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Kerala’s demography is changing. But not how politicians are saying

The guests in God’s own country are carrying Kerala’s labour burden. Bengali market, Bhojpuri songs exist alongside Malayali mundus.

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At the crack of dawn, Kochi streets begin to fill with the sound of Bengali words: ekhane esho, tolo.

Come here, pick up.”

It’s 5:45am. Malayali residents are asleep. But the city’s trash is being collected by groups of Bengali men who descend on the neighborhoods.

A Malayali woman steps out of her house just enough to dump the trash in the waste collector’s pushcart. The two don’t speak: language is a convenient barrier.

Kerala’s demographics are changing, but it’s not in the way the politicians will have you believe. Bengali labourers now carry the weight of Kerala’s waste collection industry. And they’re not the only ones: Furniture is made by craftsmen from Saharanpur; plantation work is done by Jharkhand’s Mundas; workers from the Sundarbans run the show in traditional fisheries; women from Assam work in garment and apparel factories; and women from Odisha do domestic work. And in the construction sector, people come to Kerala from all over India to work.

“It’s always either distress or aspirations that makes people move,” says Benoy Peter, executive director of Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID), a local nonprofit. “There’s a canopy of dreams over every slum.”

Kerala’s labour problem and migration mathematics are often summed up as ‘three million Malayalis living in the Middle East and three million migrants living in Kerala.’ The state has the work and the wages, but the unwillingness of local people to do hard labour jobs makes them prefer Gulf over the God’s Own Country.

The migrant workers are called “guest workers” by the Kerala government, but Malayali people call everybody ‘Hindikaaran’ with a broadbrush, or Hindi fellows. There is little intermingling between the local Malayalis and the outsiders, even though there is a lot more tolerance for other religious and ethnic groups. The migrants live in ethnic ghettos, the only local people they interact with are employers and co-workers.

“Malayalis anyway go outside India — work is work. We are just doing our job,” says one Bengali as he begins to load the waste he’s collected into a truck, driven around the city by two Malayalis who work for the Cochin Municipal Corporation.

“The thing about Kerala is the money,” says Ibrar. Originally from Guwahati, he now lives in Kathrikadavu
, one of Kochi’s largest slums, and earns around Rs 500 a day collecting plastic waste. His day starts at 3:30am, picking up trash, which he then spends sorting. He gets tipoffs about large waste loads from his friends — other migrants from Assam and Bengal — who work in restaurants.

“It’s our people only who do this,” he adds.

A group of Bengali waste collectors in Kochi . | Vandana Menon | ThePrint

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Why Kerala?

Shajeeb Sheikh spends his evenings at a popular migrant microcosm: the Bengali Market in Perumbavoor.

The 31-year-old makes cement bricks at a nearby factory that go on to build Kerala’s hotels, malls, and offices. At around 6pm, he gets off work and makes his way to the hangout spot. It’s a mini-Bengal in central Kerala, but it’s also a comfortable spot for migrants from other states. And what brings them to Kerala is the money — and the relatively low religious discrimination.

Shajeeb has been coming to Kerala from Murshidabad for ten years, ever since his first son was born — but hasn’t settled. He’s one of thousands of seasonal migrants passing through Kerala’s revolving door. His current contract is only for six months. But even if he leaves abruptly, he’s confident that there will always be a job for him in Kerala when he plans to come back.

“At least there’s more money here in Kerala, and the people are more educated. So even if there’s a problem, most people sort it out with their employers because the money’s worth it,” says Shajeeb. “Only one employer hasn’t treated me well — I worked with him for two weeks, then I collected my wages and never went back.”

Two young migrant workers near the Bengali Market in Kerala’s Perumbavoor. | Vandana Menon | ThePrint

The state offers the highest minimum wage in India for the unorganised sector, standing at an average of Rs 700-800 a day. The average migrant worker in Kerala earns between Rs 10,000 and 15,000 a month. Around 22 per cent of migrants earn over Rs 20,000 a month. Because it’s a highly mobile workforce, it’s difficult to keep demographic tabs: most migrants are seasonal workers, and shuttle between their home state and Kerala, based on their contracts and the availability of work. Hundreds of workers live together in cramped, dimly lit housing with a communal kitchen and bathrooms. The men live in separate quarters, while families have a bit more space. The rent for each room is fixed by the landlord, and most don’t have any issues with multiple men living in the same room to save on rent.

Families that have migrated live slightly away from the male-dominated Bengali Market, in Kuttipadam. Women buy vegetables — overpriced, they say, when compared to vegetable prices in Bengal and the northeast — to cook in large batches in their communal kitchen.

One of them, Anima, is gesturing to a shopkeeper and trying to communicate in broken Malayalam while her child hangs on to a plastic bag of vegetables. Anima was running pillar to post to enrol her daughter in school, but her job at a local plywood factory and her inability to understand Malayalam made it an uphill battle. It was only when  the CMID contacted parents of children they’d seen playing through the day that Anima enlisted their help.

“There are always problems but I’m comfortable for now,” says Anima, originally from Dibrugarh. “Not knowing the language is very difficult. But I’ve met lots of people from Assam — I know people prefer Perumbavoor for that reason, because they might actually find someone from their native place here,” she says.

Anima and her daughter who live in Kuttipadam. | Vandana Menon | ThePrint

Similar pockets have grown organically in cities and towns where there are migrant populations, but the town of Perumbavoor — about 90 minutes outside Kochi — has become a migrant hub because of its proximity to the city. In the evenings, Bengali Market, located in Kandanthara, becomes a hive of activity as men start returning from work. The grocery stores here all have faded, Bengali signage. Bengali fish cutlets and chop are sold alongside the far more conventionally Malayali grocery store staple — bunches of hanging bananas. Workers gather around tiny TV screens to watch films dubbed in Hindi. They share meals at the local restaurant — Khadija Bengali Hotel — and talk among themselves. One of the workers says he has to apply for his interstate migrant identity card. Another asks if he has WhatsApp: the government now sends a soft copy of the card.

On Sundays, the town’s main Gandhi Bazaar transforms into what has come to be known as ‘bhai’ bazaar: Malayalis call non-local labour bhais. On Sundays, their off days, workers make their way to the bazaar to spend money or simply hang out. Makeshift stalls sell Bengali beedis and paan, and the sounds of the market are set against snatches of Bhojpuri songs and Odiya bhajans coming out of mobile phone shops. Migrants travel from places like Angamaly and Kochi to visit Perumbavoor’s bhai bazaar, sometimes selling wares of their own like beaded necklaces and toys — it’s a market run by migrants for migrants.

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Cultural anxieties

The same stereotypical, xenophobic assumptions that follow migrants worldwide also follow migrant workers in Kerala: that they are a ‘bad influence’ on local culture, that they drive down wages for local labour, and that they are aggressive and get into fights.

But no one complains that they’re taking jobs — because Malayalis themselves don’t want to work those jobs.

The economy of Perumbavoor turns on migrant workers, according to Praveena Kodoth, a professor at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram.

“Migrant workers spend a lot of money on survival — they spend their high wages on housing and food,” says Kodoth. “The cultural tension is that Malayalis aren’t too happy, but the economic aspect is something they are benefitting from.”

There is vigilance over who gets to stay, and how well people are ‘integrating’ – a tough task when most migrants are seasonal and mobile. Kerala prides itself on its education system, and migrant children learning Malayalam is one step closer to breaking cultural barriers. But schools also become a site of tension, according to Kodoth, who studies access to education — she knows of schools denying enrollment to migrant children, or parent-teachers associations bringing up the increasing number of migrant children as a potential issue. And local self-government avoids pushback by not getting involved.

It’s why hundreds of migrants find themselves living in ethnic silos.

“Drinks, drugs, women,” declares Ajithan, a local CITU worker in Perumbavoor as he rolls himself a cigarette. “That’s their problem. And they’re loud.”

The stereotype of the “loud and aggressive hindikaran” is widely shared. Local Malayalis complain about frequent fights breaking out, especially in Perumbavoor’s Bengali Market.

And there might be some truth to that, concedes Rocky, a tattoo artist from Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan, who usually sits on Kochi’s Marine Drive. He admits to having a shouting match with a Bengali worker at the Sunday Market the previous weekend. “He wanted to pay me Rs 200 for a tattoo worth Rs 2000. So of course we fought — in Hindi,” he adds. “Some other Hindi-speaking people stopped us. The Malayalis were just watching.”

Rocky, a tattoo artist from Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan. He runs his business from Kochi’s Marine Drive. | Vandana Menon | ThePrint

And the Malayalis do keep a watchful eye — like Naseer, a landlord. He and his brother Naushad, a shopkeeper in Perumbavoor, watch over their tenants. They are very suspicious of women who might interact with their ‘single’ male tenants. Providing housing for migrants for about 15 years, they currently house around 30 men in a row of four rooms and an outbuilding — mostly from West Bengal, Assam, and Uttar Pradesh. “Rent is about Rs 1,000 a month — if one person can afford by themselves, no problem. Of course, we don’t encourage drugs and women and all that. These guys are decent, but you know how it is!” he shrugs. He’s asked men to leave his property for “bringing women” back to their rooms.

Behind him, one of his tenants grins. “It’s not so bad, really,” says Musharraf, a 32-year-old worker in a plywood factory, in Hindi. “Almost everyone here is Muslim too, everyone here is treated equally.” Originally from Murshidabad, Musharraf has left his wife and three children at home and now shares a room with one other man. “Whether or not we like it, we have to work right?”

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‘God’s own workforce’

Kerala has plenty of work to offer, but not its own workforce.

The majority of migrant workers in Kerala are from SC/ST and minority communities, according to a study by the CMID, titled God’s Own Workforce: Unraveling Labour Migration to Kerala. Over four-fifths are from eight Indian states: Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Assam, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The industries they work in are varied and heavily dependent on physical labour — from mining and quarrying, to hospitality, major economic sectors in Kerala run on migrant labour.

And yet the government refers to them as “guest workers” — tokenistically, according to Benoy Peter.

“Kerala shouldn’t be treating migrants as second-class citizens — it’s actually Kerala that’s desperate for young workers,” said Peter. Kerala has a government department looking after non-resident Keralaits, but nothing for migrant workers.

He pointed to the demographic transition that Kerala has been going through over the last 30 years — Kerala has the lowest population growth rate in India, standing at 4.9 per cent against the national average of 17.6 per cent. Two districts in Kerala — Pathanamthitta and Idukki — have negative growth rates.

The disparities in development across India is another reason why Peter advocates migration to Kerala, besides the work opportunities it offers. “It’s social diffusion. Human development can percolate here much faster than other states.”

The substantial investment in education has also led to a high level of unemployment of educated people, as well as shortage of people to take up physical labour. “The educational profile of Malayalis have taken on a dimension of their own,” says Kodoth. “There’s a sense that Malayalis will look down on certain kind of work because they feel they are overqualified. This is why we have migrant labour in almost every possible sector.”

Plus the lucrative pull of the Middle East is still felt in Kerala — and the migrants and those who work for their benefit have noticed.

“People say that ‘this is the migrants’ Gulf.’ And this is indeed their Gulf,” says Kodoth. “The economy runs on their labour — we completely depend on them, and yet we treat them so badly. It’s exactly the way Arabs think about Indians.”

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Organising labour

Employers in Kerala hire migrant labour because it is cheaper and more consistent than local labour.

But even among migrant workers, there are certain preferences and biases that filter out the jobs. For example, North Indians are preferred to Tamil labour — Tamilians are more argumentative and can negotiate their wages and work hours in either Malayalam or Tamil. And single men from the north and east are more compliant, according to one labour contractor.

And not all guest workers can bag the more ‘respectable’ jobs. Avinash, a 17-year-old security guard at Kochi’s Lulu Mall from Nagaland, has heard that being good-looking in addition to being from the north-east boosts one’s chances of working a front-desk job that involves facetime with customers — but they’ll have to learn Malayalam first. He followed his 21-year-old elder brother to work in Kerala and save up for college. He’s not sure if he’ll work a front desk job, but he’s given himself three years to save enough money to study further.

Most migrants’ problems would be solved if trade unions were willing to take migrant workers into their fold, says Peter. But local trade unions aren’t interested in fighting for migrant workers’ rights either.

Guest workers are too unstable and unsteady, according to members of Perumbavoor’s local CITU. Shashi, secretary of the CITU chapter, repeats that the workers “create disturbances” and often “fight among themselves.”

survey found that 95 per cent of migrant workers in Ernakulam district aren’t part of any trade union. Those who were members were largely from Tamil Nadu — only 1.1 per cent of workers from Assam and West Bengal were members of trade unions.

“We don’t represent them because they aren’t stable. They move around a lot — one week they work in this town, the next week they move to another town,” says Shashi, describing the way contract labour works. “And they don’t speak Malayalam. They live separately from Malayalis and don’t really integrate.”

Shashi says that workers should unionise in their home state before moving to Kerala — the CITU’s national presence will absorb them. In an attempt to consolidate migrant workers, the CITU General Council invited trade union and communist leaders from West Bengal to visit and work in Kerala in May 2022.

There’s also a push to register migrant workers with the state government: Labour Minister V Sivankutty directed the labour department to issue licences to labour contractors as well. An app called the Guest App, developed by the Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Fund Board, was also launched to register guest workers.

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Upward Mobility is also possible

Kousalya and Amit Mandal came to Kerala from Odisha 39 years ago, in 1983. Kousalya recently retired from being a domestic worker, while Amit is a gardener. Today, the couple own a three-story house in Chambakkara, Kochi. They spent Rs 90 lakh building it, and pay an EMI of Rs 40,000 on their house every month.

Kousalya and Amit are very much the outliers in Kerala today, but stand testament to the fact that class mobility is also a part of the Kerala story.

“We really liked Kerala when we first came, but we thought we’d only be here for a few years. Then I fell ill, and Malayali people helped us — we’ll never get that kind of love anywhere else,” says Amit. “And there’s no theft or crime here. The state government does a lot. Odisha also has state help, but not as much as here,” he adds.

Amit estimates that they must have helped around 300 people migrate to Kerala from Odisha, including members of his extended family. The second generation of Mandals all interact with each other in Malayalam: after all, they grew up in Kerala. Suraj, Kousalya and Amit’s son, rides a Royal Enfield motorcycle and speaks Malayalam more fluently than Hindi.

Kousalya (left) recently retired from being a domestic worker and her husband Amit, a gardener at their three-story house in Chambakkara, Kochi. | Vandana Menon | ThePrint

Kanak Mandal, their relative who is a domestic worker, also just bought a plot of land for Rs 11.5 lakh. The 37-year-old has lived in Kerala for 17 years, and raised both her children in the state. She’s saving up to build a house, and is hoping for further financial assistance — she took a gold loan and some help from her three employers. Her children, Pradeep and Nishant, go to the local private school and speak to each other exclusively in Malayalam — Kanak herself studied until Class VI.

“My dream was always to have my own home,” says Kanak. Her eight-year-old son, Nishant, pipes up to say he’s already designed his own bathroom. A whopping 93 per cent of migrant workers in Kerala share toilets, while a worrying three per cent say they are still practising open defecation.

She says some of her relatives at home in Balasore are slightly jealous, and rely on her for all financial help. “I hear their complaints from one ear and it’s out through the other ear. My sisters don’t understand my work ethic — they think I get paid a lot for doing no work. But that’s not true.”

Kanak says she looks up to Kousalya and Amit as role models. They didn’t accumulate their wealth, instead they shared it and supported the aspirations of other migrants. Kousalya says she doesn’t think either Malayalis or migrants are envious when they visit her home — instead, she takes their blessings.

“Malayalis themselves tell us that North Indians brought development to Kerala. There’s no prestige in doing labour in Kerala. But they do labour in Dubai, no?” asks Kousalya. “Then they come back with style.”

She sits back on her purple sofa, and the family continues watching a cricket match on their 55” flat screen TV.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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