Pani Puri in Thiruvalla

Kerala is an economy dependent on remittances from the hordes of skilled workers it sends abroad. But a severe shortage of unskilled workers has been drawing migrants, and with them, cultural influences, from elsewhere in India.

Prince Thomas
Updated: Jan 30, 2012 10:23:55 PM UTC

Despite the seemingly royal linkages of my first name, I like to see life from the back bench. While studying it helped when lectures were unending but later I realized it also worked as a corporate reporter. It gives a clear view of both the performer and the viewer; of the 360 degree perspective and the minute detail. Now while tracking the world of business for the pages of Forbes India as Senior Assistant Editor, I will use this space to share what I observe from that rear seat.

Twenty year-old Devender is from Bihar’s Motihari district, about 150 km from state capital Patna. Right now though he is much further from home, about 2,500 km away in Pullad, a small town in southern Kerala. It is difficult to tell if he is feeling homesick as he cheerfully tells me about his three-month long stay in his new found home. We are sharing space in a bus that passes through Pullad to Kozhencherry, my destination.

“I’m a painter,” says the high school pass out. He adds, “I earn Rs 400 a day here, double of what I get in Patna.” But isn’t the expenditure more, staying away from home, I ask him. “In Patna, I save only Rs 100 a day. Here stay is provided by the contractor who got me here. And I need to spend only Rs 300 a week on food,” Devender answers with a toothy smile. In Pullad, he shares a “big room” with 20 other daily wagers from Bihar. “There are 200 more from my native Motihari who are working here in Pullad and nearby places,” he exclaims, giving another reason for feeling at home in this land of coconuts. Incidentally, Kerala is the largest market in the country for exterior emulsion paints.

Migrant workers of the likes of Devender coming to Kerala are now almost a decade-old phenomenon. The first ones came from nearby Tamil Nadu and later from Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal. But while earlier their work was largely restricted to bigger towns and cities like Ernakulam, Kerala’s booming construction sector and severe shortage of labour has now seen these workers making inroads to smaller places like Pullad. And of late, cultural and political effects of this migrant population of 5 lakh (according to local reports) are now becoming visible in the state.

I got on the bus in Thiruvalla, known to have the highest density of ATMs in the country, thanks to its large NRI population. It is a bustling town but in danger of bursting through its seams. Heavy traffic clogs the narrow main road. Huge jewellery showrooms and garment stores line the two sides of the road. But in the middle of all this I notice something unimaginable earlier – a stall selling bhel puri and pani puri! I almost get off the moving bus to ask the North Indian-looking stall owner about his clientele –is it just the migrant labour or have Malayalees also got hooked to this popular north Indian street food? As if in answer, just then a dhoti-clad local and his female companion come over the stall.

Just a few weeks ago, I remember my colleague KP Narayana Kumar telling about buses in Ernakulam now having Hindi sign boards for the benefit of the non-Malayalam speaking community. And earlier in the day, a relative informed me that there are talks about Kerala’s leftist parties forming a union for migrant labourers in the state. Surely,  the community might well become an influential vote-bank in the days to come.

Back in the bus I ask Devender if he misses home food. “Not that much,” he answers and adds, “Potato and other vegetables are available here.“ And the language? “It is difficult; one needs to twist the tongue to speak it. But it has been only three months and am beginning to understand a word or few,” he smiles off as the bus stops at Pullad.


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