Coronavirus Pandemic: The ambiguous destiny of India’s returning migrants

May 13, 2020 4:57 PM

According to a bulletin by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), 90% of overseas Indians are employed in the Gulf region and South East Asia, and more than 50% of total remittances received in 2016-17 came from the GCC countries.

 

The Government of India has now decided to facilitate the repatriation of Indian nationals abroad in a phased manner if they present compelling reasons. (PTI Image)The Government of India has now decided to facilitate the repatriation of Indian nationals abroad in a phased manner if they present compelling reasons. (PTI Image)

By Juhi Bansal

India stands as the leading country of origin of international migrants in 2019 as per the United Nations with 17.5 million recorded migrants from India settled across the globe. The Ministry of External Affairs estimates that more than 32 million Indians live abroad. This also makes India the world’s top recipient of remittances, having an estimated inflow of USD 83.1 billion in 2019 according to the World Bank. A large part of these remittances come from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.

According to a bulletin by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), 90% of overseas Indians are employed in the Gulf region and South East Asia, and more than 50% of total remittances received in 2016-17 came from the GCC countries.

Migration of Indian workers to the Gulf has increased exponentially since the ‘oil-boom’ in the 1970s, having a significant impact on the economies of the host countries while also providing major developmental contributions to their places of origin. Remittances from this ‘Indian diaspora have become a crucial source of India’s foreign exchange reserves while also serving as the backbone to the economies of high-migrant producing states. Notably, a majority of these migrants are semi-, low- or unskilled workers whose contracts are for short periods of employment, at the end of which they must return home.

Usually, most of these blue-collar workers manage to secure new contracts and return back to the Gulf with gainful employment, continuing the cycle of remittances. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought in an unprecedented situation resulting in the suspension of movement of migrants between the India-Gulf corridor, leaving millions of migrants stranded in their host countries.

The Government of India has now decided to facilitate the repatriation of Indian nationals abroad in a phased manner if they present compelling reasons. The first phase will have flights carrying back Indians from the six GCC countries, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, USA and UK, with the next phase including countries like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. According to recent reports, more than 300,000 Indians have registered to return from the Gulf region alone. Preliminary data on the registered persons shows that 60% of those returning from the Gulf are from Kerala. According to the Department of Non-Resident Keralites Affairs (NORKA Roots), over 61,000 of these returnees have cited job losses as the reason for their return.

This return migration poses challenges on many fronts. The first challenge is on the healthcare front, with the returnees bringing in the risk of a fresh wave of infections. This would hugely exacerbate problems in this sector, given the shortage of healthcare workers, lack of sufficient protective equipment, poor testing rates, and a weak disease surveillance system. The second challenge is economic. There is an urgent need to secure remittance-dependent economies that are already struggling under the pressure of the national lockdown, which while intended to avert one humanitarian crisis has inadvertently induced another. The third and most significant challenge is human.

The returning migrants, as well as their dependents, need to be ensured access to entitlements like healthcare, food and shelter, and sufficient livelihood opportunities in the future, given that a significant number face job losses. There is also the issue that the repatriation policy is on a pay-per-use basis, which excludes the financially vulnerable who cannot afford the airfare. This group faces heightened health and livelihood risks as most of them are irregular residents without access to healthcare facilities and live in conditions where social distancing is impossible, leaving them more exposed to the virus, exploitation and destitution.

These challenges will have an immediate impact on the highest migrant producing and remittance-receiving states. While Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are the top three migrant producing states, the RBI analysis of inward remittances show that 58.7% of the total remittances in 2016-17 were channelled to the four states of Kerala, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. These state governments are now rushing to secure enough facilities to quarantine the incoming migrants, while facing the double whammy of deficit in state income as well the burden of providing for returning migrants, who may witness a sharp rise in unemployment.Where last year the World Bank had tracked remittances as exceeding Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to become the largest source of external financing in developing countries, the prediction is for remittances to decline by 20% this year, largely due to fall in wages and employment of migrant workers in host countries due to the pandemic. To put this into perspective, an estimated Rs 850 billion was received via remittances as per the Kerala Migration Survey by the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in 2018, which was equivalent to 25% of the state’s income that year. Professor S Irudaya Rajan from CDS estimates that Kerala will lose approximately Rs 127.5 billion, or 15% of its annual remittances, this year.

The future for these migrants and their home states is uncertain, as the Gulf countries have already imposed stringent measures to curb the pandemic and reports state that they are considering a “recalibration of reliance on foreign workers” and will likely accelerate programmes to “nationalise” jobs. In this context, returning to business-as-usual after the lockdowns lift seems improbable, and the prospect of emigrated workers reclaiming their previous jobs is low, much less a new wave of aspiring job seekers gaining employment in the GCC labour markets. Moreover, returning migrants who have lost their jobs will add to the unemployment rate in India.

With Prime Minister Modi announcing a Rs 20 trillion stimulus package, amounting to 10% of India’s GDP, the policy focus has been firmly directed towards an inclusive economic recovery that keeps migrants centre-stage. This is a welcome step as it is critical for the government to strengthen social protection measures at this juncture. Providing proactively for the huge influx of migrants is key to ensure a healthy recovery going forward.

(The author is a Project Associate at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)

Get live Stock Prices from BSE, NSE, US Market and latest NAV, portfolio of Mutual Funds, calculate your tax by Income Tax Calculator, know market’s Top Gainers, Top Losers & Best Equity Funds. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Financial Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel and stay updated with the latest Biz news and updates.

Next Stories
1Phishing ploy targets COVID-19 vaccine distribution effort
2COVID-19 guidelines on face masks and social distancing violated with impunity, says Supreme Court
3US reports record 3,157 coronavirus deaths, over 1 lakh hospitalisations in one day