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Dreams run out in Kerala

Hit by the slowdown, 5 lakh Keralites have lost jobs in the Gulf, returning to homes they can no longer afford, families they can’t support and loans they cannot repay. And just as money vanished, so did their political clout. Lalita Panicker reports.

india Updated: Apr 05, 2009 22:52 IST
Lalita Panicker

At the candyfloss pink house he built with his Gulf earnings, Abdul Kader (52) sits on a sofa still wrapped in plastic.

His basement is crowded with things he has brought back: A washing machine, a music system, a TV — luxuries he bought while working as a supermarket attendant in Abu Dhabi.

Now unshaven and teary eyed, Kader speaks of how frightening the future seems with a wife and three children to support.

He and his 26-year-old son, who was also in the Gulf, are among 5 lakh people from the coastal Malabar region in Kerala who have lost their jobs and returned home over the last year, laid off after their companies were hit by the global economic slowdown.

About 27.3 lakh Malayalis are employed abroad, 90 per cent of them in various Gulf countries.

Today, nearly a fifth of these expats — who last year contributed Rs 40,000 crore in remittances to the state — are returning to homes they can no longer afford, families they can’t support and loans they cannot repay.

Kader’s 20-year-old daughter has dropped out of college.

“She was studying for a BSc in microbiology, but I can’t pay the fees anymore,” he says. “My son’s company told him he would be called back in two months. But many months have passed and we have lost all hope.”

At the street corner near Kader's house in Ponnani, 500 kilometres north-east of the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, Hussein Randathani, an Independent with links to the fundamentalist People’s Democratic Front and the Congress, is promising welfare measures for those who have been laid off.

Few are buying it.

“Now that we have lost what little social standing we had, the politicians too have lost what little interest they had in us,” says Shahnawaz (27), the son of a vegetable vendor and another Gulf returnee. “They speak of rehabilitation at
election time, but as soon as the last vote is cast, we are forgotten again.”

Shahnawaz’s salary account was frozen after he lost his job and he had to pay his own way home.

“I actually ended up poorer than when I set off,” he says. “People from other countries, like the Filipinos, are treated much better because their embassies are very proactive. Our government does nothing for us when we’re there and precious little once we have returned.”

The only hope so far has come from Attakoya Pallinkandy (61), who worked as a journalist in the UAE and now brings out his own daily newspaper.

Pallinkandy has set up the Pravasi Welfare and Cooperative Development Society to try and rehabilitate those who have lost their jobs.

He holds group meetings to address the depression and alcoholism that often follow from the broken dreams.

He also lobbies — so far, unsuccessfully — for better treatment for Gulf returnees.

“For years, I have been asking the government to set up a labour bank of those laid off, to help them find employment here, but I received no response,” he says. “Those who come back suffer such loss of face and financial difficulty that many take to drink, tearing families apart. Some eventually commit suicide.”

The odd rehabilitation package is announced by the state every once in a while, but usually fizzles out.

State finance minister Thomas Isaac announced a Rs 110-crore rehab package early this year. The terms were never defined. There has been no word of it since.

Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi, a Malayali himself, says: “I have bought up the issue with the prime minister, but not much can be done until the elections are over.”

For many, that may be too late. Suicides among Gulf returnees have risen from 40 in 2003 to 140 in 2008.

Some, like Kandankutty, try to keep their spirits up.

“Allah showed me the way there, He will show me a way out,” says the 45-year-old.

But sitting in his crumbling home in Kozhikode, surrounded by his suitcase, passport and salary slips, the immediate future looks bleak.

“I was laid off after just eight months, with one month’s basic salary as severance pay,” he says. “I had taken a loan to build my house and now I cannot pay it back.”

Kandankutty’s daughter is expecting a baby
“I had hoped to shower my grandchild with gifts, now I don’t have enough to pay the hospital bill,” he says.