Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan's words while welcoming Keralites who had set out from foreign countries in early May out of Covid fear were: "These non-resident Keralites are more Keralite than we are; they too have a right to this safe soil." In words which Keralites heard with hopes and expectations, he also made it clear that all the returning NRK's would be well received and adequate arrangements had been made for their quarantine and treatment.
His words of reassurance were taken as an extension of the state's exemplary approach adopted in the prevention of Covid. However, come the initial few days of their return, the hollowness of the promises started coming to light. The state government had no hesitation to enforce the central government's inconsiderate circular that the airfare for their return had to be borne by the passengers themselves. Still the expatriates were vowed to return, for the one lakh-plus desperate expatriates were eager to get home either with the last penny in their pocket or with the aid of philanthropic voluntary organisations, when they had lost everything during the scourge of Covid. They were pinning hopes on getting sufficient attention once they got home, but only to be disappointed on reaching home and realising that they are still a neglected lot.
Now, when the third phase of the NRK's return begins, the government decision to charge them for their quarantine comes as an added jolt on them. The returnees who have to spend seven days of institutional quarantine have to pay the fees themselves. And it is for a service that has so far been given free that the returnees have to pay, that too when the flow is going to be heavier. The move, which invited the ire of expatriate organisations and the Opposition, cannot be called anything but a betrayal, as it represents a clear breach of promise given by authorities including the chief minister himself. Perhaps at the face of stiff opposition, there may be a flexible enforcement of the fees, but the incident serves too illustrate the basic attitude of the ruling class towards expatriates. As revealed by the chief minister himself, the number of Malayalis who arrived from abroad before 25 May is below 12,000. But there is a large section of over 1.25 lakh of them who have obtained permission from respective embassies and are waiting for their turn to embark. Naturally a large percentage of them are expected to arrive here in the coming days. In fact, such a huge number of people had got prepared to make the journey mostly based on the repeated assurance of the chief minister and others that however large the number, enough facilities for them have been got ready.
But now the government has opened a new door of exploitation on the pretext of extra financial burden. As a matter of fact, is a seven-day quarantine that much of a burden? Many of the quarantine centres, including those in Malappuram district - where the highest percentage of returnees arrive - are already functioning free of cost. The government allocation for such places is nominal. Free quarantine can be set up for a lakh of people at a cost of Rs 40 or 50 Crore at the most. Shouldn't a government that had declared 'all set', have set aside such an amount for the same? If that kind of caution in action was not exercised by the government, it is a serious fault. There are some who justify the quarantine fee citing the central government circular and the fact that other states are charging quarantine fees. But Kerala is a state that set a model in Covid prevention even before the Centre declared lockdown. Not only that, even while complying with the spirit of several central directives, Kerala has instances of having made pro-active amendments and implementing them effectively. Therefore, this 'compliance' applied exclusively when it comes to expatriates' issue, cannot be seen as that innocuous.
Had the government given the scantiest regard for the mental frame of the returning Keralites, the Pinarayi government would not have ventured for such a move. Even when it is claimed that Covid was effectively prevented in Kerala, it should be realised that about 150 Malayalis have died abroad of Covid. Of this over a hundred were in the Gulf countries. The majority of the prospective returnees are those who quiver at this picture 'mass deaths' and have lost their jobs with the spread of Covid. In addition they get to be slapped the stigma of Covid carriers too. A minister has even gone to the extent of implying them as those who bring Covid from abroad. What derives from this approach of the government is that the return of this section is not so welcome to the authorities or their folowers. Not long after assuming power, the current government of Pinarayi Vijayan had declared that returning NRK's would be given six months' salary. That was followed by a series of gala events about 'expatriate welfare schemes' like the Kerala Loka Sabha. But when it comes to the brasstacks, there is no change in the unwritten law that the returnees have to bear their share of the cost. This segment so ditched by the government now, is one that sustains our economy and that has helped the state tide over the two floods in recent years. Then, what else can this approach - of letting expatriates look after themselves or voluntary organisations take care of them - be called other than sheer ingratitude?