There is a need for a radical attitudinal change in governance and also among Malayalees. Skilling graduates, who are mostly unemployable, should be top priority, writes K S Nayar for South Asia Monitor
It is uncertain and ominous times for Kerala. It is pulling out all stops to flatten the pandemic curve. and its efforts have been applauded around the world as the 'Kerala model'. With the expected return of thousands of Malayalees from 150 countries, mostly from the West Asian region, it’s a nightmare that the beleaguered government - the only Communist government in India - is now facing.
On the official website for Non-Resident Keralites, the number of people who have registered to come back from abroad and other Indian states has reached 563,000. To receive such a huge influx, the southwestern state on the Arabia Sea is scrambling to expand quarantine facilities and isolation wards.
It is a medical, logistical and health security challenge. It demands enormous financial resources, medical workers, and physical infrastructure.
Those who have registered to come back are mostly young skilled workers and professionals who have lost jobs following lockdowns abroad. Many of them want to stay back in Kerala. Their presence will be swelling the ranks of the unemployed estimated at about 3.6 million.
What is more worrying is the coming monsoon that is forecast to be severe raising fears of floods and destruction. Kerala is yet to recover fully from two consecutive floods in August 2018 and 2019.
Kerala, which boasts of high literacy rate, does not have industries or business enterprises to absorb even a fraction of the skilled workers returning from Gulf countries, the base of 89.2 percent of the emigrants.
It was these people who had been propping up the Kerala economy. They had been sending almost Rs 1 trillion in annual remittances. It accounted for 36.3 percent of the state’s net domestic product (NSDP).
In spite of such inflow of resources, their families are facing financial liabilities. Compared to non-migrant households, 46.5 per cent of Gulf Keralites are facing serious financial issues, a study shows.
It is attributed to their propensity to borrow to buy land, gold, construction of houses (most of them still remain unoccupied), and conduct ostentatious marriage ceremonies. The lavish spending is in the hope of climbing the perceived social ladder.
The state is also witnessing the end of emigration to Gulf countries, where job prospects are dimming because of the crash in oil economies and thrust on employing local workforce.
Kerala’s remittance economy is shrinking rapidly. The impending crisis calls for innovative policies to promote industrial investments, re-skilling of workers and strengthening of social and health infrastructure.
The social impact of drop in Gulf remittances, absence of jobs and dearth of mental health counselling might lead to a further upsurge in suicides. Kerala already reports three times the national suicide average.
When a financially ruined ‘Gulf family’ seeks to sustain their newfound lifestyles, suicide appears to them as an option to save ‘honour’. In 2018, about 8,300 people took their lives, which is double the number of those dying in road accidents.
Adding to the societal woes is the spike in alcoholics. A 2018 survey showed that 0.6 percent of the state population is alcohol-dependent. It means 208,200 people when the projected state population touches 34.7 million by 2020.
During the lockdown, alcohol outlets were shuttered, which had triggered several suicides following withdrawal symptoms.
It is disconcerting to note that all political parties have put on the backburner election promises to fight the scourge of alcoholism. For them, liquor business is a cash cow. Revenue on liquor and beer sales bring into state coffers as much as Rs 145 billion on the back of whooping excise duty ranging from 300 to 500 percent.
There is a need for a radical attitudinal change in governance and also among Malayalees. Skilling graduates, who are mostly unemployable, should be top priority. Vocational polytechnics should align training to the needs of industry.
Kerala’s high-cost economy – it has one of the top wage structures for daily workers who are also unionised – was an attraction for migrant workers from West Bengal, Odisha, Assam, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
In this hour of crisis, the government should kickstart a ‘Make in Kerala’ initiative by promoting micro, small and medium enterprises and encourage startups. It should strive to regain its export dominance in traditional products such as coir, fishery, spices and natural rubber.
Such a paradigm shift in policy priorities requires a new political culture that promotes innovation in governance.
(The writer is Senior Fellow, SPS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)