7 min read

Kerala - God's Own Country or God's Own Curse?

On a recent visit to Kerala, I was determined to look positively at our upcoming move back home. As a Capitalist, who has lived in a state dominated by Communists, you will not be surprised why Kerala is more like an old-aged home, with the youth mostly in the “Gulf” or better yet, in US, Australia or UK.

So when I attended my cousin’s engagement, I had the courage to tell my relatives that we’re coming back.

WHY!?! Why are you coming back to setup your business base, don’t! This place is not good for business, you will get destroyed, it is the worst place. Don’t come back if you can. Why? Try some other state.

Really… this is the response I got not just that day, but over the next 3 weeks of my stay then. Then I noticed something, most of those who were ‘warning’ me were old, and by old that means they had businesses or their kids were outside Kerala, mostly as you can imagine in the Middle East, US, UK or Australia.

At one point, even a priest asked me in disbelief why I would come back to the state. I jokingly said, that we need to create jobs for our state, for the next generation, and that if I didn’t risk it - who would, we’d just all continue to be outside as foreigners in other countries and states. (He gave me a look that suggested I was a poor idiot about to have his vision decimated).

I’ll follow up on whether this decision was right or wrong later on. But I realize that these are the stories we are telling ourselves, and that is quickly becoming the narrative of our lives. We believe nothing can succeed in Kerala. Yet Keralites have succeeded elsewhere. Why?

All of this is leading to poor self-esteem, a poor self-image of ourselves as Malayalees. We’ll come back to this again, but let’s flash back to the current time. All that took place in January 2020.

We returned back to the Kingdom of Bahrain at the beginning of February to wind up and say good bye to my second home of 33 years.

First of all, I would like to thank His Highness King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa & His Excellency Crown Prince Sheikh Salman for making Bahrain such a wonderful place to live. I love the people of Bahrain, many are like brothers and sisters to me, I’m going to miss them.

Now you can only begin to imagine what happened after that. I’ll summarize what happened in short…

We started the liquidation process of our company. The first case of COVID appeared in Bahrain at the end of February. Our company got liquidated, and we had no visa, as it was attached to our company.

Legally, you’re allowed to stay for 30 days, so in between we started packing our cargo boxes, selling our two cars, closing all sort of accounts - all this as the virus started to heat up. But as timing would have it, India announced a lockdown and closed the international airports! We were stuck with cartons all around us.

Relocating to another country is stressful. Add the COVID situation to the mix, and you can imagine how stressful things could be. Oh, but it didn’t end there.

As we were ready to fly back to Kochi, on a chartered flight (I suggest avoiding chartered flights at all costs), I got a call from the General Secretary of our apartment society saying that the we should find another place to stay. WTF!

It seems like the people of Kerala were educated enough by the media to see NRIs coming back as a threat, the very same NRIs who supported them in the time of need when the floods happened.

Anyways, some people learn the hard way. Today, most of the cases in Kerala are due to inter-state movements. This is a virus, it attacks everyone and doesn’t discriminate.

When you push someone against the wall, don’t expect them to be friendly. I wasn’t. Long story short. I’m now ‘settled’ (if you can ever say that in past tense) in Kochi, Kerala… God’s own country. But wait, isn’t that a curse?

Before I came, I consulted with my father who returned almost two decades earlier. He kept advising me that it would take one year to just settle in. To be honest, Kerala or India for that matter is not the same as it was 10 years ago. Today, there are so many positive developments that I wasn’t aware about.

You can say that we settled in less than 3 months, and it was far easier than what I expected. And as my uncle was saying, settling would have been even more easier were there no COVID! He’s right.

I don’t take my decision lightly, I had consulted with many including my chartered account who was a person who left Dubai two years earlier. Today, he’s consulting NRIs to help them with their transition and setup in Kerala. You’re only good as your advisor, so speak to your lawyer / attorney and bankers before making such a move.

Today, I have many friends ask me how it is. If you don’t know me well enough - I never wanted to be in Kerala. After my earlier experience, I just didn’t want to hang around in this God forsaken place. Why? Politics & Politicians have ruined Kerala. Instead of trying to develop the state, they decided to play politics. Or as I call it - Politicking.

I’m not sure I can do justice, by sharing enough information and this is no way going to be elaborate enough as each person is different. So let me share a couple of things I learned as I see it. I may be wrong or right, but these are my perceptions - take it or leave it.

Delivery - I am very impressed with Amazon. I was a user of Amazon from the late 90s, when they started. They gained my trust then, nothing has changed. They will be a force to reckon with because of their incessant customer focus. That’s Jeff Bezos for you! Delivery has changed things. You don’t need to go to five or six stores, find parking, burn very expensively taxed fuel in India to buy a small item.

Today, you log in and search what you want, read the reviews (some may be biased or fake, nevertheless) and click buy. The item gets delivered to your doorstep within a week, maybe less (Take Amazon Prime - it will pay for itself many times over!). What’s more its cheaper than stores some times. In COVID times, this is a life saver!

Till date, I haven’t visited Lulu Mall or gone to Lulu Supermarket (or any supermarket) to buy anything. Yousif Bhai needs to reconsider his model of business if we still have COVID restrictions in place.

And don't get me started on food delivery. There are a tonne of places to try, and both Zomato and Swiggy have been constantly nudging me to try things out. If it wasn't for food delivery, I don't think restaurants would have survived. Here we come cloud kitchens.

Heck, I purchased an office chair via WhatsApp Chat and had it delivered to my doorstep. Payment was done thru UPI which is AMAZING! No, it doesn’t end there… we even bought a small car, through WhatsApp chats again. We even had the service done, without stepping out of the house as they come and pick it up. (Apparently, this is standard practice now as it’s difficult to take your car to some far off service location and try to figure out to make it back without a friend).

Payments - While we’re on the topic of payment, let me touch upon this. India has around 200 payment options (maybe exaggerating but consider 100). Some of the names you’ll hear, when you’re in India, are Paytm, Google Pay, Amazon Pay, PhonePe, BHIM, etc. And even unusual ones like CRED that allow me to pay my house rent (who else does this!?!).

The Payment ecosystem is what lubricates commerce, and the most revolutionary thing I’ve seen to date is the UPI (Unified Payment Interface) platform which is in place by the Indian Government. It’s 100% free to use, which means you could wonder what will happen to companies like MasterCard and Visa. To transfer money, you need only a UPI id or if they haven’t registered an account number and IFSC code or just your mobile number!

In Oct 2020, UPI recorded more than 200 crore transactions worth ₹ 3.86 lakh crore (~USD 53 billion). This is one of the highest in the world.

Taxes - this is something you’ll need to get used to if you’re returning from the Middle East (that won’t be for long, as they slowly start to introduce income tax). Unlike in the US, Canada, Australia or other places where you get the benefits of paying tax. That’s not the case in India. And you pay A LOT when you add it all up. It comes to close to 50%, yes 50%. Of course, you’d be better of setting up your own company and charging some expenses to that. Nevertheless, there’s GST, which includes Central & State, and some other silly taxes as well.

In India, only 3% file taxes, only about 1.5% pay. So you can draw your own conclusions as to why the country fails in this respect.

My solution for the Indian Government is this, widen the tax net. Start by reducing the income tax bracket from 30% to 10% and punish those who do not pay. Actually, people would be happy to pay 10%, not 50%. So by reducing the tax burden you can widen the tax net. This is a story for another day.
The War On Cash + An Ode To Taxation
“The emperors of today have drawn conclusions from this simple truth: whatever doesn’t exist on paper, doesn’t exist at all” - Czeslaw MiloszTalking about paper, India’s prime minister – Narendra Modi – took one of the ballsiest steps by a politician. He announced that overnight both paper currency…

All said and done, you will have to lose a portion of your wealth to the Indian Government. If you’re making money, you’re going to pay. And don’t expect much in return.

Today is my birthday. So wish me good luck! Every year, I spend time to reflect on the past and generally this starts in the first week of November and ends towards the first week of January of the next year. Two months may seem like a long time, but I allow myself to think through things. My journey to India was one such thought that started in November 2019. And boy, has 2020 been one helluva year!

There have been no edits. I rushed to get this out today, so I can enjoy the rest of my day. Better to ship it out with mistakes, than not ship it out at all.