India must frame policies for legal, safe and orderly migration

Professor S Irudaya Rajan believes that around 30 lakh Indians are likely to return to India by the end of the year in the light of the panic migration that ensued due to COVID-19. He opines that India may not have ample jobs in the future for the demographic dividend, and therefore a policy promoting systematic migration of skilled Indian labour force needs to be drafted and implemented.


IBT: What are the key markets for Indian immigrants in terms of employment and what kinds of jobs do they offer to Indian workers?

Prof. S Irudaya Rajan: India sends skilled, unskilled and semi-skilled migrants to countries all over the world. According to the Ministry of External Affairs, Indians are found in 210 countries. Ironically, the pandemic has also managed to proliferate to 210 countries now. So, it’s almost like Indians and COVID-19 are distributed all across the world anyway!

Post-COVID, there is going to be a lot of employment outside the country, because the pandemic is going to open a lot of opportunities and new migration corridors. However, the only challenge that I can anticipate is related to harsh visa policies.

Before the pandemic began, we had already seen similar labour market nationalisation policies in the Gulf states, which host the largest population of mostly low and semi-skilled workers. These policies could accelerate in the future and could be seen in other countries as well.

Having said that, it is important to note that visas are a political issue and policies can change. So, the current protectionist stance of providing jobs to the indigenous population of the country can change in the future.

IBT: Why are a significant number of Indian immigrants returning to the country? What are the conditions that overseas Indian workers are facing in other countries due to COVID-19? 

Prof. S Irudaya Rajan: The challenges that the Indian diaspora faces abroad are similar to those that the country’s inbound migrants face in destination states. Some time ago, there was a large -scale reverse migration of migrants from metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai in the light of the pandemic. Similar challenges are being faced by Indian emigrants abroad. COVID-19 created a panic in them and they wanted to be surrounded by their near and dear ones in these testing times, when their lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Consequently, what has been happening over the last few months is panic mobility. For example, during the months of April and May, around 5 lakh people registered with the Government of Kerala to come back to India.

Some of those individuals who came back to the state from the Gulf countries also stated that they had not been paid their salaries for the past three months or more. They also faced problems like living in overcrowded places and being treated like second class citizens.

Things like the unavailability of hospital beds or the native inhabitants being given preference over them in local hospitals added to their worries. Many of these emigrants did not even have health insurance to cover their expenses. The same is the case with migrants who went back home from Mumbai to Uttar Pradesh, their home state. In a bid to return home, these panic-stricken international migrants booked their first Vande Bharat flight.

The pandemic is an unprecedented event, which led to a few unexpected developments like panic migration. However, slowly and steadily, people are adjusting to these changing times or the new normal. The rush to come home might be muted going forward.

IBT: What repercussions will the return of Indian emigrants have for the country’s economy?

Prof. S Irudaya Rajan: Remittances sent to India by these migrants will indubitably decline. In the past, remittances to India came down during the global financial crisis of 2008, which was limited in terms of the countries to which it spread to. For example, the global crisis was in UAE, not in Qatar; it was in UK, but not in Germany; it was in the US, but not in Canada. However, COVID-19 is expected to create economic crises all across the globe.

The World Bank predicted a decline in remittances close to 25%. I, however, beg to differ and say that there will be a 10-15% decline, amounting to around US$ 10-12 billion, in remittances sent to India.

This is because some of the return migrants are bringing all their savings back. So, there is increased money coming back, partly because of that. At the same time, not all of those Indian migrants who’re working abroad are returning to the country; while not each and every emigrant who wanted to return home has landed on the Indian soil. International return migration is likely to continue till December as currently, very limited flights, which are the Vande Bharat flights are operating and travel bubbles are being negotiated. For example, there are 4 airports in Kerala – Trivandrum, Cochin, Calicut and Kannur – and at least 10 flights will leave for Gulf from each one of them every day.

This also means that those who have not been able to make it home yet are probably working on lower wages in foreign lands. This is why remittances will not come down as much as predicted by the World Bank. When they return to the country, they may find jobs in cities like Delhi or Mumbai.

IBT: How should these people be incorporated into the Indian job market? Does India have the kind of blue collar & white collar jobs to accommodate them?

Prof. S Irudaya Rajan: India currently has 20 million migrants all around the world. Around 10 million of these are in 6 Gulf countries – United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Omar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. I believe that around 10-15 per cent of the migrants will come back from outside to India. That means that approximately 15 lakh people will come back from the Gulf and 15 lakh will come from other parts of the world like London, United States, Germany, China, etc. Thus, we are expecting 30 lakh Indians to return; while Vande Bharat flights brought back only close 10 lakh Indian emigrants.

Another point to be taken into consideration is that most of them are not migrants; they are dependents – expecting mothers, elderly parents and children who went to see them. For example, a careful analysis of the passengers of the flight, which tragically had an accident in Calicut would reveal that half of them were dependents.

Not all of the estimated 30 lakh people coming back until December are coming in similar circumstances either. We have to divide return migrants into 3 categories.

One group comprises normal return migrants, who number around 3.5 to 6 lakh. These migrants are those who will have to come back due to the end of their work engagements or stay and these countries do not give you the Permanent Residency. Even prior to the pandemic, Kerala had around 1.5 million normal return migrants who go to Gulf to work for 10 years and come back.

The second group of migrants (another 10-15 lakh) are what we call, “return to re-migrate”. That means they will return for months or even years; then they will re-migrate from Kuwait to Qatar or from UK, they will re-migrate to Canada or Australia. They will re-migrate. Government of India can help with their Skill India mission to train them with additional skills so that India emerges as the powerhouse of skilled manpower in the world.

The other group of people, another maybe 5-10 lakh will be what we call distressed migrants. They have not even been able to recover the expenses incurred during the migration cost and do not have opportunities to migrate open to them, at least in the short run. A rehabilitation package needs to be designed to help these people to re-migrate, because return is not the end of the story.

As far as the question of offering them jobs & reintegrating them into the economy is concerned, I believe that even pre-COVID, India was in the middle of a job crisis. Therefore, these return migrants are likely to face problems in finding the right kinds of jobs. Be it internationally or in Indian states, governments have becoming protective about ensuring that their autochthonous people get priority in getting jobs over others. This is why this whole rhetoric about curbing the flow of migrants has emerged these days.

However, in the long run, COVID-19 will create new opportunities, sectors, categories and corridors. Therefore, there will be a lot of scope for migration as well as finding employment. The Skill India project can be utilized to tap the second category of returnees especially.

IBT: There are some sectors of the economy, for example, insurance or the IT sector, which are doing well right now. Do you see potential for returning migrants in these sectors?

Prof. S Irudaya Rajan: While the pandemic has made some jobs redundant, it has led to the creation of many new jobs. There should be a migration commission to facilitate the interaction of people with the desired skills with those seeking to employ such individuals. Also, movement of individuals across various disciplines should be allowed. That would spur employment.

One can also learn from Kerala’s example. The void created by the migration of professionals (say plumbers) in Kerala was filled by the labour from the neighboring states in the past. However, now due to the pandemic, that labour has returned to the neighboring states, while the people who migrated abroad are returning home. These jobs can be sought by these migrants. However, they should be prepared, as they might get lower wages than what they got abroad.

IBT: What should be done to arrest the fall in the remittances sent by Indian workers settled in foreign countries?

Prof. S Irudaya Rajan: Two things need to be done. One is to send abroad more high-skilled people as compared to low-skilled people. We have to somehow manage our workers. For example, if you send 5 people to one country and they are sending, say, US$ 400 back to India; that means 5 people are sending US$ 2,000. Suppose you send two qualified persons earning US$ 1,000, then you get US$ 2,000. Two people are sending the same money as 5 people.

So, if you want to continue to be the number one in the world in terms of receiving remittances, you have to organize skilled migration. But if you consider the average remittances of the emigrants from India, they are not high compared to, say, China. For this to happen, we need to draft better migration policies, because India cannot provide adequate jobs for the emerging youth created by the demographic dividend.

We need to promote our skilled migrants abroad and change our policies from facilitating to ensuring legal, safe and orderly migration through well designed and appropriate migration policies. Our remittances will increase exponentially then.

The second thing we must concentrate on is using this crisis as an opportunity to establish institutes and programmes for skilling migrant workers. We already have programmes like the Skill India Mission and various other programmes of the Central Government through the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC). At the state level, Kerala through the NORKA Roots agency also provides skilling programmes for future migrants. This upskilling of migrants can increase not only the potential earnings of migrants, but also their bargaining power in the destination countries. This ensures that these migrants have the capacity to send back more remittances in the future and also can make India a hub for skilling programmes in the region, which will benefit the country immensely.

Dr S. Irudaya Rajan is Professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala. He has more than three decades of research experience and led Kerala Migration Survey 2018 and Tamil Nadu Migration Survey 2015. Views are personal.

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