Last week, he and some of his colleagues received termination notices from their employer. Anil worries that he will not be able to repay his hefty home and car loans.

Razeena, a 28-year-old single mother from Aluva, had left her two-year-old daughter with her parents to work as a housemaid in the Gulf. But the Malayali couple she works for have lost their jobs and are planning to return home. She, too, wants to return, but has no money left to buy a flight ticket.

Sumesh (name changed), an accountant in a small firm in Sharjah, lives in fear with his wife, a pharmacist, and their 12-year-old daughter in an apartment block shared by seven families. There are four Covid-19 patients in the flat next to theirs. Both Sumesh and his wife have lost their jobs, and they have no funds left to pay for rent, school fees and groceries. They have sought the help of the state government to send their daughter home; the couple are planning to stay in Sharjah and ride out the storm.

These are the faces of Kerala’s crumbling “Gulf dream”, which has powered the state’s economy for the past 60 years. The dream had been waning in recent years because of the economic woes in the Gulf and the steady return of workers to Kerala. The pandemic, however, could be the final straw.

There are 30 lakh Malayalis in the Gulf, which means every fourth Indian there is from Kerala. They can be broadly divided into four classes: the ultra-rich, the fledgling entrepreneurs, the professionals, and the unskilled labourers. The last category forms 80 per cent of the total migrant population.

“Kerala is certainly facing a crisis like never before,” Dr S. Irudaya Rajan, one of India’s top demographers, told THE WEEK. “NRKs had returned to Kerala in massive numbers during the Gulf War and the 2009 recession. But it was not of this proportion.”

Most expatriates sense the crisis. Almost five lakh Malayalis from across the world have registered with the government to return to Kerala; more than 60,000 of them have lost their jobs. “Our lives have changed forever,” said John Rajan, a painter in a construction firm. John had been in the Gulf since the late 1980s; he had returned to Kerala during the war and the recession. “Those issues were nothing compared with the current situation,” he said. “The Gulf economy had already been reeling; now the coronavirus has come as a double whammy. There is no hope of an immediate recovery.”

Nisha Ponthattil, an IELTS trainer, said the crisis was huge. “There are only two types of NRKs here: Those who have lost their jobs and those who have had massive salary cuts. One hears only sad stories from all over the Gulf.”

The condition of unskilled and semi-skilled Malayalis is worse. Most of them have been jobless since March, and they survive in cramped rooms shared by as many as 12 people. “Many blue-collar workers are having a bad time,” said philanthropist K.V. Shamsudheen. “No one has any savings here, as they send almost their entire earnings back home.”

Many workers have not stepped out since the lockdown began. Malayali welfare groups spread across the region are trying to provide them food and medicine, but the lockdown and the shortage of funds are hindering their efforts.

Adding to the woes are the rapid increase in the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths. Many Malayalis who have tested positive are forced to stay in, as there are not enough rooms in government hospitals. So far, 44 Malayalis in the Gulf have died of Covid-19; only three have died in Kerala. “There is panic everywhere,” said Nisha. “People are falling into depression as they are not able to handle the pressure of losing their jobs and the fear of Covid.”

But, despite the gloom, many people are still holding on to their dream. One of them is Vimala, 41, who used to be a beautician in Dubai. Jobless since mid-March, she has been surviving with the help of her friends and Malayali groups. “I came to Dubai only in January this year—that, too, after spending huge money,” she said. “How will I repay the loan if I go back now? There are many like me who hope that the situation would improve after a few months.”

Many workers also fear that they could spread Covid-19 in Kerala if they return. “If that happens, it could create a health crisis in a state that has been managing the pandemic quite well. We will be putting our families in danger,” said Karim K.A., who works in the automobile industry.

The state government expects around three lakh Malayalis to return—a huge setback for the state’s economy, which is heavily dependent on remittances from abroad. “Three lakh jobless people coming back means that three lakh families will be affected,” said Irudaya Rajan. “If there are five members in each family, a minimum of 15 lakh people will get directly affected.”

Optimists, however, point to the bright side. “Those who are returning to Kerala are better-skilled labourers with better exposure and multilingual skills,” said UAE-based writer Shajahan Madampat. “If Kerala can use their services properly, they would be a great asset to the state. For that to happen, the state government should have a proper plan and vision.”