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regular-article-logo Sunday, 21 July 2024

Kuwait blaze spotlights Kerala government's lack of data on migrant labourers

At least 23 migrant labourers from Kerala, mostly ordinary workers ranging from carpenters and masons to drivers, are among the 40-odd Indians who died in the fire in the building where they lived in Mangaf, Kuwait

Santosh Kumar Thiruvananthapuram Published 15.06.24, 05:48 AM
People gather around the coffins containing the bodies of people who died during a fire that broke out in a building housing foreign workers in Kuwait, upon their arrival at Cochin International Airport, in Kochi, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, June 14, 2024.

People gather around the coffins containing the bodies of people who died during a fire that broke out in a building housing foreign workers in Kuwait, upon their arrival at Cochin International Airport, in Kochi, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, June 14, 2024. Reuters

The fire tragedy in Kuwait has come as a bolt from the blue for the Left Front government in Kerala, which was all set to hold the annual summit of the Malayali diaspora in Thiruvananthapuram.

At least 23 migrant labourers from Kerala, mostly ordinary workers ranging from carpenters and masons to drivers, are among the 40-odd Indians who died in the fire in the building where they lived in Mangaf, Kuwait.

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The three-day Loka Kerala Sabha (LKS), an annual jamboree here for migrant Keralite labourers from across the globe, was scheduled to kick off with a cultural festival in the state capital on June 13. A total of 450 delegates are participating in the event — its fourth edition.

While the opening session has been cancelled because of the Kuwait tragedy, seminars, symposiums and group meetings were scheduled for June 14 and 15.

Although the Malayali diaspora from across the world is supposed to attend the event, it tends to become mainly a conclave of prosperous industrialists and middle-level entrepreneurs, mostly from the Gulf — a hunting ground for cheap Malayali labour.

The only time an ordinary migrant was heard at the event was last year when a housemaid spoke about her work environment.

India accounts for about 2 crore migrant labourers, of whom more than 50 lakh are from Kerala, according to Irudaya Rajan, chair of the International Institute of Migration and Development, Kerala.

The LKS has been mired in controversy, both political and social. Since the past two sessions, the Congress-led Opposition in the state has been boycotting the event.

This time, too, the Opposition is staying away, calling the event a waste of money when the state is passing through a financial crisis.

According to opponents of the conclave, the ruling CPM is using the forum for political gain and the event is mainly represented by people close to the ruling dispensation. Attendance is by invitation from the state government.

However, the Kuwait tragedy has exposed the inadequacy of such by-invitation-alone get-togethers. Kerala still does not have a complete list of its labourers working outside, a longstanding demand of Gulf returnees.

At every Sabha in the past, the government has promised to compile complete data about its migrant labourers — at least those in the Gulf. The promise has remained on paper.

"There should be an authentic list of expatriate Malayalis with the state government first," said M.N. Karassery, writer and social activist, who described the LKS as a "Lions Club of pravasis (expats)".

When tragedy struck in Kuwait, the lack of such a list left the state government scrambling for information about the dead. There was no official data. All the information came from the families of the victims or their colleagues in and around the accident site.

The government is still in the dark about the identity of the injured.

"It’s not easy to make such a compilation," said Irudaya Rajan. He said an attempt was being made to collate such data and that a comprehensive report on Kerala migration was scheduled to be presented at the summit on Friday.

But few are hopeful that the government would come out with such data, and many tend to dismiss events like the LKS as another "fad" of chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

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