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Return of the native

As the 'Gulf dream' loses its lustre, many in Kerala are left picking up the pieces

Nikita Puri 

In the Gulf Market (now called Foreign Market) in Kottakkal
In the Gulf Market (now called Foreign Market) in Kottakkal

Every night, after the smoke from kitchen chimneys in Kozhikode has long dissipated into the thick tree cover, Roopendu S has an assured visitor. Her elderly neighbour heads over to her place and they watch the news together. "Every time she hears something about the Gulf, she starts talking about how we shouldn't get any of our relatives married to Gulf Malayalees," says Roopendu. "Elders are increasingly feeling that the Gulf just doesn't provide the financial security it once did."

Till a few years ago, a match would get cemented early on with an affirmative answer to a recurrent question: "Cherkan Gulfil aano (Is the boy working in the Gulf)?" Say "yes" and the matrimonial prospects for an eligible bachelor in Kerala would shoot higher than gold prices and the toddy-giving palm trees.

The narrative has now suitably changed, even in popular culture. Just last year, the movie Pathemari, starring Mammootty, took viewers through the problems faced by migrants in the Gulf.

Initially, people employed with oil and gas companies started getting pink slips. Now, even those working in the IT sector are at the risk of losing their jobs, says Roopendu. Her husband is a software engineer in Doha. "The top managers and specialists in his company, who were taking home fat pay cheques, have recently been given termination notices."

The circle of fear, she says, is being fanned by the oil crisis in the Persian Gulf.

In the face of economic pressure, spending cuts and austerity measures have begun to swipe through countries in the Gulf - Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. And their impact is being felt in Kerala, where a sizeable population relies on remittances from the Gulf. As a saying goes, "When it rains in the Gulf, a Malayalee in Kerala catches a cold." Experts believe the crisis will only snowball.

Following an upward trend till 2014, remittances to Kerala dropped to a four-year low of $14.9 billion in the third quarter of 2015-2016, say experts at Thiruvananthapuram's Centre for Development Studies, or CDS. These remittances, which were 1.2 times the revenue generated by the state government in 2014, support 2.4 million families in Kerala.

The collapse of the Gulf dream has been long in the making and the cracks have never been clearer. As these countries take measures to ensure the stability of their citizens, it's begun to rain pink slips on migrant workers.

"We can't really blame them (the authorities in Gulf states). They're only looking out for their own people," says Shaisad, a resident of Elamkulam, a village in Malappuram district. This district has received 20 per cent of the total remittances from the Gulf.

As he recollects his story, Shaisad concentrates on his cup of hot cardamom coffee, the region's patent drink. The coffee is a strong wake-up call on a hot afternoon, as are the events that have brought Shaisad back home.

Almost eight years ago, Shaisad had headed out to Saudi Arabia. "Every house in this area," he says, "is built on Gulf money. My house, my neighbour's house, the houses down this lane..."

Although he was a graduate, Shaisad went as a construction worker and found employment in offices and hospitals. "People from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka usually charge less than Indians, so the competition was always tough," he recalls. "But they have to pay more to Saudi Arabian citizens, so hiring Indians who have some skills was always a safe bet for companies there."

Though "Saudisation" of the workforce - replacing of foreign workers with Saudi Arabian nationals in the private sector - has for long been one of Saudi Arabia's policies, it was not implemented with full force till a few years ago. "Things began to visibly change after the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia," says Shaisad. "The authorities feared that unemployment might lead to unrest in the country, so they needed to put their people to work."

Saudi Arabian nationals, he adds, don't like manual labour and are usually unwilling to work. "But it didn't matter if they turned up for work or not; bosses had to keep them on the rolls or they wouldn't be allowed to run their businesses. I lost my job and had to come back because of this Saudisation," he says, murmuring Nitaqat under his breath.

Another name for Saudisation, Nitaqat is a term everyone in the Malabar region understands. While local churches dedicated to different patron saints abound in central Kerala, the Malabar region is dotted with mosques. While this could be the influence of Arab businessmen who came to trade, it is also the result of Malik Deenar, the first follower of Muhammad, landing on the coast of Kasargod, one of the 14 districts of the state, to spread Islam.

In this part of God's own country, where the influence of Arab and Islamic culture shines through at every level - Arabi-Malayalam is spoken here and the dance form of arabana-muttu is as popular as is Yemen's Mandi biryani - Nitaqat brings out bitter-sweet memories in those who've had a taste of remittances coming from Saudi Arabia.

While some Saudi Arabia-returnees wear Nitaqat as a badge of honour, others treat it as a shameful thing. Residents of Malappuram speak of the many Nitaqat establishments that have come up, often to disappear quickly.

"There used to be a chicken shop called 'Nitaqat'. I knew of two restaurants too that were named 'Nitaqat'," says Muhammed Musthafa. "They've shut now, but those behind these places wanted to tell people that they worked hard in Saudi Arabia before they were sent back." In this region, where Shah Rukh Khan appears on hoardings wearing a traditional mundu, you can still spot a few Nitaqat autos.

Originally from Perinthalmanna, Musthafa was working in the port city of Jeddah with an event management company till six months ago. "My father was a victim of Nitaqat, too," he says. "He was an unskilled labourer working in the Mecca province and was sent back two years ago."

Musthafa now travels four hours to work and back and earns only half of what he got in Jeddah. "But I don't think I'll go back, even if I get the chance," he says. "Being here is safer."

The town of Kottakkal in Malappuram, famous for an Ayurveda treatment centre that attracts a lot of Arabs, has a number of Nitaqat-affected people who've come together to work at what residents call "Foreign Market". Formally known as Gulf Market, it has several shops selling "Arab perfumes" and ittar, but the majority of businesses here deal in mobile phones.

Ironically, the first sector to bear the brunt of Nitaqat was the one dealing in mobile phones. The move to replace 50 per cent of expat workers (most of them from Kerala) with Saudi Arabian men and women started six months ago. By the end of September, it will touch 100 per cent. Recent reports in regional newspapers suggest that several young Arab men are now coming to the Foreign Market to learn how to fix mobile phones.

As many Keralites find themselves between countries and jobs, the real estate sector too has been hit. In Tirur, three real estate dealers talk of how business has slowed down to a crawl. "No one has the purchasing power anymore and land rates are falling dramatically," says one of them.

Musthafa says one can't deny the change that "Gulf money" has brought about in Kerala. "Real estate blossomed and concrete replaced tiled rooftops in a major chunk of the region," he says. But the biggest change witnessed was in the education of women in Muslim families. "Families now think that educated women can not only find white-collared partners, but that they can also get well-paying jobs and send money home," he adds.

Shaju Lukose, who teaches at a government school in Malappuram, recounts the time his 12-year-old student suddenly stopped coming to school. "This was almost 27 years ago. Arrangements had been made for her to wed someone in the Gulf," says Lukose. "Money has really helped families ensure that their children now get to complete their education."

Another noticeable benefit was that inequality in the state shrunk. In the 1980s and 1990s, largely the unskilled and semi-skilled workers from poorer communities went to the Gulf. They bought refrigerators, cars and built new homes in Kerala for their families. "In the six rounds of survey that we've done since 1998, we've seen that households with migrant workers have fared much better than those without migrant workers," says S Irudaya Rajan of CDS.

This story has now hit a roadblock. This, says Rajan, is a problem that will go beyond Kerala. "Return migration will also affect Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. This is no longer just a Kerala story; this is going be India's problem."

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First Published: Sat, September 03 2016. 00:24 IST