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Book Review: A Pioneering Study on Tamil Migration | M R Narayan Swamy

Thursday 17 February 2022, by M R Narayan Swamy


Tamil Migrants: A Demographic, Social and Economic Analysis
by S. Irudaya Rajan, Bernard D’Sami; Samuel Asir Raj, P. Sivakumar

Orient BlackSwan
Pages: 312; Price: Rs 1,095
ISBN: 9789354421266

From the time of the imperial Cholas, Tamils have been migrating to distant shores for reasons of trade. Their destinations included Ceylon, Burma, Malaya, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. British colonial rule led to more migration, this time as men and women from the poorest sections as indentured workers. The economically vibrant Chettiar community too went but in search of greener pastures, not due to poverty. Emigration for work continues in modern Tamil Nadu, only that the destinations have changed. The economic factor is still the key push.

In this pioneering study on the subject, the authors look at both emigration and in-migrants, which together make Tamil Nadu a mobile society. In 2006, Tamil Nadu took over the top spot from Kerala, with 155,631 persons cleared for emigration for work. Latest figures show that Tamil Nadu received remittances totaling Rs 41,400 crore – a figure close to Kerala’s. There is no doubt that both states are losing their employable youth to foreign countries.

Tamil Nadu is also a source of migrant workers for Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra and, to some extent, Andhra Pradesh although it is one of the most industrialized and urbanized states in the country. Of course, Tamils live in large numbers all over India. Globally, Tamils inhabit more than 20 countries including those where the British sent indentured labourers. Only a small portion of the latter category returned to India.
In modern India, starting from the 1970s, both economic reasons and the de-humanizing caste system led to emigration for work abroad. At the same time, Tamil Nadu today attracts large-scale Hindi-speaking migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Marwaris from Rajasthan and a section of Maharashtrians made Tamil Nadu their home a long time ago. People from adjoining Kerala make up a large chunk of migrants into Tamil Nadu.

There is also mobility within Tamil Nadu, the main reason being economic. Migration into Kancheepuram, Vellore and Thiruvallur – which constitute a part of the Chennai Municipal Corporation – is because of the spread of urbanization in the state and the concentration of greater livelihood opportunities in and around Chennai. More than 70 per cent of the migrant population in the state is literate.

The highest immigrant population in Tamil Nadu is from Sri Lanka. The other major immigrant group is from Myanmar. The reason for the large-scale influx from Sri Lanka has been the ethnic conflict in the island nation. Even though the war has ended, Tamil Nadu remains home to tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils.

Singapore is the most sought after work destination for Tamil Nadu. The United Arab Emirates takes the second spot. The US and the UK attract more highly skilled workers as against the Gulf nations which draw mainly low-skilled workers who get employed in the oil, construction and infrastructure sectors. In other words, unlike Kerala which sends most of its work force to the Gulf, Tamil Nadu keeps a balance between Gulf and non-Gulf countries. Interestingly, the book states that Tamil Nadu Muslims are not as likely to migrate within India as much as overseas.

According to a World Bank report, India received the highest amount of remittances in the world in 2015 at $72 billion – which was more than the combined remittances of the Philippines, Mexico and Pakistan. The total remittances to Tamil Nadu in 2014 were Rs 61,843 crore – making it third in the list of Indian states after Uttar Pradesh and Kerala. Remittances to Tamil Nadu equal 14 per cent of the state domestic product.

In the case of many emigrants, their families as well as close relatives often pledge their wealth or take bank loans or borrow from friends and moneylenders so that the younger member can go abroad and work – and hopefully earn better money. The entire procedure, the book says, can be expensive. The cost of migrating to Singapore, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the US and Malaysia can vary from Rs 93,000 to Rs 130,000. Since this money has to be repaid from the earnings in the new countries, the migrants prefer to stay in the destination countries, even if they lose their jobs. They would rather accept any job at a lower wage than return home.

Tamil Nadu has certain characteristics. With a population of 72 crore as estimated in the 2011 Census, Hindus form 79 percent. It is one state in India where the Christian population is more than the Muslim population. Religion and culture provide a favourable environment for Muslims to work in Gulf countries. It is the sixth largest state in India in terms of population. Of the 32 district in Tamil Nadu, half have a sex ratio favourable to females. Projections show that Tamil Nadu’s population will go up to 76.8 million in 2031 and thereafter start falling; in 2051, it would be more or less similar to the population in 2021.

This is a unique and well informed study, and it explores a wide variety of themes.

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