Migration and Development: The Kerala Experience

Kerala police at Vembanad lake in Kerala, India
Teaser Bild Untertitel
Kerala police at Vembanad lake in Kerala, India


by S. Irudaya Rajan and K. C. Zachariah

Kerala Migration Survey (1998) estimated the number of international emigrants from Kerala at 13.6 lakh and the number of return emigrants at Kerala at 7.4 lakh. That study prognosticated that the number of emigrants from and return emigrants to Kerala would continue to increase, but that the increase would be much larger among the return emigrants. As a result, return emigrants could outnumber emigrants early in the 21st century and that net international migration from Kerala could become negative. Reduced emigration and increased return migration were thought to be the logical outcome of the demographic contraction and the economic expansion in Kerala as well as the changing economic scenario in the Gulf countries.

This conclusion was not however supported by the results of Kerala Migration Survey (KMS), 2003. By 2003 the number of emigrants from Kerala had increased to 18.4 lakh, from 13.6 lakh in 1998 and the number of return emigrants to 8.9 lakh from 7.4 lakh in 1998. One of the significant findings of KMS (2003) was that the prognostication made in KMS 1998 regarding the drying up of the emigration flow in the early twenty-first century was by and large erroneous.

External Migration

Migration Trend

According to Kerala Migration Survey 2007, the number of Kerala migrants living abroad was 18.5 lakh, more or less the same as the estimate for 2003.  Emigration from Kerala seems to have lost much of its steam. Has it peaked? Is the situation in 2007 the beginning of a downward trend? After our two consecutive failures in prediction, we do not venture to prognosticate once again. The ongoing Kerala Migration Survey 2008 will show.

Even the nominal increase by 9,400 persons could be attributed to population increase and not due to increase in migration propensity. Relative to the number of households, the change in the number of migrants per household during 2003-07 was negative. Emigrants per 100 households decreased from 26.7 in 2003 to 24.5 in 2007. The increase in the number of emigrants during 2003-07 has not kept pace with the increase in the number of households in the state during the period.
The situation with respect to return emigrants was not very much different either. The number of return emigrants in 2007 was exactly the same as the number in 2003: 8.9 lakh.  Return emigrants per 100 households decreased from 13.0 in 2003 to 11.7 in 2007.

The net effect of these changes has been a relatively constant number of non-resident Keralites (NRK), and a decrease in the number of NRKs per household. The total number of NRKs in Kerala in 2007 is 27.3 lakh and the number of NRKs per 100 households, 36.2.  These numbers compare with 27.3 lakh in 2003 and 21.0 lakh in 1998. NRKs per 100 households were 33.0 in 1998, 39.7 in 2003 and 36.2 in 2007.

Geographic Dimension of Migration

Emigrants’ Destination Countries

In the past, Gulf countries used to be the principal destination of Kerala emigrants. In this matter there has been no change in 2007 also. In 1998, 95 percent of Kerala emigrants went to one of the Gulf countries. By 2003 the corresponding percentage declined to 91 percent.  In 2007 the proportion of Kerala emigrants who went to the Gulf region has come down further to 89 percent.

However significant changes are observed in the distribution of emigrants within the Gulf region. Saudi Arabia had been the principal destination country in 1998. By 2003, it yielded its first rank to the United Arab Emirates, which at that time received 37 percent of the total emigrants from Kerala compared to 27 percent in Saudi Arabia. The UAE continued its dominance and by 2007, it has received 42 percent of the Kerala emigrants. In the mean time, Saudi Arabia’s share declined further to just 24 percent.  Apart from the UAE, Kuwait also continues to attract an increasing share of Kerala emigrants.

Outside the Gulf region, the United States of America is a major destination country.  It received 5.7 percent of the total number of emigrants from the state.  Its share had been only 2.2 percent in 1998.

Origin of Emigrants within Kerala

Rural-Urban Origin:  According to the 2001 census, 74.0 percent of the population of Kerala lived in rural areas and 74.5 percent of the households were located in rural areas.  However, only 68.2 percent of the emigrants originated from rural areas; 31.8 percent came from urban areas. Similarly 69.2 percent of the return emigrants were living in rural areas and the balance 30.8 percent in urban areas. Thus, propensity to emigrate is slightly higher in urban areas.  But the differentials are not very large. The most significant differentials are in the number of emigrants per 100 households. It is as much as 33.1 percent in urban areas but only 23.7 percent in rural areas.

District of Origin of Emigrants

Malappuram district had the distinction of sending out the largest number of emigrants from Kerala in 1998 and in 2003. It has retained the distinction in 2007 also. In fact in 2007, Malappuram district was the place of origin of 336,000 emigrants or about 18.2 percent of the total number of emigrants from Kerala. However, there has been a decline in the proportion of emigrants from Malappuram compared with the situation in 1998. Its share had been as high as 22 percent in 1998.

The district next in importance with respect to emigration from the state has been Kannur in north Kerala, with 254,000 emigrants.  Unlike Malappuram, which lost its importance over the years, the share of Kannur had doubled over the 9-year period.  In 1998 only 6.5 percent of Kerala emigrants had originated from Kannur, but by 2007 its share increased to 13.8 percent.  Overall, there has been a steady shift northwards with regard to the centre of emigration in the state.

The other districts with relatively large number of emigrants have been Thiruvananthapuram with 189,000 emigrants (10.2 percent), Thrissur with 170,000 emigrants (9.2 percent) Kollam with 147,000 emigrants (7.9 percent), Ernakulam with 143,000 emigrants (7.7 percent) and Alappuzha with 114,000 emigrants (6.2 percent). As had been the case in previous years, the districts with the smallest number of emigrants have been Idukki (0.1 percent) and Wayanad (0.8 percent).

On the whole, the northern districts of the state have gained importance as a source of emigrants from the state.  The share of the Kasaragod district increased from 2.8 percent to 5.3 percent, Kannur from 6.5 percent to 13.8 percent and Wayanad from 0.3 to 0.8 percent. Some of the southern districts have lost ground in this matter, the principal among them being Pathanamthitta, and Idukki districts.  
 The total numbers of emigrants from a district depend on its total population also. Control for this difference is ensured, by calculating the number of emigrants per household.  In 2007, the average number of emigrants per 100 households has been 24.5 at the state level. But the corresponding average has been as high as 49.8 in Malappuram, 48.8 in Kannur and 38.5 in Kasaragod districts.  In the Idukki district, there have been only 0.7 emigrants per 100 households.

Over the years, emigrants per household increased in most of the northern region extending from Malappuram district to Kasaragod district. However, it decreased considerably in Pathanamthitta district.
Religious Affiliation of the Emigrants
The total number emigrants have been 18.48 lakh in 2007.  Among them 8.83 lakh (48.2 percent) were Muslims, 6.17 lakh Hindus (33.3 percent) and the balance 3.47 lakh (18.5 percent) Christians. Thus Muslims who constitute less than a quarter of the total population has almost double that proportion among the emigrants.
Table 1 Percentage Distribution of Migrants by Religion, 2007
The most important religious differential is with respect to the growth of numbers of migrants. During 2003-07 the number of emigrants has shown only a negligible increase of a mere 0.5 percent, but the increase has been as much as 9.8 percent among Muslims and 7.6 percent among Hindus. The number of emigrants among Christians seems to have decreased by about 25 percent.  Over the longer period 1998-2007 the increase has been the largest among Hindus: 51 percent of emigrants, 43 percent of return emigrants and 48 percent of NRKs. Christians experienced the smallest rate of increase.

In the state as a whole, 100 households on an average have 24.5 emigrants and 11.7 return emigrants.  But the corresponding numbers among the Muslims are 52.2 and 22.1 respectively. Thus 1 in 2 Muslim household has an emigrant each and 1 in 5 households had a return emigrant each. Three out of four households had a NRK each.  Thus the Muslim community in Kerala is very much in the migration business, that is, Gulf migration.

For all religious groups taken together, 89 percent of the emigrants have gone to the Gulf countries, but among Muslims almost all (98 percent) emigrants went to the Gulf countries. The proportion of Christian emigrants who went to the USA is 14.6 percent and, that of the Hindu, 8.7 percent; but among Muslim emigrants, only 0.2 percent selected the USA as their destination

Destination of Return Emigrants in Kerala

Although Malappuram district is number one in emigration, it is not number one in terms of return emigration. Of the total of 886,000 return emigrants, 161,000 (18.8 percent) were enumerated in Thiruvananthapuram district, and only 143,000 (16.2 percent) were enumerated in Malappuram district.   Thrissur is the destination of 104,000 return emigrants (11.8 percent). Kollam district is the place of residence of 85,000 return emigrants (9.6 percent).  Very few return emigrants have come back to Wayanad and Idukki districts.  But Wayanad and Idukki with their small numbers of return emigrants showed impressive rates of increase of 137 percent and 124 percent respectively during the 2003-07 period.

Over the years, Thiruvananthapuram Kollam and Alappuzha districts have attracted increasing numbers of return emigrants. Pathanamthitta district is the biggest loser in this matter.  Kozhikode and Palakkad districts also have lost considerable ground.

At the state level, there have been 11.7 return emigrants per 100 households in 2007.  The rate has not shown any substantial movement since 1998, having been 11.6 in 1998, and 13.0 in 2003. The different districts have experienced widely different rates of return migration.  Malappuram and Thiruvananthapuram had high rates of about 20 percent each and Idukki and Wayanad had the lowest rates.  On the whole Malappuram, Thiruvananthapuram, Alappuzha, Thrissur, Kollam and Kasaragod districts had relatively high levels of return emigrants.
Over the years, return emigration rates have on the whole remained stable in most districts. One major exception is Pathanamthitta in which return emigration per 100 households decreased from 27.7 in 2003 to 7.9 in 2007. There has been a similar decrease in Kozhikode district also. 

Non-Resident Keralites (NRK)

The size of the Non-resident Keralites, defined as the sum of emigrants and return emigrants, is a better measure to assess the impact of migration on the Kerala society. In 2007, NRKs number was 27.3 lakh showing no increase during 2003-2007. The corresponding figure had been 21.0 lakh in 1998.

Malappuram with 480,000 persons as NRKs (or 17.5 percent of the state total) leads all other districts with respect to the number of non-resident Keralites. Other districts with large number of NRKs are Thiruvananthapurm (351,000) Thrissur (275,000), and Kannur (308,000). 

Malappuram district had about 71 NRKs per every 100 households. This is the highest among all the districts. Kannur district comes next with 59 NRKs per 100 households, closely followed by Kasaragod with 53 NRKs per 100 households, Thrissur with 38 NRKs per 100 households, Alappuzha with 32 NRKs per 100 households, and Kollam with 35 NRKs per 100 households.  The corresponding number for the state as a whole is 36.2.

Over years, the number of NRKs has increased in most districts, significant exceptions being Pathanamthitta and Palakkad districts.  However, the number of NRKs per 100 households decreased from 39.7 to 36.2 percent in the state as whole.

Gulf Wives

The number of “Gulf Wives” that is married women living in Kerala whose husbands are emigrants living in other countries, is estimated to be about 1.2 million. They form about 10 percent of the currently married women in the state. However, among the Muslims, as much as, 22.9 percent of the married women are “Gulf Wives”.  The corresponding proportions are 5.3 percent among Christians and 5.6 percent among Hindus.

Households with Migrants

A rate of 36 NRK per 100 households does not mean that 36 percent of the households have an NRK each.  Some households have more than one migrant and some others don’t have any.

Only 17.7 percent of the household had one or more emigrants each in 2007. Only 10.6 percent of the households had one or more return emigrants each and only 25.7 percent of the households had either an emigrant or a return migrant each. As pointed in 1998 and 2003, a large majority of the households in Kerala (74.3 percent in 2007) are not directly exposed to emigration. They do not have any emigrants or return emigrants in them. The proportion has not changed since 2003.
Demographic Profile of Migrants

Sex Composition of Emigrants

Emigrants are a selective group with respect to their demographic characteristics. Females are relatively few among them and so are the very young and the very old persons. The proportion of females among emigrants has been 14.4 percent in 2007. It is not as high as was expected on the basis of the 1998-2003 trends.  In fact the proportion has decreased from 16.8 percent in 2003 to 14.4 percent in 2007.

There were considerable differentials in the proportion of females among emigrants belonging to different religious groups.  Christians have the highest proportion of females among emigrants and Muslims, the lowest.

Age Composition of Emigrants

In 2007, the average age of male emigrants has been 26.8 years and that of females 22.7 years.  A slight increase in the average age of the emigrants is observed during 2003-07.

The full age distribution of the emigrants is given in Figure 7. In 2007 the largest number of emigrants has been in the age group of 25-29 years.  There have been very few emigrants older than 50 years.

Socio-economic Profile

Educational Level of Emigrants

It was generally believed that the educational levels of the Kerala emigrants have improved considerably in recent years. But the present study does not support such a significant shift. The data show that there has not taken place any major shift in the educational attainments of the emigrants from Kerala.  The largest number of emigrants has always been from among those with the primary level of education but without a secondary school leaving certificate: 45.27 percent in 2007, 46.7 percent in 2003 and 54.3 percent in 1998. Thus improvement in 2007 in educational attainment of emigrants has been relatively marginal compared to the situation in 2003.

The emigration rate among males has been 9.3 percent and 1.4 percent among females.  For males and females taken together it is 5.3 percent. At higher educational levels, (degree, secondary level and upper secondary level), emigration rates were higher than the general average. In the case of females a higher emigration rate is observed only among graduates and persons with secondary school leaving certificate.

The propensity to emigrate for employment increases with the levels of education. Emigration rate is 11.2 percent among degree holders, 9.3 percent among secondary school leaving certificate holders and 5.5 percent among persons who have not completed secondary level of schooling. For all emigrants together, the rate is 5.3 percent.                          
Sector of Employment of Emigrants

About 59 percent of the emigrants had been gainfully employed before emigration. The unemployed constituted 24.3 percent of the emigrants. The balance 16.7 percent had remained outside the labour force. Among the gainfully employed, 46.2 percent had been non-agricultural labourers, 27.1 had been working in the private sector and 21.2 percent had been self-employed persons.  Thus about 95 percent of the emigrants who had been working prior to emigration had been either non-agricultural labourers, or persons working in the private sector or self employed persons.  Only about 3 percent were employed in Government or Semi-Government organizations, or in schools and colleges.

The emigration rate for the total population is about 12.6 percent among males (15+years) and 1.8 percent among females.  But among the unemployed, the emigration rate is as high as 43.5 percent.  Similarly, the emigration rate among private sector employees has been 24.0, or double the average for the total population.  These are the two employment sectors highly over-represented among emigrants.

The unemployment rate among the prospective emigrants (situation before emigration) has been as high as 29.1 percent; 28.4 percent among males and 40.4 percent among females.

Employment Before Emigration and After Return

According to the 2007 survey, prior to emigration, 83.3 percent of the emigrants had been in the labour force, of whom 59.0 had been employed and 24.3 unemployed. Among return emigrants, 72.3 were in the labour force of whom 67.3 percent were employed and only 5.0 percent were unemployed. The unemployment rate was 29.1 percent among emigrants and only 6.9 percent among the return emigrants.  There was thus a decline of 22.1 percentage points in the unemployment rate.
 Migration and Unemployment:  Direct Effect

Emigration has had direct as well as indirect impact on the employment situation in the state. The unemployment rate among the general population of the state was 12.2 percent. But among those who emigrated, unemployment rate before emigration had been as high as 29.2 percent. If these persons had not emigrated, the unemployment rate in the state would have been higher, say 14.4 percent.  Thus emigration has reduced the unemployment rate in the state by 2.2 percentage points.  This is the direct effect of emigration on unemployment.


Total Remittances to Kerala

An approximate estimate of the total remittances to the state is estimated using data published by (i) the Reserve Bank of India on total workers’ remittances to India, (ii) the Kerala Migration Survey 2007 data that give the total number of emigrants from, and return emigrants to, the state, and remittances sent to families by emigrants living abroad.

Total remittances to Kerala have showed a steady increase.  Between 1998 and 2003 the increase was about Rs. 4.9 thousand crore. The corresponding increase during 2003-07 was Rs. 6.0 thousand crore.  There was, thus. a modest acceleration in remittances to Kerala even in the absence of such an acceleration in the volume of emigration.

Total Remittances by Districts

Remittances received in the different districts varied widely. The largest amount of remittances in 2007 was received by Malappuram district, which received Rs. 4.6 thousand cores or 19 percent of the total for the state. Three other districts also received more than 10 percent each of the total.  They are Kozhikode (12.9 percent), Thrissur (12.1 percent) and Thiruvananthapuram (10.2 percent).

On an average, a Kerala households’ share of the total remittances was Rs 32,000.  But it was Rs 69,000 in Malappuram, 48,000 in Kozhikode and Rs 40,000 in Thrissur.   

Remittances by Religion

Nearly Rs12,000 crores, or 50 percent of the remittances to the state were received by the Muslim community which forms less than 25 percent of the total population of the state. Hindus who constitute the majority received only a-third of what the Muslim community received.  Such differentials were observed in earlier years also. The differentials in remittances with respect to religion and districts are not only large but also persistent. The long-term implications of such persistent differentials on regional development are worth calls for detailed investigation.

Macro-economic Impact of Remittances

The total remittances in 2007 were amounted to 20.2 percent of the Net State Domestic Product (NSDP) of the state.  The corresponding ratios were 22.0 percent in 2003 and 25.5 in 1998.  Thus, the increase in remittances has not kept pace with the increase in NSDP. Remittances in 2007 formed more than 28 percent of the states revenue receipts.  It was 3.85 times the amount the state received from the central government. 

Number of Households receiving Remittances

We have seen earlier that 17.7 percent of the households had an emigrant each. But only 16 percent of the households received remittances in cash.  About 17 percent of all households received remittances in one form or the other. Thus, most of the households with emigrants in them have received remittances in one form or another. At the same time, it is important to underline the point that 83 percent of the Kerala households were not direct beneficiaries of workers’ remittances from abroad.

Over the period 2003-07, no change is observed in the proportion of households that received remittances in one form or other. The proportion remained constant at 17 percent.

End use of Remittances by Households

Household remittances were meant mainly for the subsistence of the emigrant’s relatives back home. About 94 percent of the households that had an emigrant had indeed used remittances for subsistence. Next in order of importance was education and more than 60 percent of households with emigrants had used remittances for education.. Nearly half the number of households used remittances for repayment of debts incurred for meeting the cost of emigration. Only 11 percent of the households used remittances for buying or building houses.  Less than 2 percent of the households used remittances for starting a business.


This paper provides the results of the most recent (2007) round of the Kerala Migration Survey being conducted by the Research Unit on International Migration of the Centre for Development Studies (CDSMRU), financed by the Department of Non-Resident Keralite Affairs, Government of Kerala.

International migration has remained absolutely stationary during 2003-07. Mobility has become, so to say, immobile. The number of emigrants had been 18.4 lakh in 2003; it was 18.5 lakh in 2007. The number of return emigrants had been 8.9 lakh in 2003; it was 8.9 lakh in 2007 also. The number of non-resident Keralites had been 27.3 lakh in 2003; it was 27.4 lakh in 2007 also. Migration rates, however, experienced some significant decline. The emigration rate declined from 26.7 per 100 households in 2003 to 24.5 per 100 households in 2007. The corresponding decline in return emigration rate has been from 13.0 per 100 households to 11.7 per 100 households. The rate of non-resident Keralites (NRKs) per 100 households declined from 39.7 to 36.2.

The proportion of Kerala households with an NRK each in them has remained more or less at the same level as in 2007; it had been in 2003, 25.8 percent. Three-fourths of the Kerala households are yet to send out migrants outside India.  And this situation has not undergone any change in recent years. Gulf migration from Kerala is not as widespread among Kerala households as it is often depicted to be in the media.

The northern districts of Kerala are gaining importance as areas of emigration.  As years pass, more and more Kerala emigrants emanate from districts such as Malappuram, Kannur and Kasaragod. In Malappuram - 71 percent of the households have in them either an emigrant or a return emigrant each.

The United Arab Emirates is becoming the preferred destination of Kerala emigrants.  In recent years, Saudi Arabia has been losing ground to UAE as the preferred destination of Kerala emigrants. Countries beyond the Middle East such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom have also been receiving increasing numbers of emigrants.
Nearly half the number of emigrants was Muslim. Among the Muslims, 3 out of every 4 households (74 percent) have an NRK each, but among the Hindus less than 1 in 5 households (22 percent) only have an NRK each in them.

The unemployment rate among emigrants was as high as 29.1 per cent, prior to emigration, but it is only 6.9 percent among emigrants who have returned to Kerala. Emigration has thus had a significant salutary impact on the unemployment situation.
Demographic contraction (reduction in the proportion of persons in the younger age groups as a result of decrease in the birth rate) could have been an underlying factor in the stability of the volume of migration from the state. Demographic trends seem to have started exerting their inexorable pressure more effectively on migration from the state in recent years than in earlier years. The district that has advanced most in demographic transition, Pathanamthitta, is also the district that has evinced the largest decline in emigration. The effect of demographic contraction is probably accentuated by Kerala’s retrogression in terms of the employability of its graduates in general arts and sciences.

An equally important factor accounting for the stagnation in migration from Kerala could be the increase in employment opportunities within the state. It seems that in recent years, remittances to the state are being invested more productively, generating increased demand for youngsters and thus reducing the urge for their migration. Indirect empirical support to this surmise is provided in the study by the very large volume of job creation in both the private and the self-employment sectors. 

International migrants have sent about Rs 24.525 thousand crores as remittances to Kerala in 2006-07. This amount represents a modest but consistent acceleration compared to the corresponding figures in 1998 and 2003.  Remittances in 2006-07 were about 20 percent of the state’s NSDP.  Thus, remittances have not kept pace with the growth of NSDP; in 2003 remittances had formed 22 percent of NSDP.  Earlier in 1998, they had accounted for 26 percent.

The Muslim community that forms nearly 25 percent of the state’s population received 50 percent of the total remittances during 2006-07. The share of the seven northern districts of the state in the total remittances (61 percent) was almost double the share of the seven southern districts (39 percent).

In the matter of regional development, developments based on the cultivation of rice and coconut gave way to rubber-based development since a long time ago. Soon, rubber -based developments could be giving away to developments based on external remittances.  This will have considerable long-term impact on the type of regional development within Kerala.

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