Nitaqat: Manifestation of new immigrant vulnerabilities

Author:   Ajmal Khan and Muneer Illath


I. Introduction: Contextualizing Nitaqat

Nitaqat has been a buzzword among the Keralites for the last two months. The Arabic word Nitaqat means ‘differentiating’ or ‘differentiation’ from the other. The Government of Saudi Arabia has been trying for a Saudization in their labor market for the last one decade in order to tackle increasing unemployment among the Saudi nationals and the drive has been more rigorous in the light of recent democratic uprisings in the Arab world. The Saudi officials have informed all the emigrants that in some particular sectors in the country, the Saudi nationals have to be appointed within a particular time frame. The employers and companies having more than ten people were instructed to have at least one Saudi national working in it. The organizations having less than ten people were exempted from Nitaqat. But considering the nature of the country and its demography, it was not possible to implement it completely. Nitaqat was introduced in 2009. Saudi Government has categorized the companies and business organizations in those lines. Various sectors where emigrants were employed were further categorized into 41 types. According to the types of jobs, a particular number Saudi citizen has to be employed in the organization. Employers who followed this rule were given blue and green cards and were also given other benefits in recruitments. Organizations which did not follow this were given red cards and were reminded of rules and consequences. Meanwhile, the government has also increasingly started to trace out people who have emigrated to work with free visa (the visa in which the kind of work that the emigrant is going take up has not been mentioned) and are working illegally as against the rules of the Saudi government. Emigrants who are working with this free visa were caught and sent back to their home countries. As a consequence of these strict measures several states in India felt the impact. Kerala has been the most seriously affected by Nitaqat.

However, such immigration policies should be seen in the context of stringent labour legislations adopted and practiced by state mechanisms of different countries at global level and continuing pressures of push factors from the emerging countries of south Asia and Africa. In this context, the existing chunk of unskilled labour force in the Gulf and increasing number of illegal and unauthorised workers in the region would only add on to the immigrant vulnerabilities that the sending countries will have to seriously deal with. In the light of relatively poor international migration policies for the Gulf south Asia countries have been accused of dealing with ‘consequences’ more than ‘causes’ thereby overlooking the actual conditions shaping vulnerabilities of the migrants. It is in this backdrop shockwaves of stringent policies of Nitaqat assume greater significance, especially to regions like Kerala which has been in thick of this debate.  

II. Stock of Gulf migration from India

Migration from India to the gulf countries has been one of the most important phenomena in terms of reducing unemployment and instilling cultural confidence among many groups and communities in India in general and those in the state of Kerala, in particular. Migrant workers from India comprise of huge labour force in the countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar. Though India was historically been connected to West Asia, this migratory movement got accelerated only during the post oil-boom era which was marked by the huge investments in the infrastructure and many other sectors. Indian emigrants especially from Kerala were largely dominated in dock facilities, roads, airports, office buildings, industries, restaurants, supermarkets, etc.

There were 42,000 labour migrated to West Asia in 1976  which reached its peak with 2,72000 in 1981. It declined slowly towards 1986. The annual outflow would have been, therefore, on the average around 1,07000 during 1976-80, 2,14600 during 1980-85 and 1,15500 during 1985-87. The unskilled workers constituted 40 per cent of the total emigrants and skilled workers were about 50 per cent while the white collar workers and high skilled workers were less than five per cent (Lakshmaiah-1991).


A recent study published by Rajan and Zachariah (2011) demonstrates that the majority of the emigrants in Kerala are Muslims (41.1%), followed by Hindus (37.7%) and Christians (21.2%). These communities form 24.7%, 56.3% and 19% of Kerala’s population, respectively, according to the 2001 Census. The difference across the three religious communities is more glaring in terms of the number of emigrants per 100 for the households: Muslims (56.4%), Hindus (18.7%) and Christians (29.9%). Rajan and Zachariah (2011) also gives the recent profile of community-wise breakup of return emigrants of which Muslims constitute the largest community. The study reveals that propensity to return is higher among the Muslim migrants (56 % of the total emigrants) when compared to other religious communities (47 % among the Hindus and Christians in the state). The paper also observes that while only 7 % of the households among Hindus and Christians had one or more return emigrants the proportion was as high as 26 % among Muslims in the state (Rajan and Zachariah 2011: 27).


III. Immigrant vulnerabilities in the era of Nitaqat

Now why this Nitaqat will affect the emigrants from Kerala? The obvious answer is its dependency on the foreign remittance. Kerala receives about 31.2 % of its GDP as remittance in 2011 according to the CDS study published recently. The problem also lies in the composition of the labour themselves. Unlike the other migrations from India, migration to gulf is different, it is a migration of skilled, under skilled, semi skilled and unskilled labors. Most of them are working in super markets, construction sites and other laborers and as salesmen in different shops. They belong to all regions of the state and hail from Muslim, Hindu and Christian communities.  Absorbing them in local economy is not an easy task as Kerala does not have similar sectors as diverse and in terms of size to absorb them back home.

Already with in this short span of time, about 1500 emigrants have came back at different air ports of the state from Jeddah, Riyadh,  Damam and other places of Saudi Arabia, and this will continue in the coming months1.  As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, none of them can settle permanently, they all have to return some day or the other. This poses serious question “whether the state of Kerala is prepared for that?”  Will the economy of the state which runs on the remittances be able to face this?, How far the state policies are prepared to handle this emerging scenario?

Recent statistics and ethnographic studies suggest that although return emigration has affected all communities and caste groups in Kerala state Muslims have been the most vulnerable by virtue of their share in the return flows as well as their bleak socio-economic support back home. Since Muslims constituted the bulk of early stock of immigrants to the Gulf in an era of unskilled and uneducated labour force, their return to the otherwise weak economic environment of Kerala further demonstrates the susceptibility of their development horizons. Newer policies like Nitaqat and stringent measures to streamline the labour migration will only add to the economic worries of such vulnerable communities.

There is another issue which may equally be challenging is related to the internal migration. Kerala is the state which has about 250000 internal migrants from the states like Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, Utter Pradesh, Odisha and Jharkhand and they work in sectors like construction, hotels and restaurant, manufacturing units, as trades and even in the agricultural sector. There is a huge scarcity of labor in all these sectors which are filled by the migrant workers from other states. How far these labors could be replaced by the emigrants who work in higher salary in Saudi Arabia? Besides, all of them are not skilled enough and even if they are skilled there is no demand for their skill at the state level.  

It is time ‘return preparedness’ as a policy and practice put in place so as to ensure economic and social sustainability of the people who have returned. This should involve, as J.P Casserino (2008) observes, having the ability, although not always the opportunity, to gather the tangible and intangible resources needed to secure one’s own return home. In the era of imminent crisis welfare and rehabilitative measures need to be initiated at least keeping in view that when they were abroad they had made significant contributions to the state in terms of foreign remittances.  Beyond conflicting sovereign interests, countries of origin and destination are expected to share common objectives protecting the economic capabilities of the immigrants while channelizing their potential for mobility towards constructive economic returns. 

The state mechanism is used to get up only when there is a crisis rather than anticipating the issues for better preparedness. There is a need for learning from the best practices from countries like Philippines who have already put their mechanism in place. It may be noted that policies like indegenisation and naturalisation should have been effectively tackled had the emigration process in the sending countries been stringent and the illegal travel agents and middle-men who manipulate and mislead the potential migrants by offering fake visas and job cards were effectively checked. There should be a preventive mechanism in place to rehabilitate the unskilled and poor migrants who are coming back. There should be proper debates and policy preparedness at state as well as national level. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs is a platform to engage stakeholders to prepare the ground for better policy measures. The pressure from the employers and bilateral negotiations with the government of India has forced the government of Saudi to postpone the proceedings of Nitaqat for another two months. But it is sure that the government will go ahead with what they have started and there is going to be an exodus again. If that is the case number of laborers who are going to come back will be huge. Such eventualities further call attention for greater state intervention at home.

Muneer Illath teaches sociology at University of Allahabad. His current academic interests include migration and development, economic sociology, social exclusion and sociology of religion. 

Mr. Ajmal Khan is a doctoral student at the School of Social Sciences, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. His thesis is titled Gulf migration and social change among the Mappila Muslims villages of Malabar: A study of villages after the 1970 to contemporary Kerala. He also contributes write ups to the alternative media forums in English and Malayalam.

1.      According to the number of people who came in the three different airports of the states and  people who have registered with NORKA, Government of Kerala.


Zachariah, K.C., E. T. Mathew and S. Irudaya Rajan; 1999 ‘Impact of Migration on Kerala's Economy and Society’; Working Paper No. 297. Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram,

 ICOE. 2009. “Impact Assessment of Global Recession on Indian Migrant Workers in Countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Malaysia.” New Delhi: Indian Council of Overseas Employment.

Illath, Muneer. 2012 “Failure of Cultural confidence and Closure of development horizons: Narrating the case of Return Emigrants among Mappila Muslims of Kerala” paper presented at GRFDT Seminar on ‘Indian Diaspora: Mobility and Identity’, on 7th April, 2012, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi 

 Lakshmaiah K.1991. Indian Labour Migration to Gulf countries, Economic and Political Weekly, February 16

Mathrubhumi Newspaper on ri/pravasibharatham/article_356136/.

Rajan, Irudaya & Zachariah K.C 2011 ‘From Kerala to Kerala via the Gulf: Emigration: Experience of the Return Emigrants’, CDS Working Paper 443. Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum 

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