Migrants As Guest Workers – The Kerala Model

Migrants As Guest Workers – The Kerala Model

Kerala offers a model for other states to follow when it comes to the treatment of in-migrants, ie guest workers. The state goes to considerable length to extend welfare to the workers and their families, and especially taking care of the educational needs of the children

Ajit RanadeUpdated: Monday, May 27, 2024, 11:16 PM IST
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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 Ernakulam district. He scored A+ in all his subjects. What was remarkable is this boy is 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 of 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 village in UP, 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 Ernakulam 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 BA 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 is far ahead in the demographic transition and ageing among all the states of India. It also is the state which 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 4 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 anecdotes above illustrate. For starters the average daily wages paid to unskilled workers in the state was Rs 709 in 2021, as against the national average of Rs 309. Workers do all sorts of jobs from working in plantations, construction, retail malls, or as cooks, waiters, security and helpers in workshops. Kerala also has skill development and vocational training programmes 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 protect 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% of the households chose to go to Kerala to work in various sectors (unskilled) and earned an average salary of Rs 12,000. 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 itself has created a mini-remittance economy, as money flows from savings generated in Kerala to the home states like Odisha, Jharkhand, Assam and Bihar.

There are over 50 million migrant workers in India who are working outside their home state, of which 4 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% of its state income as remittance income from overseas workers. That has dropped to less than 15%, indicating robust domestic drivers of growth and consumption. The state faces challenges of ageing 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 states to follow when it comes to the treatment of in-migrants, ie guest workers. The state goes to considerable length to extend welfare to the workers and their families, and especially 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 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 a right to move to any place in the country to seek economic opportunities. This is the great antidote or option available to escape lack of job or livelihood opportunities in one’s own 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. But the case study of Kerala offers us constructive approach on how to harness the potential and energy of migrants without causing any negative disruption of local communities. That is the true spirit of calling the migrant worker a guest worker.

Dr Ajit Ranade is a noted Pune-based economist. Syndicate: The Billion Press (email: editor@thebillionpress.org)

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