Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Laboring in Kerala: Changing Times

Is it possible to quantify the economic cost of cultural norms or attitudes?

Take, for instance, the attitude towards physical work in Kerala, India. Even a casual visitor to the state would not fail to notice a strange phenomena: large swathes of fertile agricultural land lying fallow, while able-bodied men hang about in public places, idling, sipping sweet-tea and discussing politics.

At 9.4% (2007) Kerala has one of the highest official unemployment rates in the country and simultaneously suffers a serious shortage of skilled and unskilled labor. The state is the largest producer of rubber, spices and coconuts in the country, and yet, there are not enough farm hands.

This disconnect could have been logically explained if workers were being poorly paid and exploited by the landlords or industrialists; or if agriculture was grossly un-remunerative. The situation, in fact, is quite the opposite. The average daily wage here is the highest in the country at Rs.450/day (strictly 9AM-6PM); the state has the highest literacy rates, the highest health indices and the highest per-capita income in the country. Over the years, militant workers unions have also ensured that is is "normal" to have blatantly extortionist practices like "Nokku kooli" which has effectively shut out manufacturing industries from Kerala.

So here we have a state that has the capacity but not the will to make the best use of its human & natural resources - other than, of course, "softer" options like tourism and ITES services. This bring us to the most critical - but notoriously un-quantifiable - aspect of any society: attitudes and cultural norms.

Youngsters who are loath to be seen with a shovel in own farms gladly travel across the Arabian Sea to sweat out in the desert sun as construction workers. Kerala sends out over 2.5 million people to work overseas (91% in the Gulf region), and they, in turn, prop up the state's economy through their remittances (over 20% of gross state domestic product). Is it because find more dignity, self-respect and social mobility in toiling anonymously in foreign lands rather than subject themselves to hide bound social conventions and caste hierarchies back home?

And now we have an interesting new phenomenon building up: laborers and skilled workers from other states in India, and even neighboring countries are pouring in, to work in Kerala.  Workers from Nepal, Bihar, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, and the North East have now become fairly commonplace, even in the remotest corners of the state. By some estimates there are over half a million such migrant workers in Kerala now. As of now, they engage themselves in work that the locals just don't want to do:  quarrying, road-building, carpentry, construction and rubber-tapping. And much like the early Keralan workers to the Gulf, they are being exploited by local middle-men who routinely cheat them of their wages, sometimes handing out less than half of what a local worker would earn as minimum wages (Rs.450), which is still higher than what they would earn elsewhere in the country.

Will a flood of "domestic migration" to Kerala bring about a change in local attitudes towards work?

  • Kerala's Net State Domestic Product (NSDP) in 2003 was Rs.83,782 Cr (~ US$ 21 billion) of which remittances accounted for 22% (~ US$ 4.6b). This was 1.74 times the revenue of the state, 7 times of the transfers to the state from the central government and 1.8 times the annual expenditure of the Kerala Government. Remittances were also sufficient to wipe out 60% of the state's debt....15 times the export earnings of cashew and 18 times those from marine products (Rajan 2007)

  • Rajan, S. Irudaya & Zachariah, K.C (2007). The Migration-Development Nexus: Remittances and its impact of the Kerala Economy and Society. ISS, The Netherlands (31 Aug 2007). URL - www.iss.nl/content/download/8303/81035/.../Panel%202_Rajan.pdf
  • Krishnakumar, M.K (2011). Perumbavurile Paradeshikal (Malayalam- The Outsiders in Perumbavur). Mathrubhumi, 5 June 2011
  • Rediff.com (2009). Kerala Remittances Economy Under Threat. 2 Feb., 2009.  URL - http://www.rediff.com/money/2009/feb/02keralas-remittance-economy-under-threat.htm
  • Special Correspondent (2011). COMPREHENSIVE LABOR POLICY SOON. The Hindu. 29 May 2011
  • Staff Reporter (2011). Campaign to end 'Nokkukooli'. The Hindu, Kollam edition, 4 June 2011
  • Current Minimum Wage Rate in India - http://www.paycheck.in/main/officialminimumwages
  • Official Minimum Wages in Kerala - http://www.paycheck.in/main/officialminimumwages/kerala
  • Mathew, A (1986). The Coconut Economy of Kerala. JSTOR - http://www.jstor.org/pss/3517251
  • Philip, Shaju (2010). Kerala's Coconut Economy Takes a Hit. Financial Express, 10 Oct., 2010.

No comments: