Asha S Pillai worked as a pharmacist at Dubai-based Aster Group's Al Quoz Pharmacy up until a month ago. Today, she and her husband are packed and all set to head back home, to Kottayam in Kerala. "We made the decision after COVID-19 hit the economy here and my husband lost his job as a physiotherapist in a clinic at Dubai's up-market Jumeirah neighbourhood," she says. By this time, Pillai had worked for a total of 17 years in Dubai, while her husband had arrived in the emirate 19 years ago. "We have a 17-year-old daughter in Kottayam who is about to begin Class 12, and parents who are unwell and aged. Moving back in search of opportunities in India seemed like the right thing to do."
The Pillais will make their way back to Kottayam on an Air India flight departing Dubai on July 29. They purchased tickets on the repatriation flight for 970 dhirams (approximately Rs 19,750) and hope to ride out India's COVID-19 crisis for six more months before starting a pharmacy on their own. "We have been working in the pharmacy and allied healthcare field for nearly two decades," Pillai says, "We think the time is ripe to start out on our own."
'Two-thirds of Kerala diaspora is well skilled'
Like this UAE-based working couple, lakhs of Kerala-based expatriates are leaving the Middle East — UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, among other countries — to head back home for good, in search of opportunities. While a sizeable chunk of this population is in the unskilled sector, a considerably large portion is skilled labour. Incidentally, this demographic isn't looking to employ, but to invest.
"Although we don’t have exact data on how many Keralites have returned from the Middle East, estimates say there are between 2-3 lakh returnees, of which between 20 to 30 percent are skilled professionals in domains like banking, oil, natural gas, transportation and IT," says Saji Gopinath, CEO of Kerala Start-up Mission (KSUM), which is a state government body dealing with interestingly poised human resource situations in the state.
'Returning diaspora are potential investors'
"While it's normal to think that these people who are heading back home are looking for jobs, let’s not forget that many of them are looking to start new ventures and support existing start-ups," Gopinath adds. It is precisely at this juncture that KSUM believes it can turn a human resource challenge into a golden opportunity. This means like the Pillais, with their savings, and dreams of beginning a venture on their own, over a lakh of homebound expats could well demand a slice of Kerala’s start-up pie, in return for money made in the Gulf.
Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March, the Kerala government has begun making the most of an admittedly brutal economic situation. The last four months have seen 350 early-stage companies register as start-ups in the state and rake in some semblance of funding. “Our studies have revealed that investment is trickling in across sectors like ed-tech, medical technology and hyper-local solutions,” says Gopinath, “Since February, we have raked in Rs 240 crore worth of investments in Kerala’s start-ups.”
Government to fast-track infra projects
While the white-collar diaspora sees some semblance of promise back home, the Kerala government is also looking to absorb the large numbers of unskilled or semi-skilled blue-collar workers who are also returning from the Middle East. In an effort to provide employment, the government has decided to fast-track road infrastructure projects totalling to Rs 50 crore.
"We are not getting enough workers, and our contractors are complaining,” said Alkesh Sharma, additional chief secretary (special projects), and the head of the government’s special task force constituted fast-track these projects, speaking to a publication. “Several non-resident Keralites have returned home Post-COVID-19, many of whom have lost jobs,” Sharma added, “We are exploring if we can source some of them (for these projects).” Time is of the essence for Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his government, since Kerala will go polls in less than 12 months.
The decision to fast-track infrastructure projects is a shot in the arm to lakhs of blue-collar workers who are returning. “We hope to find work here and eke out a sustenance just so that we can pay our children’s school fees and provide the basics for our families,” says Abdul Hameed, a Qatar-based construction workers who is heading back to Malappuram, for good.“Kerala has seen a total investment of Rs 1 lakh crore in various sectors,” says Gopinath, “We hope to build on this investment portfolio now, and believe the returning white-collar Kerala Diaspora has the money to help us grow further. This in turn could provide employment for more non-resident Keralites who hope to return, and this could set off a chain where job-creation isn’t hard to come by.”