“I just want to come home to Kerala and see my wife and mother. I might not have a job but at least I will be at peace. This lockdown has turned my life around.”
Lakhs of Keralites living abroad have reached out to the Kerala government with the request to bring them back home to be reunited with their families.
Kerala government has now asked people to register themselves on the NORKA web portal and the Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has assured that they will facilitate their return, especially critical patients, pregnant women and elderly persons.
The Quint reached out to Keralites in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Dubai to find out the issues they were facing, job lay-offs and their desire to come back to India permanently.
The CM said as of 29 April, 3,20,463 Keralites settled abroad have registered and the numbers are increasing. Gulf countries are home to lakhs of Keralites and 30 Indians have already died due to COVID-19 in these countries.
Real Dilemma: Work or Stay Hungry?
38-year-old Nikhil moved to Abu Dhabi back in 2006 and has been working in a construction company for over 14 years. He has now been served a notice to go on unpaid leave for two months.
“Now, in May and June I am on compulsory leave without pay and so I have to pay my rent and take care of all other expenses with my savings. The job market is so bad that so many people have been terminated from their jobs, salary cuts, compulsory leave without pay - the problems are just multiplying,” he said.
For 45-year old K K Paliath who is working as a travel consultant in Kuwait, the future seems quite bleak. Once busy arranging official trips for companies, their 16-employee strong establishment is considering a 50 percent salary reduction for the months to come.
Meanwhile in Kuwait, all government offices have been ordered to shut down but it is the prerogative of the private companies to take a call regarding this.
For 40-year-old Siju who has been working as a mechanical engineer in Kuwait for the last five years, work routine has not changed much. The company has specified social distancing guidelines for everyone to follow and there are frequent checks done to test if anyone is showing any symptoms.
However, he is at high risk because, “I need to go to the field for inspection so I have a lot of interaction with workers, in handling documents, and so I am exposed.”
Anirudh* (name changed) said that the reason why private companies are waiting for the government to call for a shutdown is so that they can claim compensation for the non-working days. But it is the workers who are caught in the middle.
Infected and Away From Home
28-year-old Rajan* (name changed) who works in an oil company in Abu Dhabi was tested positive on 21 April and has been in quarantine since then. His wife and parents back in Trivandrum are completely unaware and he doesn’t want to worry his family as they are already flustered.
Two of his roommates have also tested positive and it has been over three days that their request to the government to move them to a hospital has not received a response.
“When I see the situation here, I am reminded of all the times we would criticise the ambulance for being late by 15-20 minutes back in our state. Now this pandemic has clearly shown, our Kerala is the best.”Rajan, Abu Dhabi
The Middle-Class and The Labour Camps
Labour camps in most Gulf countries are basically company owned and sponsored dormitories where hundreds are huddled in the same building. Cramped for space, four to five persons live in a small one room and these labourers say they live in constant fear of contracting the virus. “One is infected, thousands will follow suit,” said a Keralite on anonymity.
“If people leave the country for a brief period, it will be a huge relief as Abu Dhabi will be able to restructure and get things in order. And even people will be relieved. I think right now, in the present situation many Indians wouldn’t want to even continue living here. They want to just go home,” said Ansari Sainudeen, an advocate in Abu Dhabi who has been helping out Keralites in the country.
It is the middle-class who are the most vulnerable, one of them pointed out. “Middle-class persons who earn 3000-4000 dirhams, live in their own accommodation, which is basically 8-10 people, living in one house with one or two bathrooms. Unlike a labour camp where all of them work in the same factory, here each person works in a different establishments. So even if one person is infected, then the whole lot will be affected,” said Anirudh.*
Rajan*pointed out that this is a very sticky situation in Kuwait with private companies still working.
“For these labourers, either they can keep going for work and get exposed, or can stay back in their rooms and stay hungry.”Rajan* (name changed), Abu Dhabi
The daily wage earners like taxi drivers and domestic labourers are now relying on donors for daily essentials.
A One-Way Ticket to Home Means Goodbye Forever to the Gulf?
Siju just wants to come back home to his wife and child in Kochi, Kerala.
“I had a pending job offer, not that I can join immediately, but I will figure that out. I love my family and just want to be with them. And most importantly I will feel safe in Kerala.”Siju, Kuwait
“If I come home, then this country will view me as a potential corona patient, so it will be very difficult to return. Anyway, I have no idea how to return,” said Anirudh.*
Nikhil too has registered with NORKA, but is aware he needs to wait for his turn for a long while. He is unsure of returning or if he will get a job in Kerala, but he still just ‘wants to go home.’
He however praised the state government for the initiative and said people of other states in Gulf countries are quite angry with their respective governments because ‘Kerala is the only one taking efforts to bring back their people.’
Rajan* also pointed out that people need to realise this opportunity from Kerala government is after all a one-way flight.
“Either you risk it all to go see your family, or keep your job. Many are yet to realise this.”Rajan*
A few others also questioned how the state government will be able to make arrangements for lakhs of people, if there are enough quarantine facilities in place to handle the influx and if this is a feasible option after all.
Keralites For Keralites
Social organisations in these countries have been trying their best to provide essentials for fellow Keralites who are in dire need, especially those who have lost their jobs.
Paliath told how the need of the hour is medical assistance as hospitals are not taking in regular patients. So, a social organisation has arranged for doctors who can assist patients over the phone, and even counsellors for those who have complained of anxiety and depression.
Ansari explained that the Sakthi Theatres organisation based in Abu Dhabi had started a helpline number. They would initially receive 150-300 panic calls every day. The group provides food for over 300 persons everyday and over 2000-3000 food kits have been distributed so far.
Of the over 3 lakh people who registered on the portal, 2,23,624 were on labour/ residence visa, 57,436 on visit visa, 29,219 on dependant visa, 7,276 students, 691 on transit visa and 11, 327 others, Pinarayi said. Of these, 56,114 have lost jobs, 58,823 on vacation travel, 41,236 whose visit visa have expired and 23,975 whose visa have expired or cancelled.
There are 9,561 children, 10,007 senior citizens, 9,515 pregnant women, 2,448 students whose education have completed and 748 freed from jails among them. also there are 49,472 specialised workers, 67,136 professionals and 24,107 self-employed.
All Indian embassies in Oman, UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have also started collecting data of Indians who want to return to India.
The Kerala CM had said that a committee under the district collector with representatives from Airport Authority of India, Kerala Police and Health Department would oversee the elaborate arrangements at airports to receive the returning Keralites.
The chief minister said only after initial screening, those without symptoms would be sent to their homes for quarantine and there would be regular monitoring by the police and healthcare workers to ensure they follow the quarantine rules. Those with symptoms would be moved to straight to the quarantine centres and their luggage will be sent home.