A youthful, migrant workforce takes root in an ageing Kerala

Kerala, ageing faster than any other state in the country, is simultaneously adding a young migrant population at a pace that has started to rewrite its demography.

Till last count, Kerala had 25 lakh migrant workers alongside its 3.33 crore citizens. The former are growing at 10 per cent a year, most of them are men, and three of every four are aged under 30, according to a state government study conducted by the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation (GIFT).

The demographic transition of Kerala's own population, on the other hand, outpaces the rest of the country by 25 years, according to the Planning Commission's Kerala Development Report for 2008. A state with high mortality and high fertility is transforming into one with a low count on both fronts. Several factors are contributing to this ageing — migration of the young out of Kerala, family planning, and return of the elderly to their homeland.

By the middle of the century, over a quarter of the state's indigenous population would be above 60, according to a study by Prof S Irudaya Rajan, an analyst on demographic transition and migration. Among the next four decades, 2011-2021 would see the highest growth of the elderly population.

"In the near future, a very explosive demographic situation will arise in Kerala," said GIFT director Dr D Narayana. "A large majority of the host population will be 40-plus while the migrant population will dominate the other segment of the population, which is young and working. These workers will be able-bodied men; the number of women in the migrant labour force is very limited. These workers will keep the state's economy moving, while a number of people in the host's population would be beyond working age."

In Prof Rajan's view, the migrant workers have stepped in to "fill the void" left by emigrants out of Kerala. State Planning Board statistics of 2011 put Keralites migrating abroad at 22.8 lakh, and those working in other states at 10 lakh. Rajan said migration out of Kerala will come down from 22 lakh to 18 lakh within the next 10 years due to the decline in the young population at home.

Migration to Kerala, on the other hand, would continue for at least the next 10 to 15 years, depending on employment openings and wages in Bihar, West Bengal and other states. Rajan said the workers should be used professionally in the social and economic sectors. "Kerala has to ensure better wages, living standards," he said. "North Indian states too can depute labour officers to Kerala to address the issues of workers from their states."

Wages and attitudes

They have entered every economic activity and are in every part of Kerala, urban or rural, yet they face systemic social exclusion from the government, their employers and the media, the study notes. Often suspected as infiltrators from Bangladesh or Maoists, they are described as anya samsthana (alien state) workers by officials and the media.

"This exclusion works to the advantage of the host society in various ways: to keep the wage levels low, rent levels high, services cheap, and to maintain a labour force that is at their beck and call, one that can be absorbed and driven out at will," the study says.

Narayana said there was no cause for mistrust as 90 per cent of the workers have valid ID cards or authorisations issued by local village chiefs. Attitudes could change if they start settling in Kerala with their families, he said.

Over 85 per cent of the migrants work six to seven days a week. In contrast, many Kerala labourers work three or four days a week, thanks to the higher wages they get, a number of welfare schemes, and women's participation in MGNREG jobs. These contrasting work cultures have forced farmers and contractors to hire more and more north Indian workers, who toil to send money home.

Over 90 per cent of the migrant workers earn less than Rs 500 a day.

Cause and effect

Rajan said the migrants' home states would experience what Kerala had gone through when its men had moved abroad. Kerala has at least 10 lakh women whose husbands live abroad, a situation now being replicated in north Indian states. And one fallout of this, Rajan said, would be a rise in the sex trade in Kerala. The GIFT study and volunteers working among migrant workers, too, expect the commercial sex industry to flourish.

"Just as Kerala sex workers have gone to the Gulf to cater to men from their home state, women from the north Indian states too will enter the Kerala sex market," said an activist working among labourers. "At present, due to the language barrier, the migrants are reluctant to approach local sex workers."

Another fallout could be communal tension, the study says, pointing out that migrants from the same community are living in clusters. Also, there is the danger of local communal elements fomenting trouble by exploiting migrant labour communities' group-dwelling habits and anonymous nature.

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