"Kerala is a consuming society, not a producing society," we were told by an expatriate Keralite before we left the United States. Abraham George is a businessman-philanthropist, an acute observer of the "Kerala model" and founder of a school near Bangalore for caste disadvantaged children. "People are its exports," he elaborated. "If you go to Mt. Everest, you'll find a Keralite running a coffee shop."
Nearer and much warmer is the Persian Gulf, where the great majority of Kerala's migrants are employed. Hence the media alarm triggered by last week's disclosure that Dubai's state-owned holding company could default on some $59 billion in foreign debts. "Dubai Sneezes, World Markets Catch Cold" declares the most widely read English-language daily, The Hindu, while the runner-up Daily Express cautions, "Job Markets, Banks, in the Dock." One assumes that Indian readers were less than comforted by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee's assurance that the crisis would probably blow over without serious impact on exports.
In fact, India's chief export to the Gulf and elsewhere is people. Migrant workers now constitute up to 42 per cent of Dubai's population, and their remittances totaled $27 billion in 2007. Taken together, roughly two million Indians work in Dubai and the other Arab emirates, the affluent entities that are India's largest export destination with shipments totaling $24 billion in fiscal 2008-2009. And no state is more deeply immersed than Kerala in this Gulf stream.
According to government reports, the number of Keralite emigrants in the Gulf region rose from 133,000 in 1975 to 1.8 million in 2007. Three waves of the state's immigrants left India's shores, the first being teachers, nurses and other trained professionals who departed after independence for the United States, Canada and Western Europe. The construction boom ignited by the 1973 oil price propelled a second wave. It comprised mostly unskilled, semiskilled or skilled laborers who crossed the seas to the Middle East. The outflow continued unabated until 1990, when as many as 200,000 Indian workers were repatriated from Kuwait after the Gulf War. Then came a third wave, consisting of young engineers, computer programmers and managers, who settled elsewhere in the Gulf, India, the United States and other promising destinations.
By 2007, a breakdown of the outflow determined that 48 percent of the Keralites were Muslims, and 15 percent women, many of them Christians. That same year, Gulf remittances accounted for 28 percent of Kerala's revenues, a total 3.85 times greater than the funds the state received from the central government.
The results visibly dot Kerala's landscape. Everywhere one glimpses empty villas peeping through coconut and palm leaves, many awaiting the permanent return of their emigrant owners. (Keralites cannot become citizens in the Gulf countries so they ultimately have no long-term future there.) "Kerala must export its human capital," according to T. Gangadharam, a social activist with whom we spoke during a sunset dinner beside the Arabian Sea. "We do not have enough well-paying jobs here."
Poor families go into debt to educate their offspring, preferably at English-medium schools, and anxieties over exams surely contribute to Kerala's dubious distinction of having India's highest suicide rate, averaging more than 10,000 suicides annually. The resulting pressure is relentless, partially masked by the beaming faces one sees at Kerala's multitude of colleges, schools and institutes.
Just as telling are the oversize billboards advertising private-sector schools, their message telescoped in three words, "Work, Study, Migrate," usually adjacent to the smiling image of a young woman. Newspapers enclose ad-packed supplements that promote specialized technical and language institutes, domestic and overseas.
Thus Kerala desperately relies on its human outflow abroad and to neighboring states to ensure its solvency. According to a solidly researched study by the economist L.R. Usha in a current academic volume, Gulf remittances have contributed more to poverty alleviation and reduction of unemployment in Kerala than any other factor, "including agrarian reforms, trade union activities and social welfare legislation."
"Dubai is India's best city," says a source in the UAE media. So what may happen if Dubai's financial crisis curtails remittances and results in the unwilling repatriation of Gulf workers, many of them Muslims, to their native state in which one in four job-seekers is unemployed? A brutal reality adds to their plight: many are saddled with personal loans and credit card payments without overdraft safety-nets. As the Indian Express reports today, more credit cards are sold to Keralites in Dubai than in Kerala: "Dubai's police stations are intimidating. A conspicuous room in these stations is the one that carries the legend, 'Bounced Cheques.' You get an employment visa in Dubai and you are given a resident visa." Credit cards sharks then zoom on the new migrant. If you lose your job, you have only 25 days to get another one, or face prison. And unlike Dubai's government, you cannot restructure your debts or extend due dates.
So what is the bottom line? In the thoughtful view of Praveen Ram, who manages the Trivandrum office of Shashi Tharoor, the Congress MP serving this region, Kerala is an agrarian society that has passed from its primary stage to a post-industrial knowledge society without developing a sustainable economic base. Or in his succinct sentence, "The problem is not with our history, but with our future."