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This Gulf is bridgeable

Gulf returnees, who flooded Kerala’s job market after the global downturn, are now hoping they’ll be among the lucky ones to go back. K Johnson (36), who worked for a dredging company in the Gulf, is waiting in silent desperation to get a call from his former employer, reports Ramesh Babu.

business Updated: Sep 18, 2009 18:01 IST
Ramesh Babu

He returned to Kerala from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) three months ago, but hasn’t unpacked all his suitcases yet.

K Johnson (36), who worked for a dredging company in the Gulf, is waiting in silent desperation to get a call from his former employer. He hopes the wait would end soon, as the abandoned construction and sea reclamation projects in the UAE, will any day be taken up again.

The reason: Recession is receding.

But not far away from Johnson’s two-room house in this coastal town, 80 km from state capital

Thiruvananthapuram, Michael Benzigar (28) and his friends are unfolding their fishing net on the shore. The catch turns out to be meagre, and the fishermen start playing cards – a diversion from worries.

Both Johnson and Benzigar were earning the equivalent of about Rs 30,000 a month in the Gulf – hefty amounts for them by Indian standards. Their dreams of making it big in the Gulf went sour, when a financial crisis in the United States spilled over to other parts of the world and plunged the global economy into a recession.

But Johnson and Benzigar haven’t given up yet.

They believe things will get better, and they’ll be able to fly back to their places of work.

There are no firm estimates, but state officials say at least 40 per cent of the returnees have either gone back or are getting ready to go back to the Gulf because except real estate, the other sectors have almost overcome the recession blues.

Johnson and Benzigar are among the 22 lakh (2.2 million) Keralites estimated to have left for greener pastures abroad. Of them, 90 per cent went to Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – the six countries under the Gulf Cooperation Council. Johnson and Benzigar form 70 per cent of the migrants, who are unskilled workers.

It is not only the blue-collar worker, who had to return. Meet Noel Peter, who was a civil engineer in Sharjah in the UAE. Sent back on forced leave, he isn’t sure if he’ll be able to go back soon. For, his realty sector will take some more time to turn around.

But the return of the local Nabobs has already left its mark on the state. In Kollam’s Sakthikulgara hamlet, the Gulf dream turning sour is literally written on the wall. ‘For Sale’ banners are hung across newly built houses lying beside half-constructed ones.

“It is my dream home. I built it brick by brick. I took a huge loan. I couldn’t pay the EMI (Equated Monthly Instalment) for the last three months, so I decided to go in for the worst (selling the house),” said John Titus, who was a supervisor in a dredging ship in the Gulf.

No one knows exactly how many migrants have returned so far since the downturn began a year ago. Kerala’s Finance Minister Thomas Isaac estimates that as many as 500,000 or half a million non-resident Keralites could be returning home in the next few months.

He made some provisions in the last budget to assist those who want to start their own businesses. “The Kerala Financial Corporation has earmarked a Rs 100-crore (Rs 1 billion) loan scheme for returnees. They have to pay 7 per cent interest for a 10-year term. We are planning many such schemes,” he told Hindustan Times.

But the scheme hasn’t enthused too many. “With red tapism, bribes and trade unionism, it will be like the film Varavelppu,” said a returnee, who did not want to be named.

His reference was to the Malayalam film in which the protagonist bought a bus with his hard-earned Gulf money, but was compelled to return to the Middle East in the face of militant trade unionism and bureaucratic obstacles.

But Irudaya Rajan of the Centre for Development Studies, who has done extensive studies on migration, said, “I don’t know why people are making such a fuss. It is only a passing phase. Things will stabilise soon.”

And things have started stabilising.