As “Vande Bharat'' air evacuation of Indian migrants and others stranded abroad is in progress, especially from the Gulf countries, I was reminded of another aerial evacuation of Indians from Kuwait. The present one is following the coronavirus pandemic, a war the whole mankind is facing against a virus. The 1990 airlift of Indians was necessitated after the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein's Iraqi Government. India at that time evacuated over a lakh and a half Indians working in Kuwait. While both the evacuations were for saving Indian nationals facing diametrically opposite situations, there have been almost similar immediate and long-term aftermaths. Further, the ongoing evacuation coincides with a migration that is also happening domestically with the migrant labourers who move from some of the states with large scale unemployment problems to states where there are work opportunities and higher wages. Much has been written about the plight and travel travails of these workers. But the plight of the Indian migrant workers who have returned from the Gulf region is yet to be properly highlighted. One of the largest contingents of evacuees was from Kerala and that has a historical background.
From the 1960s or even earlier educated and not so educated unemployed youth from Kerala in their thousands had gone to Kuwait and other Gulf countries in search of fortunes and a better future for their families. Job opportunities were limited in the land-starved state with the highest literacy in the country. Even decades earlier, people from Kerala had gone to South- East Asian countries like Malaya, now Malaysia and Singapore. But the Gulf boom was a new opportunity and it was every job-seeker’s dream to go there. Even government employees were allowed to go on long leave and to go to the Gulf countries for remitting money. The state government gave those leave vacancies to the educated unemployed.
The result of large remittances by the gulf migrants was sudden visible affluence in towns and villages. As someone working for the central government, posted in various states beyond the Vindhyas I was surprised and happy to see during my annual or biennial sojourns home, the transformation of Kerala's rural areas from thatched and old fashioned houses and impoverished small shops and tea-shops into modern mansions and shopping complexes. Not only men but thousands of Malayali nurses from the Middle East too had started remitting money, helping their families to live comfortably and maintaining decent standards of living.
The Kuwait war of 1990 and the return of those employed there suddenly changed everything. It was a severe blow to the people and the state's economy. From the seventies onwards, the overall economy had improved with the remittances by the Gulf Malayalis. The money was used for acquisition of assets, land,homes, cars, etc. The poor, middle class and the fixed income groups who stayed back bore the brunt with everything becoming more expensive and beyond their reach.
The sudden return from the Gulf of those who supported their families led to an all-pervading pall of gloom and despondency and hopelessness - a major socio-economic crisis. The national media highlighted the plight of the people of Kerala and the depressing situation. I had left All India Radio in 1987 and was pursuing a freelance career. The reports about the situation in Kerala prompted the National Channel of AIR to assign me a documentary highlighting the situation. I was asked to visit, study and interview the Gulf returnees from Malappuram in the North to Varkala in the South.
I started with my own village, where there was disquiet like the whole of our Pathanamthitta district. Almost every family had a few members who supported their families. And suddenly, they were back following the evacuation. They had escaped from the conquering army of Saddam Hussein leaving their homes and savings including gold in their bank lockers. Many had escaped with a few clothes and whatever they could carry with their spouses and children in tow. "We actually ran away for our dear life", said one of my neighbors, "we were provided all possible assistance by the Indian embassy in Kuwait and other nearby countries on our way back".
What he explained was like one of those great stories of escape in fiction or films. With hardly any money as the Kuwaiti dinar became one twelfth its value and fear of the Iraqi soldiers, no proper clothes, traveling by road first from Kuwait to Basra, from there to Baghdad and finally south ward to the Jordanian capital, Amman. They lived in tents, wherever available, with no proper food or bath, arrived in Jordan, covered in dust and had to wait, sometimes for long for the next rescue flight back home.
I heard similar stories of the gulf returnees in other parts of Kerala like - Varkala in south, Chavakkad near Trichur, Malappuram and Calicut. Some of them were in half- constructed houses, others had just demolished their old thatched house to build a modern house." I don't think I will ever complete my house, as I am almost rendered penny-less", said a returnee from Chavakkad. Two returnees from Kondotty were unconsolable when they lamented about their sudden misfortune; one was withdrawing his children from professional colleges as he could no longer afford and the other was told by a father who said that the boy’s people cancelled his daughter’s engagement as he had become almost a pauper. There were hundreds, thousands of such evacuees completely shattered with their gulf dreams crumbling. Some had become quiet, depressed and brooding. They were all suffering from symptoms of what we call post-trauma or post disaster trauma disorders. A decade later I had seen similar human situations after the devastating earth- quake that devastated Kutch in Gujarat on the Republic Day in 2001, where I was with a relief team and a smaller earthquake on September 18, 2012 in Sikkim when I myself was a victim.
The plight of those who were brought back during the present evacuation is like what had happened in 1990. After the initial euphoria of saving their lives and returning home to be among their near and dear ones would soon change into despair. Firstly, most of them would urgently need post-trauma counselling by mental health professionals. Large number of them have come back almost penny-less and have lost their jobs or may not be able to return there or find any employment in Kerala. A very bleak future is staring at them; they need rehabilitation.
One of the biggest challenges Kerala is facing after the return of the Gulf evacuees is a sudden spike in coronavirus positive cases. This sudden increase is because of the arrival of such positive returnees who would not have been detected before they boarded the Air India flights. Fortunately, Kerala has a robust system of health- care and facilities for isolation/ quarantine or treatment of positive cases. I spoke on the phone to some people who have returned by one of the earliest “Vande Bharat” flights from the Gulf. They said how the Kerala model had really worked effectively. On their arrival at Kochi or other Kerala airports, they were tested for coronavirus. At the airport officials gave them choices. If found negative they could either go for free quarantine for 14 days to a government facility or to a designated hotel on payment or take a taxi to wherever they hail from to undergo home quarantine for 14 days. Of course, if found positive they were taken straight to a hospital for isolation and treatment.
Whether in 1990 or now such evacuees have been supported by the local communities. There are reports from many other states of some instances of blaming or victimization of returnees from other states for spreading the pandemic. I Feel that the people of Kerala have shown empathy for them as almost 17 lakh of the state’s own people are working abroad and millions more in other states of India. This may be a reason why the state could handle the vexed migrant workers’ issue rather humanely with support of volunteers initially, when there were reports of protests by the migrants. There have also not been reports of ill-treatment of these workers. Nor do we hear about the workers going back on foot to their home states unlike what we have seen elsewhere. The nomenclature called "migrant workers" has been substituted with “guest workers” by the government and the media too have started calling them, "guest workers", a more inclusive term. It may be worth adding that for these "guest workers" from other states, Kerala has been a preferred choice for a few reasons. The wages paid in the state are more than double of the national average. According to one study, the average daily wage of a guest worker is over ₹713. The local population by and large is more friendly and treats these guest workers with dignity.
Let us hope that the returnees from the Gulf will be helped by the government and the society at large to rebuild their lives.