Gulf Returnees, Intrastate Migrants and Economic Stimulus

 By Vishakh Krishnan Valiathan
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Since the early months of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic changed the migratory pattern in India. The country witnessed higher rates of inflow of the return migrants, especially from the Gulf economies while reiterating the same domestically among the intrastate workforce.[1] India is the largest sender of emigrants in the world and also the largest recipient of remittances, according to the United Nations World Migration Report 2020.[2] The gradual spread of the virus led to the Great Lockdown, which thereby affected the global supply chains, labour shifts and further pointing recessionary signals to both the world economy as well as regional economies.[3] For decades, Gulf has been a desirable destination for Indian migrants, mostly working in the informal sector.[4] The pandemic has caused a large number of emigrants to return to India via the Vande Bharat Mission, considered to be one of the largest repatriations in the world.

A nation’s emigrants, whether skilled or unskilled, are detrimental given that they send remittances to the home nation, which in turn contributes to the country’s development and economy. India witnessed a surge in the number of Gulf returnees in the last few years. There are several reasons for the same. The gradual implementation of the Nationalisation policies by the Gulf economies, stricter documentation by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the increasing rates of complaints due to the Kefala system (which is one-sided pact where the employer dictates the laws), the fall of oil prices, and a few other issues in the ambit are significant concerns that may have induced the return.

Traditionally, the southern states of Kerala (majorly), Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh were the leading states in sending human resources to the Gulf nations. The northern states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan, have overtaken as largest senders of emigrants to the Gulf replacing these traditional states in the last decade or so. India has also witnessed substantial developments in various sectors, also contributing to the social development of the states.[5]

According to the e-migrate website of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Government of India, the primary job attraction is with the blue-collar professions in the region, which includes labour, mason, driver, domestic helper and carpenter.[6] Their leading destination in 2019 was Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Along with this, the top employer registration was for Kuwait in the last year or so.[7] According to the experts in the subject, the repatriation since May 2020, is believed to have a significant share of returnees who are undocumented, and others would be ones whose contracts are over.  As returnees have to pay for the airfare, some of them who wanted to return, could not even afford the tickets and were also in search of sponsors. The Government prioritised old age people, pregnant women and children, then people who lost their jobs.[8] Therefore, the pandemic would not only affect the busy India- Gulf migration corridor, but also the lifestyle of their families back home.

Nevertheless, the pandemic had also affected the intra-state migration in India, forcing a considerable reverse migration of ‘guest workers’[9] to their respective hometowns. As the majority were living on their daily wages, this non-job period affected their livelihood and might have even led to poverty. India has a substantial working population of approximately 485 million,[10] and a significant share under frictional and seasonal employment. However, the lockdown period in India, especially during April and May, oversaw an unusual upward movement in the unemployment in the country with the number standing at 23.52 per cent and 23.48 per cent respectively.[11]  According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), since June 2020 the unemployment rates have drastically decreased as it stands at 7.9 per cent on 24 August 2020.[12]  Moreover, the dip in the unemployment rate may be because the Government started to ‘unlock’ the restrictions since June 2020 while also easing up businesses to function, but in contrast, the Covid-19 cases were increasing in manifold numbers.

To tackle the unemployment crisis in the country, the Central Government in May 2020 announced the Atma Nirbhar Package, and apart from that an addition of Rs 40000 crores was added to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), providing temporary relief to the workers who returned to their home states.[13] However, the Government later in July, announced a bigger package specifically to meet the employment crisis for the intra-state migrants hailing from the Northern States of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh Rajasthan, Jharkhand, and Odisha. The Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan scheme was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 20 June 2020, allocating Rs 50,000 crores for providing job opportunities to the intrastate migrants. They returned to their home states due to Covid-19 situation by building durable rural infrastructure under the scheme. The project would take 125 days involving focused implementation of 25 categories of work or economic activities in 116 districts of the six states.[14] The project is in active mode, but the effectiveness is yet to yield appropriately. With states easing the travel restrictions and gradually opening up the economy, there seems to be an inflow of the migrant workers back to the urban centres in search of jobs.

Interestingly, the Central Government has focused only on those six states in the northern belt as it resides almost two-thirds of the total intrastate migrants in the country. However, it seems like the Government has not focused on other states who are also facing such employment issues, especially in the Southern states as they constitute a large share of Gulf returnees, who are also unemployed. Even though the State governments have initiated for projects like Project DREAM by Government of Kerala, inviting ideas from the public, but has not attracted any investments yet.[15] Moreover, the Central Government must diversify its economic stimulus while not only concentrating on the northern states but also on the southern states along with Maharashtra as they contribute largely towards the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country; in contrast, they have been affected badly due to the Covid-19 as well. Therefore, the Central Government could implement a similar mission-based project for the Gulf Returnees for improving their existing skills or induct them into Skill India programme, so that they get productive and earn a minimum wage for their livelihood.

Amidst the prevailing uncertainty and with a fear of a second wave, the Government should urge the migrant work force to be involved with the projects arranged under the government packages in their home states rather than going back to the urban centres until early next year, to avoid further risk of contagion. Moreover, the increasing rates of Covid cases is factor of vital concern for the administrations across the nation until the vaccine is out for public use. Perhaps this is an opportunity for the Central Government to collaborate extensively with the respective State Governments in establishing a proper channel for fund dissemination and prompt implementation of the projects to fight and emerge from the pandemic while also focusing on reviving the Indian economy in phases.

End Notes:

[1] A Srinivas, “ Migrant flows will change, they will take time to come back to the city, says Scientist S Irudaya Rajan”, The Times of India, 3 May, 2020, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/migrant-flows-will-change-they-will-take-time-to-come-back-to-the-city-says-scientist-s-irudaya-rajan/articleshow/75510677.cms, accessed on 12 August, 2020.

[2] M McAuliffe and B Khadria,” Report overview: Providing perspective on migration and mobility in increasingly uncertain times”, Chapter 1, United Nations World Migration Report 2020, November 2019,pp. 3, https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/wmr_2020.pdf, accessed on 18 July, 2020.

[3] G Gopinath, ”The Great Lockdown: Worst Economic Downturn Since the Great Depression”, International Monetary Fund, April 14, 2020, https://blogs.imf.org/2020/04/14/the-great-lockdown-worst-economic-downturn-since-the-great-depression/, accessed on  10 August, 2020.

[4] M McAuliffe, et al, “Migration and Migrant Flows: A Global Overview”, United Nations World Migration Report 2020, November 2019, pp.34, https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/wmr_2020.pdf, accessed on 18 July, 2020.

[5] K P Kannan, “Kerala’s Turnaround in Growth: Role of Social Development, Remittances and Reform.” Economic and Political Weekly 40, no. 6, 2005, 548-54, www.jstor.org/stable/4416172, accessed on 14 August, 2020.

[6]“Top Five Job Role (Year-2019)”, e-Migrate, Ministry of External Affairs, Overseas Employment Division, 22 April 2019,  https://www.emigrate.gov.in/, accessed on 14 August, 2020.

[7] ‘Top Five Destination Country (Year-2019)”, e-Migrate, Ministry of External Affairs, Overseas Employment Division, 22 April 2019,  https://www.emigrate.gov.in/, accessed on 14 August, 2020.

[8]  A Srinivas, “Migrant flows will change, they will take time to come back to the city, says Scientist S Irudaya Rajan”, The Times of India, 3 May, 2020.

[9] PTI, “Kerala sets an example for rest of India with its exceptional treatment of ‘guest workers’”, The Week, 20 April, 2020

[10] S Mehrotra,”Informal Employment Trends in the Indian Economy: Persistent informality, but growing positive development”,International Labour Organisation, 2019, Employment Working Paper No.254, https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_emp/—ifp_skills/documents/publication/wcms_734503.pdf, accessed on 28 August, 2020.

[11] “Unemployment rate -April and May”, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, 22 August, 2020,https://unemploymentinindia.cmie.com/ ,accessed on 22 August, 2020.

[12] “Unemployment rate on 24 August, 2020”, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, 25 August, 2020, https://unemploymentinindia.cmie.com/, accessed on 25 August, 2020.

[13] H Sharma,” Centre to pump Rs 40000 crore more into MGNREGA for FY21”, The Indian Express, 18 May, 2020, https://indianexpress.com/article/business/centre-to-pump-rs-40000-crore-more-into-mgnrega-for-fy21-6414887/, accessed on 27 August, 2020.

[14] Prime Minister’s Office, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi launches Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan on 20th June 2020 to boost employment and livelihood opportunities for migrant workers returning to villages, in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak”, PIB, Delhi, 20 June, 2020, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1632861,accessed on 27 August, 2020.

[15] Press Trust of India, “Kerala Announces Project to help Expats who lost jobs due to coronavirus”, NDTV, 2 July,2020, https://www.ndtv.com/kerala-news/dream-kerala-project-kerala-announces-project-to-help-expats-who-lost-jobs-due-to-coronavirus-2255564, accessed on 14 August, 2020.


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Vishakh Krishnan Valiathan is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi. He holds an MPhil in International Relations from University of Madras, Chennai. His MPhil Thesis was titled ‘India- Israel Relations: An Analytical Study with Reference to Defence Industry and Equipment Trade Since 1992’. He also has a Master’s in Politics and International Relations from the Department of Politics and International Studies, Pondicherry University (a Central University) and a Bachelor’s in Economics from Mar Ivanios College (Autonomous), University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram. Prior to CLAWS, he has interned with Middle East Institute at New Delhi ([email protected]), Regional Centre for Expertise Acknowledged by United Nations University- Trivandrum and National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru. His research-oriented areas include West Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, India’s Foreign Policy, Energy Security, Economy and Strategic Cooperation.