Among the tens of thousands of West Bengal migrants who seek fortunes in Kerala, Mofijul Rahima Sheikh is the luckiest one. He won the 10 million-rupees jackpot in the Kerala government Karunya lottery just a day after arriving in the state, looking for work that would help him build a house in his native village. When he realized he had won the prize, Sheikh apparently sought asylum in a police station, fearing that he would be attacked for the lottery ticket.
The young Bengali worker’s jackpot win of this month is sure to become a legend among the migrant laborers in Kerala, who often make headlines for wrong reasons. The massive influx of laborers from West Bengal, Assam, Jharkhand and other north-eastern states has brought about significant changes in Kerala’s socio-economic landscape over the last few years, so much so that Hindi has become a second language in the state. According to some studies, except for three or four sectors such as tuition centers and travel operators, migrant laborers are employed in every business in the state, with restaurants and construction work almost entirely ruled by laborers from other states.
The story of the migrant laborer in Kerala is so much similar to the story of the Gulf Malayalee in the 1970s and 80s. It is estimated that there are about 2.5 million migrant laborers in Kerala. Every month, a migrant sends at least 10,000 rupees back home. (Many send as much as 25,000 rupees a month, I am told.) They go back home twice a year, and you may be surprised to know that many of them travel by air. They book air tickets at least 6-7 months in advance to get good rates, and by flying, they save about week of train travel.
I know one such laborer from Bihar living in Thiruvananthapuram. This gent gets up every day at four in the morning and taps rubber trees in a plantation where he works till 11 a.m. He then goes home, rests till 2 p.m, and then takes his coconut tree climbing gear on his motorcycle. He charges 30 rupees to 50 rupees per tree for plucking coconuts. He has rented a three-bedroom house where he has sublet two rooms to other migrants. He sends home 30,000 rupees to 40,000 rupees every month. He doesn’t booze; his only entertainment is watching pirated movies on his laptop. When he goes home, he sells his movie collection locally. Remember the Gulf Malayalee selling video cassettes to video libraries when he comes on vacation?
A Malayalee working in the Middle East in a lower income job sends home about 10,000 rupees to 15,000 rupees a month, and gets to visit his family once in two years. Recent studies have shown that the money migrant laborers in Kerala send to their states almost equals the amount Gulf Malayalees remit to Kerala. This in a way negates the benefits of fund inflows into the state’s economy from overseas, a lifeline Kerala enjoyed for many decades. A more important question is: who actually leads a better life? A migrant worker living in Kerala or a Malayalee toiling in the Middle East? Given the looming threat of oil crisis blowing over, we need to brace for a large-scale home coming by Malayalees in coming months. But unlike in the past, if they are willing to take up work here as they would elsewhere, being home is going to be a much better proposition for our folks.