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How COVID-19 has changed Kerala’s NRIs from white knights to bête noires

Is there an underlying political calculus to the Left government’s actions that explains its hostile attitude towards expatriates returning, or trying to return, to Kerala?

April 09, 2021 / 11:52 AM IST
Delhi | Passengers screened using a thermometer gun before boarding Vistara - Delhi to Bhubaneswar (Odisha) flight. (Image: ANI)

Delhi | Passengers screened using a thermometer gun before boarding Vistara - Delhi to Bhubaneswar (Odisha) flight. (Image: ANI)

Kerala, still basking from international glory over its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, has suddenly turned a fractioned society over the fate of thousands of hapless expatriates who are desperate to return home amid mass job losses and the fear of the dreaded virus. Matters have taken an unlikely turn with the Left Democratic Front (LDF)-led Kerala government, which till recently rarely lost a chance to bolster the confidence of the Non-Resident Keralite (NRK), began developing cold feet over their home-coming.

Why has the Left government had a change of heart?

There are many who believe Kerala’s sensitivity about its image as a safe haven during COVID-19 is the culprit. Perhaps things began going wrong when the State chalked up a massive list of 400,000-plus NRKs who registered on the state’s NORKA website to come back to Kerala, and the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government almost dared the Government of India about how entrenched it was with the international community.

In a clear snub, the Ministry of External Affairs told Thiruvananthapuram in as many words, not to expect any favours during the Vande Bharat Mission. Thus, the painstakingly compiled NORKA list did not pass muster, and Kerala’s primary demand for special flights to bring home the expatriates got shot down.

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Once it became apparent that the Centre’s repatriation narrative was not in sync, the Left government began losing interest, as the NRKs could no longer be its trophy. In other words, the state government lost interest when it realised that the ‘We Got You Home’ banners could not be flung at the airports.

Cynics also attribute this indifference to the recent emaciation of the remittance economy. Clearly, more plausible would be the health scare thrown up by the steep rise in COVID-19 cases accruing from the homecoming NRKs. There were other considerations too. The state government that first decided to offer free institutional quarantine, later opted to impose charges saying the NRKs could afford it.

By this time the Opposition, led by the Congress, sensed an opening it was long denied by the state government’s till then effective handling of the outbreak. The Opposition began mobilising the desperate expatriates, and began playing a key role in chartering flights home. Clearly, the state government had lost the initiative.

The NRKs, whose remittances to the tune of $14,935 million bolstered Kerala’s badly hit finances, are bewildered by the State’s sudden U-turn. Immigrants from Kerala still account for 19 percent — the highest share of India’s total remittances worth $78,609 million in 2019 that helped the country become the world’s top remittance economy.

Yet, the state government made numerous moves reinforcing this hostility — the latest being its unsuccessful attempt of insisting that all NRKs possess a COVID negative test result. Once again, the State had to climb down, and for the first time the United Democratic Front (UDF), which upped the ante, could claim a political victory.

Both Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala and former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy have been vocal of the Left government’s efforts to discriminate against its own people.

Chandy has alleged that the Chief Minister is turning the people of Kerala against NRKs, saying only 713 out of the 84,195 expatriates who came back till June 17 tested positive—that makes it a miniscule 0.85 percent. The state government, however, say only 71,958 have reached Kerala from abroad till June 19.

This leads to the question: Is there an underlying political calculus on the LDF’s part that can justify its actions? With local body elections around the corner and the assembly polls only 10 months away, is there anything to be gained (or lost) by turning against a minority segment — in this case, the NRKs who are portrayed as a health risk to the larger Kerala population?

A typical day’s COVID-19 statistics as provided by Vijayan reads along these lines: “The state confirmed 118 COVID positive cases today. Of the confirmed cases, 68 cases were those returning from foreign countries, while 36 came from other states…..There were 14 persons who got infected through contact.” This was the statement on June 28, and for months now it has been on these lines.

The result has been a fear of almost pathological proportions about the arrival of NRKs. This is reflected in the rise of ‘health policing’ — moral policing in COVID-19 times —  across Kerala, with neighbours turning hostile when they hear of someone in the neighbourhood who has returned from outside the state or country. Many apartments have turned rigid, imposing strict home quarantine rules, even enforcing embargo on waste removal from these ‘suspected hot spots’.

Both the ruling LDF and the UDF believe they are doing the right thing; and the state BJP is largely a mute bystander. As to how this impacts electoral politics, one only has to wait and see.

Vinod Mathew is a senior journalist based in Kochi. Views are personal.
Vinod Mathew is a senior journalist. Views are personal.

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