Missing voters - Why Bengal's loss is Kerala's gain

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  • Published 20.04.11

Kerala’s politicians may soon need to learn to say “Amul baby” in Bangla. By the next election, the lakhs of migrant workers who have made a beeline to the southern state in the past few years are likely to get voting rights. A huge chunk of these workers, like Saibal Nayak, Bittu and Abdul Hashim, are from Bengal.

When Nayak took the train from Howrah to Kerala seven years ago, he had no clue what was in store for him in this faraway land. Today, this 28-year-old, semi-literate carpenter from Midnapore is literally chiselling his future in Kozhikode, making almost four times the Rs 80 he earned a day back home.

Still, it’s too expensive for the die-hard Mamata Banerjee supporter to travel the 1,900km to Bengal just to vote. But he has never regretted his decision to shift to Kerala.

“Other than not having a vote, I have no problems here since I make enough money to send home,” Nayak told The Telegraph at his workshop in Kozhikode city.

Nayak and his ilk are “replacement migrants”, according to Irudaya Rajan, a specialist on migration at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram. They arrived to fill the huge manpower shortage in the state, caused by the large-scale migration of its workers in the 1980s and 1990s — mainly to the Gulf — owing to Kerala’s failure in industrialisation and employment generation.

As the expatriates sent money home, the economy improved and jobs were created. In the past five years or so, a real estate boom and accelerated public works have become a magnet for skilled and unskilled workers from states like Bengal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.

Nayak and his colleagues are waiting to be enrolled in their voter list, which usually takes five to seven years because that’s the time one needs to procure a ration card.

When about half the migrants win voting rights, Rajan said, they would become a force to reckon with in many urban constituencies such as Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Kozhikode, Thrissur and Kannur.

Skilled workers like carpenters and masons earn more than Rs 400 a day in Kerala. After Nayak had tested the terrain and its fruits, he brought in several of his friends from Bengal, such as 22-year-old Raju Abijul who specialises in wood-carving.

“The Gulf has shifted to Kerala,” said his employer Hamza Pallikandi, a master carpenter, implying that the state had become as attractive as the Gulf nations since the wages were high and communal harmony was a bonus.

Pallikandi employs three Bengalis in his workshop that makes exquisite furniture. “I am sure there are hundreds of Bengali carpenters in Kozhikode alone,” he said, although no one is sure of the exact number since internal migration usually goes uncounted.

A group of pro-CPM Bengalis in a neighbouring workshop said they had no votes in Kerala although each of them had lived in the state for around five years.

“I am very happy living here and hope to vote in the next election,” said Rafiq Khan, also from Midnapore.

His co-workers Bittu and Abdul Hashim too said they had come to Kerala because the wages were attractive. “When we get a chance to vote, we will,” said Bittu, who supports the Left, as migrant workers tend to do.

Muzaffar Khan from Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh, an early comer, lives with his family and three children who go to a local Malayalam school.

“I don’t have a vote yet but the local Muslim League (Indian Union Muslim League) workers are helping me to get enrolled at least before the next parliamentary polls,” he said in fluent Malayalam.

“Kerala has given me everything — even communal harmony, since here there are no (divisions between) Muslims, Hindus and Christians. We all live and work together without any issues.”

Until a decade ago, when the boom hadn’t yet started, workers from neighbouring Tamil Nadu formed the biggest chunk of migrants in Kerala and wielded reasonable ballot power in several constituencies. But they returned home responding to the prosperity and job opportunities created in Tamil Nadu.

If Bengal’s politicians can indeed create a “Sonar Bangla” in some distant future, they will perhaps have to learn Malayalam to seek votes from the returning children of the Nayaks and Abijuls.