Sunday, June 26, 2011

Kerala – India’s export hub

Yes, you can stop sneering and smirking at the title and read on. But before we start, it’s a good idea to remember the adage: “Give a man a fish, he will eat for a day; Teach a man to fish, ceteris paribus, he will eat for a lifetime.”

Before we start, it’s also a good idea to note that this article is not based on carefully researched statistics, but more on perception. I don’t like cold facts to come in the way of subjective analysis.

The popular perception is that Kerala does not produce anything of value to export.
Well, there’s a bit of IT that we do, but that’s not much. Keralites outside Kerala do more of that stuff. On a percentage share of the population basis, we produce the highest number of communists, but that doesn’t count. We produce toddy, which is a local brew made from our very own coconut trees, but the production cannot match our in-house demand, so we cannot export it – in fact we have to adulterate it with chemicals to make everyone believe that they are having their per capita share of toddy. We used to produce Shakeela movies, which marked a turning point in Indian cinema, but somewhere along the line our producers lost interest.

Other than that, we produce, well, nothing else. And we import almost everything else, including a good deal of electricity, laborers, beggars, and food. But there’s more to all of this mallu madness than meets the eye – especially if you have a trained pair of eyes.

The real problem is with the definition of exports. The moment we say exports, the things that flash in front of us are iron ore, machines, chips (semiconductor not banana chips), garments, huge installations, Chinese toys, Teddy bears, and the works. We have to get out of such stigma and dogma first, and then and only then, will the real beauty of Kerala’s export economy will open up to you.

We export a major input in production - labor. Systematically, our government policies of the last 60 years were crafted in such a manner as to make working in Kerala a very painful proposition, especially if you are the career oriented type.
Here's an example: When Seagate wanted to establish their manufacturing facility in a tech park in Kerala, they demanded two guarantees (1) unfailing power supply, and (2) zero labor issues. Our wise CM at that time said, “no way” to both requests. Cool, isn’t it? Well that’s the way we operate. If you have to operate in our state, you will have to find the ideal time between political strikes (Hartals, Bandhs) and labor force strikes, and then check if you have electricity. Seagate went elsewhere.

If you are in Kerala, you wouldn’t want to work. Remember we used to feel so happy when we got a day off from school because of a strike or a shut-down? Well, for the majority working in Kerala, the kid never grew up.

Here are some more observations:
Almost every family has at least one family member working outside the state. This is a rule, which is proven rarely by exceptions. The natural extrapolation is the shifting of entire families to other parts of the world. These families then watch programs for expats on Asianet, Kairali Channel, and Surya TV, and feel nostalgic ad infinitum.

In the 70s and 80s we used to send one family member to the “Gulf”, the catchall term for the Middle East. Actually we earlier used to refer to it as “Persia” more than Gulf. Persia was a bad choice, because it meant Iran, and few of us went there, but were mainly focused on UAE, Saudi, and Kuwait. I wonder how the term Persia came to be used. Anyway, it would not be unfair to say that our toil made Middle East, the Middle East as we know it. We had no say in its making, only toil – which turned out to be a good thing for Middle East.

An interesting point worth noting here is that we were not confined to the Middle East, as some ill-informed mallu-basher will tell you. Even in the 70s, we were in the US, Singapore, Burma, Malaysia, anywhere you name it. The bulk of us went to Persia, which is why people think my uncle lives in Dubai.

In the 90s, post liberalization, the techie lying dormant inside us woke up. And then we really started blooming. TCS, Infosys, Wipro et al started sending us on projects elsewhere – like Belgium, Norway etc. I remember a time when “private” sector jobs were an anathema in the market (labor as well as marriage).Things changed, before you could say Manmohan. It’s as if someone turned on a switch. Parents who were brought up in post-Nehruvian period suddenly started marrying off girls to these “private” sector employees and started saying, albeit with much difficulty, that their son-in-law works for Cognizant or Lucent.

Meanwhile, on the other end, the non techies were not the ones to sit tight and watch the techies eat the whole cake. They found other avenues. One bunch took up higher education in UK, Australia, and Switzerland (yes Swiss hotel management courses), with no plans of being educated higher. They were on an immigration boat. And they too made it to the other shore with dignity.

The BPO boom that took place in Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Chennai took care of the non-IT folks, who could communicate.

When all of this happened, a bunch of hardworking guys started thinking. We cannot communicate, we cannot do IT, we cannot do higher education (because our lower education sucks)- what do we do? God opened many doors to them – one was Israel. At that time (early 2000, maybe it’s still there), there were a lot of these pilgrimage trips to Jerusalem. If you check those flight logs, you will see that we were high on youth spirituality – overbooked with 20 something kids wanting to visit the Holy Land. Modus operandi: Land in Israel, tear up your passport, start working anywhere you get a job. It could be a shoe shop, restaurant, anything. When you have made enough money in years, show up at the Indian Embassy and make a sad face.

Don’t be surprised if you read in the papers:
“Explosion in Israeli hotel kills two.
Tel Aviv: Santosh Kumar and Stanley Mangalath were going on with their official duties as usual when an unidentified assassin opened fire, and then blew himself up, killing the duo.”

Other doors God opened up included Cyprus, Turkey, Papua New Guinea and a lot. Now some of you may be thinking, stop cooking up stuff – you cannot go to Papua New Guinea and stuff like that. Trust me, we’re good in Geography, and I personally know Mallus working in Papua New Guinea. The only people who can spot Papua New Guinea on a map are perhaps a few Papua New Guinean’s and most people from Kerala.

Another door was in the service of God. 75% of priests and nuns in India are from Kerala. If you get the drift, I made that statistic up, but that’s somewhat true. Father John, Sister Loretta, no offense meant, but we’re the biggest exporter of priests, nuns, and evangelists. On the matter of evangelists, Tamil Nadu is a close competitor, but if you take the system as a whole, no one comes close. If you’re a non-Keralite Christian reading this, go to your priest next Sunday, and ask him “Achooo, actually achan evidenna?” 99% of the time, expect a name that you cannot pronounce in this birth - like Moovattupuzha or Udumbinchola, for starters. These names are all indicators of our beloved state.

Some guys from Thalassery, who were not killed in political violence, learnt the art of baking, and dissolved themselves in the bakeries in Bangalore and Mysore.

That left just a bunch of lazy bums, retired parents, and hardcore party activists in our state. In our export-oriented economy formula, the lazy bums were a problem – they were not willing to do anything like tearing up passports or learning baking to move out. But we found a solution to it in the nursing revolution. Trust me on this one – wherever you are in this big wide world (Bangalore, Brunswick, Oslo, London, anywhere), if the nurse looks Indian, she is from Kerala. Don’t believe me? Next time you get a shot, tell her “mole, pathukke”. If she doesn’t get it, come back and put a flaming comment on this blog. We export nurses like crazy - women and men. So much so that our matrimonials in God’s own Malayala Manorama reads: “Nurse has come from Germany. Will take husband along”. These ads took care of the lazy bums. It’s sad in a humanitarian way because Germany does not know what is happening to it, yet.

The problem of retired parents is getting sorted out because of 2 reasons.

(1) This is the true beauty of our export model. All of the above needs babysitting, cooking, and daycare. That stuff is expensive in any part of the world. So, we export our parents when the nurse or the techie has a baby. Note that this is not a permanent solution, as the retired parents tend to be less useful once the baby grows up, (or in some cases after the post-delivery care).
(2) Mushrooming old age homes. This is a solution which costs just money, so we are more than willing to invest in it.

That just leaves the trade unionists, politicians, and other activists. That’s not a problem, because they were systematically responsible for creating this export economy – the true architects of this matrix. They made this heaven which could have been the Singapore of India to the Kerala of today. If we export them, the streets of our state would be empty, except for parents in old age homes. That will be a sad day.

We teach men to fish and let them be. But we don't let them fish anywhere near.

PS: Things are not as grim as it is pointed out here, but save a thought for how much better it would have been, had we had the wisdom.


  1. Well i enjoyed the inside scoop on Kerala and mals all around the world. These are all facts of Kerala and agree to it. Well there is always brigter side to this write up. Due to our ambitious attitude and eargerness to build big homes in Kerala and drive Mercedes Benz. I guess Keralites all over the world have been very successfull. There are always exceptions. Am talking Majority. We grew in such short span that i don't think there is any other state that grew this fast. Am not sure what the future hold and what to expect. Being in North America for last 5 year. i have noticed that lot of our mind sets have changed, Earlier it was all about going abroad and making money. But now i see all of them planning to go back to ' Namma Keralam'. Things have been changing and i guess i am part of the coconut generation.

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  2. Thank you for that nice comment. Kerala could have been Bihar a few years back - hopeless - had it not been for the zeal of expat Keralites.