By James Mathew
Large scale return of emigrants from the Gulf region has created a major challenge for many Indian states
Sitting in the stylish portico of his swanky two-storey house on Peroorkada Road on the outskirts of Kerala’s capital city Trivandrum, S C Santhoshkumar used to take deliveries of electronic gadgets and other fancy stuff from Amazon as recently as January this year.
Six months down the line, he is wishing for a delivery boy’s job in his desperation to find work to support his family of four, while walking restlessly in the portico.
In between times, he lost a comfortable job with Emirates, in the central services department at the headquarters of the airline in Dubai in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
With a salary of about Rs 160,000 (roughly $2,135) and perks which included free tickets for family for international travels after over 11 years of service, he used to dream of retiring into a comfortable life back home in his posh house in the greeny neighbourhood.
The Covid pandemic has not only smashed all his dreams but even brought him on the street - literally.
Life has come full circle for the 52-year-old. Twenty-seven-years after he left his leaky, thatched house and a struggling family of five siblings and mother, after the early demise of his father - he married off two of his sisters with earnings from his early jobs in the Gulf - he now stares at a bleak future for his own family.
“After I joined Emirates, I was living with my family in Dubai. After spending for rent and the school fees for my two kids in a reputed school in Dubai, there was hardly anything left to save,” Santhoshkumar told Arabian Business.
“I was more interested in giving a better education to my children than saving for rainy days.”
Santhoshkumar is among the hundreds of thousands of returnee emigrants in Kerala and many other Indian states who are desperately looking for work - any work - after losing their well paid jobs in the Gulf countries.
“I need to do a job, even if it’s a daily wage job as I need to feed my family and fetch for the high education fee for the children - one in first year of under graduation and the other a class X student.
“But my only relief is that I have no debt to repay,” Santhoshkumar sighed.
Not all returning emigrants are as lucky as Santhoshkumar. Abdul Riyaz of Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr was still repaying the balance of what he borrowed to pay to the agent who arranged his visa a year-and-a-half ago, when he lost his job at a construction site in Sharjah in March this year.
“I could come back to India thanks to the charity of some influential people in the UAE who arranged tickets in chartered flights for poor expat Indians.
“With no jobs in the village - not even daily wage jobs under MGNREGA, a much trumpeted government job guarantee scheme for rural poor – how can I even feed my family, leave aside repaying the debt?” Riyaz wondered.
The largescale return of emigrants from the Gulf region has created a major challenge for policy makers in some of the Indian states, especially states like Kerala, which accounted for a large chunk of the approximately seven million expat Indians from the UAE alone.
“Kerala is suddenly faced with the problem of reverse migration. Coming amidst the Covid-induced economic crisis, it is a serious challenge to deal with this situation for the state,” Dr K N Harilal, professor at the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Trivandrum, who is also considered as an authority on NRI affairs, told Arabian Business.
According to the Indian Consulate General in Dubai, as many as 500,000 expat Indians have registered for repatriation to India. Of this, 275,000 had returned by the beginning of August.
Dr Harilal, who is also a member of the Kerala Planning Board, said the state is planning a multipronged strategy to deal with the issue.
“Many of the emigrants are trying to go back to their old jobs or seeking new jobs in the Gulf, The government is working with (India’s) ministry of external affairs and various Indian and Kerala Associations in various Gulf countries to facilitate their return.
“The government is also working on reskilling many of these emigrant returnees so that they can find employment either in the Gulf countries or other foreign countries.
“As for unskilled labourers among the returnees, there are plenty of jobs available in the state, which were earlier done by migrant labourers from some of the other Indian states,” Harilal said.
While the government’s plans and schemes may take time to get implemented, for the Gulf returnees, it’s an issue of survival. They get desperate as days pass by, shrinking their little savings.
“Initially I was trying for a supervisor’s job somewhere. Now I am even prepared to do whatever job comes my way - even if it's daily wage work,” Santhoshkumar said in exasperation.
In the back of his mind, he still has a ray of hope of somehow going back to his old job at Emirates, though.