The other day, Shweta Narayan, an environmental activist, from Bihar, living in Chennai, said something that shows how Chennai has changed in recent years, both in character and composition. “When I first came here in 2003, I didn't know Tamil and that was a big problem, since people would basically not speak anything else. Even when I went to the beach in the evenings I would hear Tamil all around me, and the older people I met used to discuss news in the US, since their children had gone to study there.”
A few years later, she got the shock of her life one day when travelling in an auto-rickshaw. “I was trying to speak to the driver in Tamil (she’d learnt since then), and he kept replying in Hindi.” And to complete the picture, she says that when she goes to the beach now, she can hear more people speaking in Hindi than in Tamil.
As stories go, this is a random observation. But in another sense, it is deeply illustrative. Put simply, there are two trends at play here, and they could come to define Tamil Nadu for many years to come — Tamils going out and seeking better jobs for themselves and the flow of labour coming in from other states.
Apparently, Tamil Nadu has now overtaken Kerala as the state that sends the most number of workers overseas, both to the Middle East and to places like Malaysia. No systematic study has been done but there are indicators. Professor S Irudaya Rajan of the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, one of the country’s foremost experts on migration, estimates that there at least 2 – 3 million Tamils living out of the country. The state is now second only to Kerala in terms of remittances received from abroad.
“Because they are moving to other parts of the world, there is going to be a scarcity of labour in Tamil Nadu. For instance, in some time, you'll find that there won’t be electricians or welders who are local guys. You’ll find that these are people coming in from the less prosperous districts of states like Orissa or West Bengal.”
In Chennai, such changes are already evident. You need only look around to notice that most of the people who work in restaurants, beauty parlours or even the city’s numerous construction sites are from out of town — from the Northeast or states like Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal.
Tamil Nadu is also witnessing a period of unprecedented economic growth, that’s not confined to Chennai. A major concern, Rajan says, is falling fertility rates. As a state, so to speak, we’re not getting any younger. People are living longer and having fewer children. “Today, about ten people out of a hundred are over the age of 60 and in 20 years time, that proportion could change dramatically. One out of three people could officially be classified as old.”
Mimicking the West
Strangely enough, these are issues that are common to several, more developed regions like Europe and America. And like them, it’s possible that the continued economic growth of Tamil Nadu could hinge on the continued inflow of labour, and crucially, on the state’s ability to provide a conducive, welcoming environment for them to live and work in. For a state renowned, especially in the north, for linguistic chauvinism, this is a potentially tricky situation, but the attitude towards non-Tamils is already changing.
M Vijayabaskar, assistant professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, has worked on rural labour markets in the state, particularly in the Tiruppur region. He says that about 10 years ago, people said they preferred to hire workers from the south, especially women, because they were reliable. On a recent visit though, he found contractors and factory owners showing the same preference for labour from other states. Local labour is now seen as unreliable, because people come and go depending on the agricultural season, while migrant workers stay on.
Not many know this, but several traditional industrial centres in Tamil Nadu are already being run, in large part, through outside labour. This is evident, says K Pandia Rajan, MD of Ma Foi Randstad, when you look at the Sinhalese foremen in the garment factories of Tiruppur, or the large number of Oriya workers now employed by paper factories in places like Sivakasi. Incoming labour Professor Raman Mahadevan, of the Institute for Development Alternatives in Chennai, sees the flow of outside labour linked to other trends — of agrarian distress in other states and of the ‘silent’ social revolution that’s taken place here. With the
diversification of industry and the success of the public distribution system, the average Tamil worker can choose not to settle for the back-breaking labour that once may have been necessary to survive.
Along with the state’s labour department, the IDA recently conducted two surveys in brick kilns around Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram. Their surveys showed that 50 per cent of the workers came from Andhra Pradesh, 20 per cent from Orissa and five to 10 per cent from Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. Contractors who have their own connections now do more than 50 per cent of the hiring. “But if you want to understand how labour comes in from these states, you just have to go to the train station and see what’s happening on platforms where trains from the north and the east arrive,” says Mahadevan.
The squeeze in local labour is by no means restricted to smaller towns and industrial centres. Padam Dugar, director of Dugar Housing, builders of flats and townships along the Old Mahabalipuram Road, says that a significant portion of the labour now coming in for construction is from out of town. “With the level of infrastructure development in the state, Chennai is no longer the commercial hub for workers. Also, as education has gone up in the state, quite often, the second generation workers want to do something different.’’
Interestingly, Vijayabaskar adds that while interviewing workers in Tiruppur he found that many of them were saving money to go to Malaysia or to the Middle East. ‘‘Even workers from small villages are now able to imagine a career abroad.”
Whether it’s the new, upwardly mobile Tamil or a series of contractors with cell phones, labour markets in Tamil Nadu have already seen significant changes. But while some would argue that this represents a healthy, even desirable free exchange of labour between states, Mahadevan emphasises that there is also a heavy element of debt bondage involved.
By 2025, south India’s population will begin to grey. According to a report titled the 'Indian Demographic Scenario 2025' from the Population Research Centre, Institute of Economic growth, New Delhi, the average age in the region will be 34 years in 15 years as opposed to 26 years in 2000 but more importantly, nine per cent of the population in south India will be 65 years and older. Add to that Tamil Nadu’s falling birth rate, and the region will soon be facing a shortage of adults in the productive age group. On the other hand, north India will have a relatively young population with a median age of 26 and only four per cent of the population will be 65 years and over.
Flying, far far away.
Rs 41,400 crores is the amount Tamils working abroad sent home as remittances between 2006 and 2008. This is second only to Kerala, says professor S Irudaya Rajan. Rajan works with the Research Unit on International Migration at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. However, he does point out that the absence of reliable data on the socio-economic profile of Tamil migrants, both inter-state and international, is cause for concern and should be taken up for research by the government. One of the major areas in which remittances arrive from abroad, he says, is in the housing market. “I remember going to a flat opening in Thiruvananthapuram where about 110 of the 120 flats being sold, were to non-resident Keralites who wanted to buy homes,” he says. While the proportion is not quite so high in Chennai, builders in the city, like Padam Dugar say it is a trend that's on the upswing for new flat complexes coming up in several newer suburbs such as along the Old Mahabalipuram Road, an extension of the IT corridor.