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Kerala’s Bittersweet Phenomenon

Emigration fuels a local economy, but strains family ties

Lizamma Peters took a seat at her kitchen table across from Father Philip Anjilimoottil, her parish priest at St. Mary’s Syro-Malankara Catholic Church in Tiruvalla in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. Father Anjilimoottil often visits his parishioners and that day Mrs. Peters had invited him over for tea after her long absence. As the two sipped the steaming hot brew, Mrs. Peters admired the reminders surrounding them that hard work and sacrifice have their rewards.

The construction of Mrs. Peters’ one-level, two-bedroom home was almost finished. The walls smelled of fresh paint. The white marble floor, which alone cost her 100,000 rupees (about $2,340), sparkled as though it were the lobby of a five-star hotel. The staircase to the roof needed only a railing. And the next phase, an 800-square-foot second-floor addition, still fell within the $35,000 budget.

“I want each of my boys to have his own room,” said the 37-year-old mother of two.

For good reason then, Mrs. Peters praised the Lord when she returned home from Saudi Arabia for the first time in 10 months and saw what her hard-earned money had built.

For the past three years, she has been working as a nurse in Saudi Arabia, sending home nearly 99 percent of her earnings. The money has made possible the construction of the family’s new home and covered countless other household costs.

But on her first day back home, Mrs. Peters also experienced the high price she and her family have paid for her many months away. Unfortunately, the price cannot be counted in Indian rupees, U.S. dollars or Saudi riyals.

“When I came home two years ago, he looked at me like I was a stranger,” she told Father Anjilimoottil, referring to her younger son, 4-year-old Basil, who was playing in the foyer with his newest toy – a bright yellow plastic dump truck. Basil yanked the tethered truck into the air and slammed it down onto the unforgiving marble. Over and over again he repeated the routine in willful disregard of his mother’s requests to play more gently.

“It’s getting better,” she continued, keeping positive. “He knows who I am now and says he misses me. ” But the undertones of concern in her voice betrayed her optimism.

For the moment, it seemed that Mrs. Peters’ daily phone calls and annual trips home have not succeeded in cementing a strong mother-son bond with Basil – at least not yet. Rambunctious, moody and defiant, Basil behaved like a boy growing up without the security of motherly love. Mrs. Peters worried whether or not her son’s development had suffered irrevocably as a result. Her husband tried his best to fill the gaps, but he had his own personal struggles – alcoholism – to manage. With two years still remaining on her five-year contract, the fortunes of the Peters family warily hang in the balance.

Keralites enjoy telling visitors a familiar joke about their penchant for moving. When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, what did he hear? Response: “Choodu Chaya Kappy … Chaya Kappy, ” the typical pitch in the local Malayalam language used by Keralite street vendors selling tea.

As this joke’s punch line suggests, Keralites have earned a reputation on the subcontinent and around the world for their willingness to travel just about anywhere and then excel at business and professional careers.

The tendency among Keralites to emigrate can be traced back more than two centuries, to the origins of the state’s unique tradition of universal education. At the time, maharajahs and missionaries built schools and promoted the benefits of education. Their efforts produced a growing cohort of educated Keralites, who until more recently enjoyed a significant competitive advantage in the job market over other Indians. At the beginning of the 20th century, the first wave of educated Keralites began migrating to other parts of the country to fill jobs for which local workers did not have the skills.

This trend only intensified when the Communist Party won Kerala’s state elections for the first time in 1957 and subsequently became the predominant political force. Under the party’s leadership, Kerala’s public education and health care systems have flourished along with other social service and welfare programs.

By the same token, the Communist-led government pushed through layers of legislation heavily taxing and regulating business and industry. While ensuring a well-funded state welfare system, many of these measures have stunted the state’s economic growth and inhibited job creation. Unemployment, a major obstacle in Kerala, now exceeds 20 percent (though some observers suggest it is closer to 36 percent), the highest in the nation. In addition, Kerala’s many strong labor unions commonly stage massive strikes that paralyze much of the state’s economic activity. This combination of a large, educated workforce and persistent economic stagnation set the stage for decades of widespread emigration.

Among the first to welcome Kerala’s cheap, skilled labor were the nations of South Asia. Then during the oil boom in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Keralites took off in droves to the states of the Persian Gulf; the number of expatriate Keralites tripled during those decades. Keralites filled the ranks of the region’s nurses, bookkeepers and construction and hospitality workers. These days, migratory patterns have changed once again; nearly 10 percent of Kerala’s total emigrants now secure employment in the industrialized West.

According to NORKA, the government agency that represents the interests of nonresident Keralites, 1.8 million Keralites currently reside outside India, a tally that touches up to a quarter of all households in the state. Emigrant remittances – which account for an estimated $5.5 billion each year, or more than 20 percent of Kerala’s gross domestic product – build homes, pay tuition, fund retirements and power the state’s economy.

While emigration offers financial gains, it also takes a heavy toll on families and society. Peek over the estate’s front gates proudly emblazoned with a family nameplate. Look past the state- of-the-art satellite dishes and flush toilets. Scratch beneath the shiny marble veneers. Do this, warn many local church leaders, and cracks appear in the foundation of the Keralite family.

Many economists have hailed the Kerala Phenomenon – the common term referring to Kerala’s unique development model that sacrifices industrial production and job growth for a generous social welfare system – for achieving near universal literacy, providing quality health care and promoting greater gender equality. However, if the troubling social trends that have manifested in recent years accurately reflect life in Kerala, it may not be long before experts coin another term: “Kerala Paradox. ”

Current statistics indicate that among Keralites rates of alcoholism, depression, suicide, domestic violence and divorce have been spiraling upward. Today, Kerala boasts the highest per capita liquor consumption in India, a suicide rate three times the national average and, in the most recent study, a level of domestic violence that far eclipses the national average. And Kerala’s divorce rate has increased some 350 percent over the last decade. While tough to prove a cause-and-effect relationship between migration and these social ills, surmising one is not difficult.

The Centre for Development Studies, a Kerala-based research institute, estimates 1.2 million “Gulf wives” – women whose husbands work outside India – currently live in Kerala, representing 10 percent of all married women. These women raise an untold number of children alone. After hastily arranged marriages, the men often leave the country before getting to know their wives, much less their children. Loneliness and suspicion creep into the relationship. Dowry-related obligations, even if illegal, remain a fact of life. And with the cost of living in Kerala on the rise, pressure on breadwinners to earn more money increases, which only serves to prolong separation. Stretched to their limits, many of these families risk unraveling.

“We’re seeing the disintegration of the family unit,” explained Syro-Malabar Father Joseph Mumdakathir, a family counselor for the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archeparchy of Changanacherry.

“Families are going through a terrible crisis, ” he said. “Migration isn’t always the reason. Some live decently – a happy Catholic life. But others are troubled. For those who stay at home, it’s very hard. Migration creates insecurity and confusion and has a significant psychological impact. For those who go, it’s natural to feel detachment. But in the end, it’s the children who suffer most, ” the priest continued.

Ironically, many emigrant families justify the sacrifices they make in terms of the benefits their children enjoy. And in some ways, children gain greatly from emigration. For instance, families pour a quarter of all remittances into funding education. In a cruel twist of fate, higher education often feeds more emigration and the cycle of emigration spins on.

“Migration is a phenomenon in Kerala. We know we cannot remain home. There’s no livelihood. Youngsters have to go away. For Keralites, we’re ready for that, ” said Father Mumdakathir.

“I see migration in a positive way. It’s the dream for a good life and, yes, material wealth. Not greed, ” he continued. “It’s an aspiration for development, an aspiration to come up. It’s Kerala coming up. ”

Emigration’s promise has lured many of Kerala’s brightest and most talented workers in just about every skilled profession. But without doubt nursing has become its most emblematic.

At Pushpagiri Medical College in Tiruvalla, a teaching hospital run by the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, high-voltage chatter of aspiring nurses electrify the institution’s dimly lighted halls. Observing this beehive of activity with a “been there, done that” nonchalance stands 59-year-old Annamma Thomas, the school’s assistant superintendent.

Some 25 years earlier, at the ripe age of 34, Ms. Thomas packed her bags for a five-year stint in Saudi Arabia and, as she conceded, has the psychological scars to prove it.

“That five-year gap affected my life. I faced attachment issues with everybody, ” admitted Ms. Thomas. “I didn&#146t know about the changes that had happened here. Everything was different. I felt like a stranger in my own home. ”

Times have changed since Ms. Thomas first embarked for the Gulf. Back then, Keralite society considered nursing a lowly profession. And women, regardless of their education level, were discouraged from leaving the country to pursue careers.

According to the Centre for Development Studies, women now make up 15 percent of all Keralite emigrants and about 28 percent of those emigrants are Christian – a significant increase from 25 years ago.

Nurses in Kerala generally earn less than $1,000 per month. In Delhi, salaries are double and in the Gulf states as much as 10 times that amount. Attracted by these salaries, tens of thousands of Keralite nurses have accepted employment elsewhere in India or overseas. Currently, about 40,000 Keralite nurses work in the Gulf and another 25,000 in Europe and North America.

Many might interpret these high numbers as evidence of a burgeoning generation of confident, independent-minded women. But, as Ms. Thomas sees it, the pitfalls remain.

“Oh, there are so many adjustment problems for these girls. So many tensions, ” she began. “When they return, they have no attachment to their husband or children or neighbors. Their children call them grand-mommy, not mommy. So, first, they suffer from separation with family. But secondly, they suffer because they can’t keep up with their past wealth and lifestyle.

“They want the money both for survival and comfort. The big house, good education for the children – they have all of this. But psychologically and emotionally, many aren’t happy, ” continued Ms. Thomas.

Much is made about the “brain-drain” problem in Kerala, in which skilled workers pursue careers elsewhere and, in so doing, deplete the remaining workforce of the know-how necessary for the region’s sustainable economic development. But Ms. Thomas worries about the potential, less conspicuous “care-drain” problem.

“At least 80 percent of the girls want to go abroad. Between 40 and 50 percent get the opportunity, ” she explained. “It’s the smartest and more experienced nurses who are going away. We have a problem. We continuously train the nurses, and the best ones go away. ”

With such a toxic brew of tensions swirling beneath the surface, Kerala’s Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches have been taking great pains at all levels to act as a more relevant and unifying force in the lives of its faithful, regardless of where they may live and work.

A case in point, St. Mary’s Church in Tiruvalla offers a variety of social services to assist families struggling with emigration. Among the activities the church organizes are prayer groups for all ages, small Christian communities, youth groups, family counseling sessions and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Father Anjilimoottil leads the 90-family parish community. Pastor for just seven months, he has already nurtured deep relationships with many of his parishioners.

“I’m getting calls all the time from the Gulf. Mothers want to know how their children are doing in school. Fathers want to know how families are doing, ” said the priest.

“I know all the drunkards in my parish too, ” added Father Anjilimoottil, half-jokingly.

The priest is frequently out in the community. He regularly visits the homes of elderly persons, who, as their children leave the state for better opportunities, are increasingly left behind to fend for themselves. Traditionally, aging Keralites lived out their golden years in the company of their children and extended family. Nursing homes, almost unheard of a generation ago, are now springing up across the state – the latest fallout of the Kerala Phenomenon.

Father Anjilimoottil also acts as a surrogate father, as best he can, to youngsters from single-parent homes. Whenever asked, he gives advice and tries to guide individuals and families in the right direction.

“Being a priest, I can love them and direct them. But I can’t replace their father. I can’t enter into the family, ” he said, lamenting his limitations. “They tell their problems to God, but they don’t like to share them with others. ”

The churches’ view on emigration is nuanced. Each priest has his own perspective. Each parish or eparchial project has its own distinct approach and set of activities.

Some programs, like local job-creation initiatives, offer an alternative to emigration. Others encourage it, such as programs that make “bridge” grants available to individuals wanting to settle overseas.

For the most part, church leaders accept emigration as a fact of life that is not going away any time soon. And rather than waste precious energy and resources combating such a complex phenomenon, the church prefers to find creative – even if at times seemingly conflicting – ways to help Keralites cope with emigration and its effects. While not a simple task, eparchies and parishes have managed to carve unique roles as critical social assistance providers in Kerala’s changing economy. Indeed, the many new churches that have been built in recent years stand as testaments to their dynamism and ability to respond effectively to the evolving needs of its parishioners.

Yet for all its challenges, migration has already proven a genuine salvation for millions of Keralites and remains a hope for millions more. Reminders of its blessing can be seen everywhere in Kerala – and not just in the new mansions, churches and public facilities. The extreme poverty in which millions of families live restrains most observers from indulging in blanket criticism of migration.

About a mile or so from the Peters family’s new home – in a neighborhood where residents claim “Gulf money” has built 90 percent of all the houses – huddles the rundown shack that Jeji and Priya Mathew and their 1-year-old daughter, Jiya, call home. A ratty, blue plastic tarp tacked crudely over the entrance collects leaves. Water stains splotch the interior walls of this cramped, makeshift dwelling. Toothbrushes and other toiletries fill the shallow crevices of an exterior brick wall around back. With no running water, the dirt landing adjoining the shack’s rear is where Mr. Mathew shaves, his wife brushes her hair and Jiya plays – mud puddles at their feet.

Unlike the Peters family, the Mathews do not receive any remittances from overseas. The family struggles just to secure the basics.

Mrs. Mathew, age 28, works as a sales representative for an insurance company. Her 24-year-old husband works odd jobs and runs a tiny administrative services outfit. He wakes each morning before dawn and hops on his scooter to deliver newspapers around town. The glow emanating from international banks not yet open for the business day and bright billboards touting fine jewelry illuminate the way along the otherwise pitch-black street. After a quick breakfast, he heads to his firm that offers clients a host of services – travel bookings, courier services, life insurance, car loans and admissions consulting.

“We’re poor. We need more money. We have too much debt. We took a loan of 200,000 rupees (about $4,700) to help my sister study. And look at our house, ” said his wife. “People here have more money than they can spend. I have one small house and when it rains… ” Mrs. Mathew’s voice trailed off. She looked up and raised her palms toward the ceiling, the thought of the approaching monsoon season perhaps weighing on her mind.

“I love my husband and child very much, ”she said, regaining focus. “But if either of us has the chance to go abroad, we’ll take it.”

Standing nearby and listening intently to his wife’s words, Mr. Mathew nodded in agreement.

Award-winning journalist Peter Lemieux reports from Africa and India for ONE.

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