The Kerala model: Where migrants are guest workers

The internal migration of workers from the rest of the country to Kerala has created a mini remittance economy, as money flows from savings generated in Kerala to the home states like Odisha, Jharkhand, Assam and Bihar.

Ajit Ranade May 31, 2024
Representational Photo

The Class 10 state board exam results were announced last week in Kerala. One remarkable achiever was Shivraj Mohite from St. George’s High School, Vennikkulam in Ernakulum district. He scored an A+ in all his subjects. What was remarkable is this boy was the son of migrants from Maharashtra’s Sangli district, and he had scored very high marks in all subjects, including Malayalam, which is also the medium of instruction at his school. His father is a salesman in a textile shop and settled here two decades ago, even before his marriage. Both his children have received free education in a private school of fairly high quality, making it possible for his son to be a top scorer. 

Another girl, daughter of a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh also scored A+ overall. This is very unlike in the migrant worker’s villages in Uttar Pradesh, where girls do not even reach class 10. Here they are already planning further studies for the girl, whose elder sister is pursuing an engineering degree in Kerala.

The success of 85 such students in Ernakulum district is due to an initiative called ROSHNI supported by the district administration. The ROSHNI project helps migrant children acquire proficiency in Malayalam, English and Hindi by taking extra morning hours of about 90 minutes before the morning classes. Services of volunteers who are proficient in Hindi, Bengali and Oriya are used. There are hundreds of such success stories of children of migrant workers, who get free education, in the local language and move on to enhancing their careers by pursuing higher degrees, based on this solid foundation. A few years ago the topper in the statewide Malayalam literacy exam was a woman from a Bihari migrant family. Another case was the daughter of a Bihari migrant who topped a University B.A. exam. During the pandemic, the migrant labourers and their families were helped with provisions and rations and did not have to go back to their respective states. They got food, shelter and medical care.

Kerala far ahead

Kerala is far ahead in the demographic transition among all the states of India. It also is the state that traditionally has substantial outmigration to the Middle East. Due to a combination of these and other factors its dependence on migrant workers is high. An estimated four million migrant workers are based in Kerala where they are called guest workers. But for the state, it goes beyond lip service as some of the success stores above illustrate. The average daily wages paid to unskilled workers in the state was 709 rupees in 2021, as against the national average of 309.  Workers do all sorts of jobs from working in plantations, construction, and retail malls, or as cooks, waiters, security and helpers in workshops. 

Kerala also has skill development and vocational training programs to enhance the employability of guest workers. Then there is the free Aawaz Health Insurance scheme covering hospitalisation and medical treatment of guest workers. Free education for children and assimilation into the local language is a high point and has already been mentioned. There is also special attention paid to protecting the legal rights of workers from exploitation, unsafe working conditions, or illegal low wages.  The state has established a comprehensive database to register guest workers which helps in planning and implementing welfare schemes.

In 2021 a survey conducted by Gram Vikas, an NGO in the Kalahandi district of Odisha, found that seasonal migrants from 26 percent of the households chose to go to Kerala to work in various sectors (unskilled) and earned an average salary of Rs 12000.  Two-thirds of most of the migrants located outside Odisha reported Kerala as their destination. The internal migration of workers from the rest of the country to Kerala has created a mini remittance economy, as money flows from savings generated in Kerala to the home states like Odisha, Jharkhand, Assam and Bihar.

Absorption of migrant workers

There are over 50 million migrant workers in India who are working outside their home state, of which four million are in Kerala. Ultimately, Kerala’s absorption rate of migrant workers will be limited by the size of its economy and its growth rate. Kerala used to get nearly 25 percent of its state income as remittance income from overseas workers. That has dropped to less than 15 percent, indicating robust domestic drivers of growth and consumption. The state faces challenges of aging demographics, lack of manufacturing investment and employment and unaffordable real estate. It has performed well in attracting knowledge industries, but much needs to be done in climbing the ladder of quality in education and innovation.

However, Kerala does offer a model for other Indian states to follow when it comes to the treatment of in-migrants, i.e. guest workers.  The state goes to considerable lengths to extend welfare to the workers and their families, especially in taking care of the educational needs of the children. The special attention given to assimilating workers from the north, into the local language Malayalam, into its society and culture, is admirable.

According to the 2011 census about 450 million Indians are on the go, as migrants, either within the state or inter-state. The migration can be seasonal, circular, or semi-permanent. The constitution gives us the right to move to any place in the country to seek economic opportunities. This is the great antidote or option available to escape the lack of job or livelihood opportunities in one’s region. But not everyone can migrate, and even fewer can do so with their whole families.

People with land holdings, especially small ones, are tied to the land. Only the able-bodied can migrate. Migration is thus both, a positive sign of enterprise, as much as a response to lack of local opportunities. In much of the Western world, there is a backlash against immigrants as they are seen as snatching away local jobs. 

However, the case study of Kerala offers a constructive approach on how to harness the potential and energy of migrants without causing any negative disruption to local communities. That is the true spirit of calling the migrant worker a guest worker.

(The writer is a noted Indian economist and commentator. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press)

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