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Kerala’s Flood Disaster

Will Migration Still Act as Indemnification?

S Irudaya Rajan ( teaches at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. Arokkiaraj Heller ( is a research scholar at the Department of Social Work, University of Delhi, New Delhi. Rakesh Ranjan ( is a research scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

In the event of devastating floods in Kerala, what would be the impact on migration and remittances, and what role can the diaspora play in the reconstruction of the state? Migration, as a livelihood strategy, is expected to increase in the aftermath of floods as people try to mitigate economic loss and uncertainty.

Kerala has been battered by torrential rain and consequent flooding. With an average of 1,844.8 millimetres (mm) during August 2018, rainfall had been exceptionally high, about 170% above the normal range. This was one of the worst natural disasters in the state’s history, claiming about 483 human lives and affecting 775 villages. Furthermore, the flood caused damage to 1,186 houses fully and 19,588 houses partially, apart from damage to infrastructure, electricity, and roads (NDMA 2018). Until now, there is no official estimate of the losses caused to flood-hit Kerala. In addition to the immediate loss of life and property, the flood has affected and displaced more than 5 lakh people, who are now being rehabilitated.

The local people in the affected regions themselves were the first to engage in the relief and rescue operations. Soon, the state government deployed state police and fire forces. Assistance was provided by local fisherfolk and the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF), and the union government’s National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), air force, army, navy and other central government ministry/departments) immediately after the floods for rescue and search operations, which were followed by distribution of relief materials. In fact, the fisherfolk rescued more persons than the army, navy, state and central forces. The relief efforts were complemented by other state governments, foreign governments like those of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, public and private sectors, and international organisations. Malayali diaspora spread over the world is also contributing to help rebuild the state.

The impact of the natural disaster has been devastating, and recovery would need significant amounts of money and time. Natural disasters such as floods not only affect human life, public infrastructure or the economy, but also cause enormous psychological trauma, which includes insecurity, fear, and depression (Naik et al 2007; Rajan 2007). While the negative impact of these disasters is inevitable, it also stimulates the local population to find new economic avenues. Among these, migration has been the most obvious choice for people, since the local economy generates lesser opportunities. People of Kerala, a state with a long history of emigration, are more inclined to migrate on a large scale (Zachariah et al 2003; Zachariah and Rajan 2012; Rajan and Zachariah 2017)

The Remittances Factor

Against this background, we attempt to look at the effect of this disaster on the migration and remittances phenomena in Kerala. Compared to other states in India, Kerala’s economy is highly driven by remittances sent by mostly semi-skilled and unskilled emigrants working in the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC). Therefore, labour migration had become an important livelihood strategy for households in the state.

The inflows by way of remittances have had a very significant effect on Kerala’s economy and the living conditions. For the total population of 3.38 crore in 2014, the total remittances of ₹71,142 crore meant an average per capita remittance of ₹21,000 and an average per household remittance of ₹86,844. Remittances, thus, contributed substantially to the annual income of households. Remittances were 36.3% of the net state domestic product. The state’s per capita income was ₹63,491, without taking into consideration remittances, and ₹86,180 if remittances were also included. Remittances were 1.2 times the revenue receipt of the Kerala government and over five times the amount the state got from the centre as revenue transfer, 1.5 times the government’s annual expenditure, and 60% of the state’s public debt. Thus, remittances have been a significant source of income to the state, inasmuch that emigration and remittances have remained the most dynamic factor contributing to the state’s development.

Demographic Factor

The latest Kerala Migration Survey (KMS) indicates that many of the major centres of emigration have experienced a decline in the number of emigrants and emigrants per household. For example, Malappuram district—which had sent out the largest number of emigrants in 2011 as well as in the earlier years—had fewer emigrants per household in 2011 than in 2008. The numbers of emigrants from Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Pathanamthitta, Thrissur, and Palakkad districts in 2011 were fewer than the corresponding numbers in 2008. In seven of the 14 districts, emigrants per household were fewer in 2011 than in 2008.

Thus, although there was a small increase in the number of emigrants (4%) at the state level, most of the traditional centres of emigration in Kerala have experienced a decrease in emigrants and emigrants per household. An independent source of information that supports a possible inflection in the emigration trend before 2011 is the data on the number of Emigration Check Required (ECR) passport holders from Kerala. The number of ECR passport holders from the state were the highest in 2008. The number, however, has declined rapidly since then.

Two key factors determining the volume of emigration from Kerala include demographic transition and wage rates among the unskilled workers in the state. Earlier rounds of the KMS have shown that most of the emigrants from Kerala were young persons in the 20–40 age group (Table 1).

The proportion of emigrants in the 20–40 age group (age at the time of emigration) is as much as 85% of the total number of emigrants. If females are excluded, the proportion of male emigrants in the 20–40 age group would be as much as 92%. Moreover, this number had reached a maximum in 2001 and has been declining since about 2008.

Migration and Remittances

Kerala has a long history of migration to different parts of the world, especially to the Gulf countries for employment. It is estimated that nearly 36% of Kerala’s state gross domestic product (SGDP) comes from remittances (Zachariah and Rajan 2014; Rajan and Zachariah 2017), which is almost 13 times higher than the share of remittances received by the Indian union in its GDP: 2.7% of the GDP in 2017 (World Bank 2017). Even though remittances have been an intrinsic feature of Kerala’s economy, there has been a considerable decrease after the financial crisis of 2008.

Table 2 (p 14) provides the details of the percentage decrease in migration from Kerala. The numbers are of workers migrating to ECR countries, which include countries in West Asia and Malaysia. Kerala had the highest number of migrants among Indian states in 2008. A total number of 1,63,737 workers left in 2008. The number showed a considerable decrease and reached 16,643 in 10 years, a decrease of 89.83%.


Further, this decrease in numbers also becomes perplexing since the remittances received during this period showed a considerable increase and reached up to $70 billion in 2014 (World Bank 2017). Therefore, decreasing migration from Kerala had almost a negligible impact on remittances, and the flow showed a significant increase and reached an all-time high. Even as per the remittances data published in 2018 by the World Bank, in 2017, India received $68 billion as remittances, while, in the same year, the migration flow from Kerala had been at an all-time low.

However, other Indian states witnessed a considerable increase in share of remittances at the same time. Two major inferences can be made. First, migration from other states has shown a considerable increase. Second, the flow of remittances has seen a considerable increase, while migration from Kerala has seen a significant decrease, which implies that the state may be receiving lesser remittances. The workers willing to migrate may have to compete with people emigrating from other states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and West Bengal.

In addition to these issues, ageing is also an important aspect that needs to be considered. According to Nair and Kumar (2017: 212), Kerala has 4.2 million elders (60+ years), constituting 12.6% of the population. The growth rate of the elderly is double that of the overall growth rate of the population. This demographic pattern of the state is comparable to that of the developed countries. Further, the state has an average fertility rate of 1.8, which is lower than other northern states (Guilmoto and Rajan 2013). Therefore, people who returned (returning migrants) to Kerala before 2010 would be of an older age with relatively lesser physical strength for manual jobs.

Even so, workers from Kerala will opt to return to the GCC and other countries to earn money in order to restore their economic status in the aftermath of the flood disaster. Their financial participation is much-needed for the state as well as for their families, who are in deep need of economic support. It is very much possible that the state will receive a higher amount of remittances in the future. However, the flow of remittances may not be as high as it was before 2008. Further, the wage structure in the GCC has also seen a competitive decrease, and people from many other states and countries are also in dire need of economic support.

Disaster and Migration

When households face adverse shocks, migrants act as insurers. At the time of disasters, remittances from migration enable the family members left behind at the place of origin to cope with the shock. Indeed, while some research indicated that environmental disasters decrease migration (Belasen and Polachek 2013; Yang and Choi 2007; Jónsson 2010), others show that they increase migration or have no effect on it (Attzs 2008; Gutmann and Field 2010; Vigdor 2008; Drabo and Mbaye 2013; Mohapatra et al 2012; Hunter 2005). This also illustrates the complexity of the nexus between migration and environmental disasters (Mbaye and Zimmermann 2015). It has also been found that the intensity of the environmental disaster determines its impact on migration, and appropriate measures can be taken through long- and short-term initiatives. Households suffer a loss of income due to the destruction of productive assets, the death or injury of wage earners, the loss of local jobs, the return of wage earners from distant cities, or the disruption of the flow of remittances (Suleri and Savage 2006).

In the aftermath of a disaster, most people need immediate humanitarian assistance, regardless of whether or not they formerly received remittances. In Kerala, the flood disaster is likely to trigger even greater migration. In the case of emigrants, those who are already abroad would prolong their stay rather than return. The remittance usage pattern could change, as, at present, households in Kerala use remittances for household necessities. But, on account of this disaster, they may use a significant portion of remittances for reconstruction and repair of their houses damaged during the floods.

Emigration and remittances have played a predominant role in enabling the households in Kerala to meet their basic needs and to invest in assets. A significant proportion of remittances had already been invested in house construction (Zachariah et al 2003; Zachariah and Rajan 2012; Rajan and Zachariah 2017). Therefore, the government should now think of a house insurance policy. Many may tend to emigrate as well, as non-emigrant families may also plan to send someone from among their family members as a livelihood strategy to cope with the loss of assets and livelihoods. Thus, emigration could also help the local economy in its recovery. The state should frame policies to bring down the cost of emigration and facilitate those who intend to emigrate.

However, migration also reduces the numbers of local labour required to recover from disasters (Maharjan et al2016). There is little understanding of the impact of remittances on mitigating or coping with natural disasters in the context of India or Kerala. At this juncture, a vital question that arises is how emigrants are going to respond to this disaster and whether the flood would induce emigrants to return home of potential emigrants to cancel emigration plans, orwhether it would trigger more emigration. Kerala currently has close to 3 million migrants from other states who have replaced the workers who have left for the Gulf countries (replacement migration). Are they likely to participate in the reconstruction of the economy of Kerala or would they leave to their home states for better opportunities?

In the light of significant demographicpressures like ageing, Kerala has to slowly move towards a new model from the remittance-dependent economy that it is today. The preliminary results from theKMS 2018 indicate a decline in emigration from the state. In the present scenario, it needs to be seen as to what patterns would emerge with regard to emigration, return emigration, internal migration and remittances to Kerala in the coming years.


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Updated On : 7th Sep, 2018


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