The government of Saudi Arabia's recent push to get businesses in the country to employ more Saudi citizens has sent tremors through the thriving "remittance economy" of the small south Indian state of Kerala. It also has caused a small wave of what might be called distress migration from Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi regime's recent enforcement of its Nitaqat program, a policy that promotes the employment of its own nationals in response to a rising domestic unemployment rate that now stands at 12 percent, seems likely to have a ripple effect on lives across Southeast Asia. It is being most closely watched in Kerala, a sylvan state low on India's west coast with a long history of links to migration, multiculturalism and maritime trade. (Vasco da Gama, seeking to discover the sea route to India from Europe, landed there in 1498.)

For more than four decades, Kerala has sent hundreds of thousands of skilled and unskilled workers to the Gulf states -- a pool of cheap labor that has contributed substantially to the material transformation of the oil-rich economies of the region, while also providing a crucial source of livelihood to a few million members of India's glutted labor market. (Currently, India's labor force grows by about 1 million each month, and there are few opportunities in the formal sector for more than a small fraction of them.)

As T.V.R. Shenoy wrote on the website, "probably no other place on earth will be as affected by the 'Nitaqat' regulations as Kerala." Malayalis, as the natives of Kerala are called, account for a substantial percentage of the 500,000 Indians working legally in Saudi Arabia -- and of the estimated 50,000 to 70,000 doing so illegally, many of whom, fearing deportation, have begun to return home. Meanwhile, India's minister for overseas affairs, Vayalar Ravi, is expected to travel to Saudi Arabia to discuss the implications of Nitaqat and to smooth the return passage of Indian labor.

A report in The Gulf Today said:

"Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said the government would meet the travel expenses of the migrants returning from Saudi Arabia.

"He urged the federal government to seek a six-month general amnesty from Saudi Arabia for those affected by Nitaqat policy.

"Some 500 expatriates from Kerala illegally working in the kingdom have already returned."

A study in 1999 showed that there was an average of 33 international migrants for every 100 households in Kerala. Starting in the 1970s, wages paid to Malayalis in the Gulf and remitted to India have transformed the economy of Kerala. The state has a population of 34 million, of whom more than 2 million -- most of them male, unskilled, married and in their 20s -- work as laborers on short-term contracts in the Gulf. These economic migrants almost never take their families with them and rarely forge lasting links to the places where they arrive as workers. Most eventually return to the place of their birth, often enjoying the higher status accorded to someone who has "been abroad."

Recent studies show that remittances by NRMs (Nonresident Malayalis) accounted for 20 percent of total remittances by nonresident Indians; they also account for one-fifth of Kerala's income. The out-migration from Kerala to the Gulf states is the main reason that India took in $69 billion from its overseas citizens, making it the top receiver of global remittances in 2012.

But the underside of this phenomenon is the tenuous life, fraught with uncertainty and desperation, risked by thousands of unskilled, barely literate Malayali men who pay large sums to touts or employment agencies for the chance of a job in the Gulf. Upon arriving, they often find that they are to work in the grey economy, without any of the rights or privileges of legal workers. These experiences aren't often talked about by the returning migrant, who endures them so that he may eventually return to a hero's welcome. But these stories have become part of the oral history of Kerala, and its cinema and literature. For example, there's the Malayali writer Binyamin, whose recent novel "Goat Days" features a hapless protagonist who mortgages his house and his wife's jewelry and invests all his hopes in redemption by an "arbab" (Arab) but finds himself herding goats in the desert.

This kind of migrant will presumably soon be rooted out in Saudi Arabia. Even so, his troubles -- and contribution to the Saudi story -- were sympathetically addressed in a recent piece by Khaled Almaeena in the Saudi Gazette. The Saudi government's move has implications for both legal and illegal emigrants, as P.M. Mathew explained in the New Indian Express in a piece called "What Nitaqat Means For Kerala":

"The strict adherence to the Nitaqat regulations will result in immediate job losses and reduced job opportunities. Many small scale shops and establishments in Saudi Arabia are run by Keralites under licences in the names of Saudi nationals. Now all such shops and establishments must have 10 per cent of their employees from among Saudi nationals who should be paid at least 3 times more salary than their expatriate counterparts. It is almost impossible now to run companies on the licences given to Saudi nationals....

"According to leading immigration trend analysts in Kerala the Saudi crackdown on illegal migrants should be viewed as a blessing in disguise since it is going to open up more opportunities for the legal migrants from the state. There is no need for the legal immigrant worker to panic. The Nitaqat effect is not just on Indians. Lakhs of illegal migrants in Saudi Arabia are from countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines, Egypt, etc. Kerala can grab this opportunity by providing the needed skills to the future migrants and allowing them to migrate legally."

Decades of migration by Malayali men to the Gulf have generated other effects, such as the waves of "replacement migration" of labor from impoverished regions of northern and eastern India to compensate for manpower shortages in Kerala. Then there is the phenomenon of "Gulf wives," the more than 1 million Malayali women who sometimes see their husbands no more than once a year for decades and who bring up their children effectively as single parents, drawing on secondary caregivers within the larger network of the family or religious community. A story by Rajni George explains the fascinating economic and emotional trade-offs routinely made by men and women in Kerala:

"When the study surveyed a cross-section of Gulf wives, nearly 60 per cent wished their husbands were back home, while 40 per cent felt `the economic benefits outweighed the costs'. However, most women would want to have a son-in-law who was working in Kerala. Conversely, a total of 83 per cent said they preferred potential husbands to work in the Gulf. These women, like the men they marry, are compromising on companionship and normative families for a future generation who, they hope, will not need to make the same sacrifices."

And a recent essay by the sociologist Prema Kurien offers some fascinating insights into the social meanings of remittance money from the Gulf, which is often perceived as a kind of windfall income that shows itself both in conspicuous consumption and in increased contributions to community welfare. Kurien writes:

"Probably the most important attribute of international remittances is that migrant incomes are generally much higher than the amount that would have been earned in a comparable local job. Due to the higher level of technology in the foreign country, those at home perceive the work undertaken by migrants as being less physically arduous. In addition, they also feel that there are the additional compensations gained from the glamour and experiences of life in a foreign (and developed) country. For all of these reasons, foreign income is seen to be serendipitous, 'easy money,' which is not fully earned. As such, community members expect that the money will also be disbursed more freely. In other words, it is seen to have some qualities of windfall income.

"...Largesse may also be distributed to counteract the possibly harmful effects of envious neighbours and relatives. All of these social pressures work to prevent migrants from spending their remittances solely on themselves and their immediate families."

The Saudi decision could be the sign that the great wave of Indian migration to the Gulf, which was linked to the oil boom in that region, has reached its peak and is now on declining. For now, though, temporary emigration to the Gulf remains one of the most widespread ambitions and realities of the remittance-dependent Indian region that, in a different chapter in the book of world history, was at the center of the global spice trade.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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