National

A State Built On Migration Now In Tears

On June 14, Cochin International Airport witnessed profound scenes of mourning as hundreds of people from across the state gathered at the terminal to receive the mortal remains of 31 expatriate workers who tragically perished in the Kuwait building fire

AP photo
People pay homage after the bodies of 45 Indians, who died in a fire at a building in Kuwait Photo: AP photo
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Binoy Tomas, 44, boarded a flight to Kuwait on June 5 from Kochi, hoping for a better life and dreaming of owning a home. However, his dream was cut short just a week later when a fire in Mangaf, Kuwait, claimed his life along with 49 others, including 23 from Kerala.

Seven years ago, Binoy, his wife Jenitha, and their two children, Adam and Ian, moved to Palayoor, Thrissur district, after Binoy found a job as a salesman in a footwear shop in Pavaratty. They lived in rented accommodations until they managed to buy three cents of land and began building a small house under Prime Minister Rozgar Yojna. They only managed to set up an interlock brick one-room house, and Binoy and Jenitha were determined to complete it. With the help of a friend from his native Thiruvalla, Binoy secured a job as a packer in a supermarket in Kuwait.

"When news of the fire broke, the family contacted us. His wife recognised the apartment that caught fire. Binoy had been chatting with his wife online until 2 AM that day, but then he went silent," said K. V. Abdulkhader, chairman of the Kerala Pravasi Welfare Board (The State Board for the welfare of expats) and former three-time MLA of Guruvayoor.

Lukose Oonnunny from Kollam was planning to come home next week from Kuwait to accompany his daughter, Lydia, to a college in Bangalore where she was seeking for her degree studies. He was eligible for leave a month ago but postponed it for this purpose. Tragically, the fire shattered the family's dreams. On Wednesday, June 12, his brother Mathew recognised the building on the news which had caught fire as Lukose's residence in Kuwait. Later that day, their worst fears were confirmed, highlighting the precarious fate of a migrant labourer striving to secure a better future for his family.

Ranjith a native of Cherkkala, Kasargod, affectionately known as Renju to his friends and relatives, had a story much like the others. Last year, he built a house and returned to his workplace after the housewarming. He was eagerly preparing to visit for a vacation next month and get married. Ranjith who comes from a working class back ground, has been working as an accountant in Kuwait for the last ten years.

The families of all 24 individuals from Kerala who lost their lives in the fire have strikingly similar narratives. These stories reflect the journey of migration from the state, where individuals strive to build their lives through hard work, supporting an economy that heavily relies on the contributions of non-resident workers. This is precisely why the Government acted swiftly by convening a special cabinet meeting on 13 June deciding to extend Rs.5 lakhs ex gratia for the family members of each of the Malayalees who have lost their lives, and Rs 1 lakh financial assistance to the injured in the mishap.

On June 14, the Cochin International Airport, witnessed profound scenes of mourning as hundreds of people from across the state gathered at the terminal to receive the mortal remains of 31 expatriate workers who tragically perished in the Kuwait building fire. Arriving via a special Indian Air Force aircraft, the mortal remains included 23 from Kerala, seven from Tamil Nadu, and one from Karnataka. Outside the cargo terminal, ambulances stood ready to transport the departed to their respective hometowns north to south of Kerala. Inside the terminal, tables draped in white cloth displayed names and photographs of the deceased, transforming the airport into a solemn memorial ground. Among the throng of mourners were Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, his cabinet colleagues and union Ministers Suresh Gopi and Kirthi Vardhan Sing who accompanied the bodies from Kuwait , underscoring the collective grief and solidarity of the community in paying respects to those lost in the tragic incident.

Veena George, the state Health Minister assigned with traveling to Kuwait to offer condolences to the friends of the deceased and visit the injured being treated in hospitals there, was denied clearance by the Union government, sparking controversy. While Chief Minister chose to avoid stirring controversy by refraining from making accusations, opposition leaders and other political figures criticized the decision by the central government.

"It was unfortunate that the Union government denied me clearance to travel abroad, as it should have been a compassionate gesture from our state collectively," said Veena George, who was at the airport on the night of June 13. "It is regrettable that the health minister was denied political clearance to travel to Kuwait. Union government representatives arrived early, and had there been a state representative present, we could have coordinated with the Malayalis in Kuwait. The Union government should have facilitated the visit once the state government made the decision. This sends a troubling message," said V D Satheesan the leader of opposition.

On the other hand, BJP leaders from the state justified the Union government's decision, arguing that it was a matter for the Foreign Ministry to handle and that the Union government addressed it appropriately, asserting that there was no necessity for a state representative to be sent. BJP leader and former Union Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar went a step further by openly politicising the issue, stating in a tweet that this was not a situation for a CPI(M) minister to embark on a sightseeing trip, a remark that drew strong criticism in social media.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan initially chose not to respond at the airport as the bodies were about to arrive, stating that it was not a time for controversies. However, he later expressed that it was Kerala's cultural ethos to send a representative to console the friends and visit the injured abroad, but unfortunately, clearance for this was denied. He referred to remarks made by BJP leaders but refrained from engaging in argument, emphasising that it was not the appropriate time for such discussions.

It was a coincidence that the tragedy occurred during the Loka Kerala Sabha, a global platform for Non-Resident Keralites facilitated by the state government, which was underway in Thiruvananthapuram where the fourth edition of the Kerala Migration Survey was released. The Loka Kerala Sabha was curtailed, excluding all scheduled cultural programs and proceeding solely with business sessions. Interestingly, the discussions centered around the invisibility of migrant workers from Kerala in destination countries and their hardships, a topic that gained heightened attention following the tragic fire incident in Kuwait.

The Kerala Migration Survey, which gained added significance in the wake of the tragedy, highlighted that the migration of Keralites has returned to 2018 levels following the COVID-19 situation, with a total number of emigrants from Kerala is estimated at 2.2 million.

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This stability in international migration over the past five years is noteworthy, especially considering the overall declining trend observed in previous decades of the KMS. Although there was a slight increase of 32,388 emigrants in 2023, nine out of the fourteen districts in Kerala experienced a significant decrease in emigrant numbers compared to 2018, suggesting a saturation in international migration.

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