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The internal and external migrants, together, pose a refugee crisis that India is ill-prepared for

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Reuters/Adnan Abidi
Nowhere people.
  • Harish Pullanoor
By Harish Pullanoor

Co-editor, Quartz India

The Covid-19 crisis has forced India to finally acknowledge the migrant.

For decades, millions of workers have moved from state to state and some to shores abroad, looking for opportunities and livelihoods. The international scope of this pandemic has ensured that no section of people is left unaffected. The scale of the issue may vary from state to state or city to city, but none is left unscathed.

Images of millions of Indians trudging across hundreds of kilometres—some even losing their lives in the attempt—back home have brought forth the severity of the ruthless lockdown. Similarly, the economic impact of Indians being forced to return from abroad amidst collapsing economies and a widening health scare is expected to be felt in the coming months.

“In a sense, this is a refugee crisis now and not merely a migrant crisis,” Irudaya Rajan, faculty at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, told Quartz during an extensive interview. Rajan has tracked India’s migration trends for over 35 years. “We are finally acknowledging that migrants exist in huge numbers,” he said.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

What’s your general sense of India’s migrant crisis today?

We see them everywhere. Yet, we never imagined migrant workers as a group big enough to be taken seriously.

In this context, I consider only migrant workers to have been affected directly as a group by Covid-19 because they make money only by moving. That has completely stopped. I don’t think policymakers visualised the extent of the issue. We see them everywhere: hotels, small industries, construction, metro stations, tourism. Yet, we never imagined migrant workers as a group big enough to protest or to be taken seriously. We underestimated their ability to unite or organise. They were not allowed to unionise even in states like West Bengal or Kerala.

Now they have come under the limelight. Governments, policymakers, economists, and others now know they cannot take migration lightly or migrants for a ride.

You’re saying India grossly underestimated its migrant labourers?

That’s right. We have underestimated the role migrants played in the Indian economy. We have failed to recognise their contribution. We knew they existed but never acknowledged their quantum.

My estimate is that close to 500 million Indians are today internal migrants—either living in a place they were not born in or did not live in six months ago. Of these, the ones mainly affected by this lockdown are the worker migrants. These would be at least 30% of the total migrant population. So we are talking about 150 million-plus people in the country who move from their home state to another for work. They move to a place, earn there, send back money home, and move on to a new place.

We have no studies on this segment. They weren’t covered in policy circles. We talk only about smart cities…now we realise that cities need migrants.

How will this battle faced by India’s migrant labourers ultimately turn out?

In the short term, they will lose. In the long term, they will win. Because can you imagine a city like Mumbai without migrants? In fact, migrants constitute some 30%-40% of the economies of many cities. You cannot run the economy without them. You can reopen industries, but how will they function without migrant workers. One can already feel the scarcity in Kerala.

Have the state and central governments responded well to migrants’plight?

The response has not been systematic. It’s been a piecemeal approach. We are still talking about the immediate outcome of Covid-19: live or die. Only after a while will we talk about livelihood. Then automatically migrant activities will become an important topic.

Do you see migrants receiving monetary help from the government?

Every migrant in the country ought to be paid at least Rs20,000 ($264) for two months for the time and wages lost. No questions should be asked. They should only have to prove their migrant status.

This need not be done by only the central government. It should be a tripartite measure: the central government, the receiving states to which the migrants have travelled, and those from where they hail.

The relief money contributed to various relief funds is not only for ventilators. People also die when they don’t have anything to eat. Nobody should go without a proper meal because they had no work.

Once things normalise, do you see migrants returning to cities, given their disillusionment?

Migrant labourers now have an opportunity to punish their employers.

I think post-Covid-19, the normal migration corridors are likely to change. Long-distance migration will be affected. Somebody coming from the northeast to Kerala in the south may not come anymore. Because distance is now an issue. It will also depend on how they were treated during the lockdown.

Migrant labourers now have an opportunity to punish their employers. Can you give them a proper salary when they come back? Employers have to decide, not migrants. Acknowledge your mistakes.

Can private employers afford to make such offers, given the huge blackout they are facing?

They should look for help from the government. There is supposed to be a Rs20 lakh crore package announced by the prime minister. They (private employers) should not exploit workers, exploit the government instead.

Why should migrants travel to faraway cities and starve there? They would rather starve in their own villages. Don’t underestimate the migrants’ intelligence. They are risk-takers. They are war heroes in their homes, just that they are fighting poverty.

Now I’d like to shift the focus to those returning from abroad. What are their numbers?

India has somewhere close to 20 million international migrants. Half of these are in six Gulf countries: Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, UAE, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Out of these some 2.5 million are from the southern state of Kerala. So Kerala will be badly affected. The other states are also likely to be affected, but Kerala has more concentration.

India received $80 billion as remittances from abroad, yet only the chief minister of Kerala wrote to the central government for help to the external migrants.

You had once explained how gaps left by people leaving India were filled by internal migrants—or replacement migrants. Now that this process is in reverse, how will things unfold?

Overall, I expect some 300,000 Indians to return from the Gulf by September-December because of the Covid-19 crisis. Of these, at least 100,000 will be what I call the eventual returnees. These are people who feel they have made enough money and now it is time for them to return for good. They probably will have some money. They need viable projects to invest and earn returns for the remaining part of their lives. That is missing.

Another 100,000 of these will re-migrate. I have seen this happening post the 2008 crisis, during the Gulf wars, during the Nitaqat crisis in Saudi Arabia. Now, this re-migration need not be to only the Gulf. There are 200+ countries in the world. Why only talk about the Gulf? The government should train these people to think beyond the Gulf.

After all, Covid-19 doesn’t mean the end of migration itself. It will also open fresh opportunities for migration in interesting new destinations, including America. Because economies will always need migrants, irrespective of all the election-time talk by people like Donald Trump.

And if people want to re-migrate, they need upgraded skills. The Skill India project can be helpful there. So suppose someone returns in September from the Gulf, they will have, say six months to upgrade their skills, and then they can re-migrate to, say, Japan or Indonesia or Kenya, by next summer.

These are the new ideas to draw, lessons for us to learn from the Covid-19 crisis.

How prepared is India to handle the returning migrants?

I don’t think we are prepared. A big package has to come from the central government for the returning migrants’ rehabilitation, re-migration, and reintegration—the last one because some people might have lost everything in the crisis. No state is talking about all this, except Kerala.

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