Kerala witnessed unprecedented scenes of long lines of guest workers from other states of India patiently waiting at railway stations with light luggage, without any guarantee that they will be able to get seats on the special trains announced just the day before to go back to their villages. They have been working as unskilled labour in place of the young people of Kerala , who had begun to go to the Gulf countries in search of greener pastures. The phenomenon may be explained by economists and financial experts, but the whole process came into being without any prior planning, except by some agents who exploited the system. The same agents, who sent Keralites to the Gulf must have brought guest workers to fill the gaps.
On the first day of the departure of the guest workers, five trains, carrying more than a thousand people each left from five railway stations without any incident. The whole process began after some of them had violated the lockdown rules and demonstrated on the streets, demanding the right of passage across the nation to their homes. But this time, it was a peaceful and friendly departure with smiles all around and expressions of expectation to return to Kerala in better times. They left because of unemployment and fear of the coronavirus, but they may have really nothing to expect in their hometowns except the initial joy of reuniting with their families. They were given food and other rations for the journey, but once they run out, they have to fend for themselves. The exodus will continue till the estimated four lakhs of workers return.
The arrival of the so-called “Bengalis” had created some social tensions in Kerala society because they were largely in camps in villages which had no experience of outsiders. Their languages, style of living and food habits were not familiar to the local people. The guest workers virtually took over the towns on Sundays for their shopping and entertainment needs. Many of them learnt Malayalam pretty fast, but the local people began learning Hindi and English after the initial shock of finding that they could not use their own language. Inevitably, some of the guest workers were involved in crimes, including murders, but some of the charges arose out of prejudices. But on the whole, they had become a part of the scene and they were treated fairly, perhaps better than the way the Keralites were treated in the labour camps in the Gulf region. They have left a void, which will be difficult to fill when the commercial activities resume.
Simultaneously, the Government is also engaged in bringing back Keralites from abroad and from the other states. The numbers are large and the returnees may not be able to fit into the jobs and homes the guest workers have left behind. Some of them may have some savings, but much of their earnings were spent on unproductive pursuits like buying land and building expensive homes. Alternative employment up to their expectations may be hard to come by as more than three lakhs of Indian citizens return home. The Government of Kerala has consistently maintained that Keralites would be brought back at the earliest opportunity, but the practical problems still remain. The issue has become politicised because the Union Government showed some reluctance to begin the return of the Indian nationals when India was still reeling under the fight against the coronavirus. But Kerala politicians are vying with each other to clamour for their immediate return, regardless of its consequences. There have been moves like registration, prioritisation and tentative arrangements for transport like naval ships, Air Force flights and Air India planes.
The arrival of Indian nationals will be a special challenge to Kerala because of the numbers involved. Kerala is being praised around the world for the state government’s robust response to the pandemic. “Efforts include aggressive testing, intense contact tracing, instituting a longer quarantine, building thousands of shelters for migrant workers stranded by the sudden nationwide shutdown and distributing millions of cooked meals to those in need. The measures appear to be paying off. Even though Kerala was the first state in the country to report a coronavirus case in late January, the number of new cases in the first week of April dropped 30 percent from the previous week. With just two deaths, 52 percent of positive patients have recovered in the state, higher than elsewhere in India,” wrote the ‘Washington Post’. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Health Minister K.K.Shailaja are credited with a “strict and humane” approach adopted by the government.
‘The Washington Post’ had described Kerala as a state “where communists have held power for more than 30 years in several different governments since the 1950s, and has invested heavily in public education and universal health care. Kerala has the highest literacy rate and benefits from the best-performing public health system in the country. It tops India’s rankings on neonatal mortality, birth immunizations and the availability of specialists at primary-care facilities.” But the newspaper corrected this report to say that there were other parties in power intermittently, who also played an important part in building health and education which came to be known as the “Kerala Model Development.”
Such global recognition encouraged the government of Kerala to be even more committed to strict enforcement of the lockdown. Every care is being taken to manage the arrival of Indian nationals in such a way that the present situation is not disturbed. The delay caused by the Union Government in making transport arrangements has come as a blessing in disguise for Kerala. The real test will be in managing the returnees without any fall out on the delicate health situation.
Another group of Keralites, who are wishing to come back are those in other parts of India. Keralites had moved in large numbers to the industrialised states and many of them flourished there as professionals and businessmen. While they may not want to come back, the younger people who moved to the other cities for education and careers are desperate to return. There is no clear estimate of the numbers, but the flow will start as soon as flights and trains resume. They may eventually go back, but they will also bring some strain to the situation in Kerala.
The future is quite unpredictable as of now, but the collapse of the economies around the world will be a disincentive for Indians to go abroad. Kerala will be the most affected in this respect. The Gulf states had already begun a process of localisation of jobs and the positions available for Indians there are likely to dwindle. The global situation itself will change dramatically on account of the pandemic. Therefore, Kerala will face an uncertain situation, even as it is undergoing a social change through shifting of populations. But for the moment, the concern about lives is paramount. The conflict between saving lives and energising the economy will emerge sooner or later, but as of now, Kerala is thinking more with the heart than with the head.
The facts and views expressed in the article are that of the author