In Conversation with Dr. Benoy Peter – National lockdown and Migrant’s Problem
May 14, 2020
In Conversation with Mr. Tariq Ahmed Khan – Arbitration amidst COVID-19, Challenges to virtual Arbitration and Future of Institutional Arbitration
May 29, 2020

In Conversation with Prof. (Dr) S. Irudaya Rajan – Incoherent Management of the Migrant Crisis and the Challenges Ahead

Photo: S. Mahinsa, Frontline

Prof. (Dr) S. Irudaya Rajan is Chair Professor, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) Research Unit on International Migration at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. He has more than two decades of research experience and has coordinated six major migration surveys of Kerala (with Professor K.C. Zachariah). He has been an editor for the Annual Indian Migration Report published by the Routledge Press. He has number of scholarly works to his credit. His recent works includes “Politics of Migration: Indian Emigration in a Globalized World (2015)” and “Researching International Migration: Lessons from the Kerala Experience (2015)”.
In this interview with the IJLPP he talks about the lack of coherence in planning out a solution for the ongoing migrant crisis during the national lockdown, the overlooked plight of Indian migrants stuck abroad and the importance of placing migrants within the economic policy structure.
The Economic Survey 2016-17 had estimated that at least nine million people migrate annually within the country. That’s a fact in existence even before lockdown. Most of the migrants have poor living conditions, have no stable livelihood and no guaranteed social security. Thus, you have such a large population with such grave problems, still they remained unnoticed in lockdown considerations. Where does the gap lie according to you?
Prof. S. Irudaya Rajan: Migrants have always been in the periphery of policy decisions. According to the Census of 2011, there are around 140 million inter-state and inter- district migrants and over 450 million migrants if you count intra-district migrants as well. One third of Indians are migrants and among them, one third of them are inter-state migrants. India is expected to reach beyond 550 million migrants by 2021.
These migrants take up jobs mostly in the informal sector and thus have vulnerable livelihoods and lives. Additionally, a large number of these migrants are seasonal, short-term and cyclical migrants, who do not stay in one place for too long and are thus seen, by employers and larger society as replaceable at given point of time. This is what we have seen them in the roads during lockdown in India during CoVID-19. We see very clearly that they were not even considered as an after-thought when the national lockdown was first implemented. What would they do? Where would they go? All measures since then have also been largely ad-hoc and haphazard in nature.
If the Government had even given a window of say 5 to 7 days for the migrant workers as an exception to leave for home in special buses or trains in the beginning of the lockdown, something akin to what Bangladesh had done before imposing a similar lockdown, we could have avoided many of the terrible scenes we have seen all over the country today. People may say that it was a risk at that time to send migrants back home as they would be potentially taking the virus back. However, there were only 562 active cases before the national lockdown. We are now sending them back when confirmed cases are over 0.1 million. This betrays a lack of planning or even thought for migrants. We have put them in a terrible position.
This can be seen even in the laws and regulations for their well-being. As you would know, apart from the Interstate Migrant Workmen Act, 1979, there is virtually nothing. The Act itself is like a tiger without any teeth. If it was followed with any deal of seriousness, migrants would have at least had some savings with them at their destinations, apart from money for their journeys and some money in the form of compensation during the lockdown – all to be provided by the employers and the contractors. As of now, they have completely abdicated their responsibilities towards their migrant workers. This is huge blind spot that needs to be rectified as soon as possible.
However, it is high time we realize that they are also human beings who deserve dignity of life and livelihood and the workplace. Today they are returning to their homes empty handed (for the first time in the migration history) and stigmatized as potential virus carriers. They are unwanted both at their origin and destination states and even their homes. The current crisis has definitely brought their plight to the forefront.
The issue of migration during the corona pandemic has been a worldwide concern. International organisations such as the World Economic Forum or major civil society groups like IDMC have highlighted how the migrant population is the most vulnerable. Do you feel countries have failed to work collectively or on risk of repetition from the first question, has the modern nation state ignored this classification resulting in the domestic failure?  
Prof. S. Irudaya Rajan: This pandemic has thrown up an interesting situation. The vulnerability of migrants has been well documented in the international and multilateral sphere and has been a part of various agreements like the Global Compact on Migration. However, we have to note with great concern that this crisis has shown the limitations of these multilateral agreements as countries have stopped cooperating on all levels, becoming more inward looking in their policies. We are seeing war like dynamics between countries where everyone is busy accusing others instead of cooperating for a solution. The only issue is that the “enemy” this time is invisible and has affected almost every country and there is no way out but to cooperate and find a solution out of it. Instead, many countries have closed their borders for migrants, trapping them and then not taking care of them adequately. It is the migrant who have suffered the most during this pandemic, as always. They have been at the forefront when it comes to the loss of lives, jobs, wages and living conditions. For example, India has around 20 million people worldwide (more than 200 countries), with over 50 percent of them in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries alone (which are the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain). To repatriate all of them during this crisis would have been impossible because this is not emergency like war. (India has done during 1990 Kuwait war and brought back about 1.5 lakh stranded Indians).
What could, however, be done is sending medical aid to those who cannot access healthcare in those countries – which are a lot. To its credit, India has sent some medical aid to select countries in the Gulf, but that kind of support has not been enough due to its large size. Indian workers abroad have also been left stranded at risk to infection and an uncertain future in those countries. We see this dynamic within states in India as well, with states like Karnataka exclaiming that they will not allow migrants from certain other states to enter their territory. This pandemic has led to an overall hardening of borders – not between countries and even between states of India.
When it comes to the migrant issue within India, in order to understand the role of the state when it comes to ignoring the plight of migrants, we must understand the role of labour in general. India, since independence, but particularly after the liberalization era has depended on an endless stream of cheap labour to hold a competitive edge when it comes to attracting investment from within the country and from outside. The fact they come with a disadvantage and are often beholden to contractors, means that their bargaining power at their destination is very low. This is exacerbated by the fact that there is lack of implementation of the legislation in place. This is seen even in a place like Kerala, which is well known throughout the country for its proclivity towards labour. Even here we see different wages for different people, often in accordance with their level of vulnerability.
However, we must not overlook the vulnerability of the migrant families (women and children), many who migrate with the worker. According to the 2011 Census, while work/employment was the main reason for migration among males, marriage was the main reason for migration among females – showing that often times it is a whole family that migrates.
Now with the central government having assisted the migrants to move back to their home states and many migrants having used their own means to go back, will the relaxation of lockdown normalize the situation for them? Or will the same pattern appear? 
Prof. S. Irudaya Rajan: What is certain is that India will see a downturn in the economy in the wake of this crisis. Many states have already started talking about an impending crisis. Kerala has already estimated that its economy will shrink by over 10 percent even if we get back to normal after the lockdown. A lot of sectors which saw the large scale employment of migrant labour such as construction and various service sectors such as hospitality will see contractions and job losses. This does not bode well for migrant labour in the future. In my view, in the short run, migrants will suffer and in the long run, they will win over employers.
However, we have seen that migrant trends and patterns are very dynamic and adaptive. The condition of the rural and urban poor in the country means that migration is often the only survival strategy for most people and their families. These families depend on remittances sent back by the migrant to function in their daily lives. The crisis will also throw up new corridors for migration. How patterns change will remain to be seen.
What needs to change is our approach towards the issues of migration and the general movement of people in the country. The destinations states failed when it came to providing adequate security and assurance of physical and economic safety. Sending states, on the other hand, failed to coordinate adequately with the destination states in order to safely bring their migrant workers back. Without adequate guidance from the central government, this created an understandable, but unnecessary panic among the migrant workers. This crisis would have passed unnoticed if the centre and state governments had co-ordinated in a federal manner.
When it comes to the crucial aspect of migration data, we have also failed to estimate their exact number, and that has had serious repercussions the states’ response towards them. It is about time that, similar to the Kerala Migration Survey, we have an India Migration Survey to estimate their numbers and to understand what their problems exactly are.
If we are to look into the legal framework, there is only one law to deal with inter-state migration viz., Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979. There are few high court judgments on migration related to communal violence. But the executive action has more been done on an ad-hoc basis. Similar trend can be seen in the present situation. What all can be done on the legislative as well as institutional front to ensure social justice to migrants?  
Prof. S. Irudaya Rajan: To begin with there needs to be a larger legislative and institutional framework to address the glaring issue of migration within the country.
The Interstate Migrant Workmen Act of 1979, like most labour laws in the country, is rarely ever enacted, leaving most migrant workers at the mercy of contractors and their employers. Additionally, steps like the ordinance passed by the Uttar Pradesh government to rescind all labour laws, bar three, are detrimental to the welfare of migrant labour in India. Moreover, the move to increase working hours from 8 to 12 hours a day, with a 72-hour working week by states like Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan is also a step in the wrong direction. Madhya Pradesh has removed the requirement for labour inspection for factories with less than 50 workers – which are most informal workplaces anyway. While these measures are meant to be temporary, they set a bad precedent for the future of labour in the country. And it will be the migrant labour who will be disproportionately affected, as we know they are the most vulnerable and informalised group of workers. According to my understanding, migrants die earlier than non-migrants.
It is high time that the Government of India come up with a national migration policy framework given the massive scale of both internal and international migration in India. The current situation cannot continue. We need to have a clear idea of how many migrants are there all over the country and abroad and what are their living and working conditions. Proper planning can only follow from there. A good case in point is Kerala, whose understanding of migration and migrant issues has seen them handle the situation better when compared to other states. For instance, if central government with the support of sending and receive states sit together and provide minimum of ₹ 25000 for every migrants in the country with a registration, we will get one time data on internal migrants in India (at least who are ready to receive the cash transfer). It should be applicable to migrants who have left before lockdown, stranding during lockdown at transit states and left during the lockdown by shramik trains and left behind in the states of destination.


Moving beyond the question of pandemic, what are your final thoughts on what practices should India choose to ensure better condition of migrants? Any lessons from the past which India still struggles to learn?  
Prof. S. Irudaya Rajan: India should first realize the large scale and vital importance that migrants, both internal and international, have on India’s economy and society. This is a lesson that has never been learnt through the years.
For example, in the recent 20 lakh crore relief package announced by the central government, there is no mention of any short term measures to alleviate the hardships that migrants face, except for the announcement free food grains (5 kg rice and 1 kg chana per person) for migrants without a ration card for the next two months. The rest of the incentives, such as the housing programmes or even the “One Nation One Ration Card” are more long term projects, which are heavily contingent on the co-ordination between different states, which has been missing up to now. Whether these projects reach fruition is another matter altogether. The package failed to deliver on immediate measures that a desperately needed, such as the injection of cash in hands of migrants stranded in the destination states. The authorities could have assisted in migrants registering with a centralised system with their bank accounts. They could have then sent Rs. 25,ooo to each migrant as a security for the time ahead and given them some ease in their time of need. Additionally, we would have also had an estimate of how many people have been stranded at the destinations.
We must also look at the support we provide to international migrants, another group that is very often overlooked despite the fact that last year they sent around $83 billion back home in remittances. Incidentally, globally, India receives the highest remittances as per the World Bank. They weren’t even mentioned in the current economic package, as if they did not even exist. They will also return back to their homes, for the first time empty handed. How will they be rehabilitated and re-integrated into domestic society? Both the Central and State Governments need to plan out these issues carefully. Indian migrants and disapora support every political parties during elections through large cash transfer and Kerala has witnessed their help during the 2018 floods. We should be thankful and give them back when they need help.
The governments need to ensure decent lives and work for its millions of migrants (internal and international) – to ensure decent working and living conditions and provide a decent social security net for them during their sunset years (old age). We should not want today young migrants as tomorrow’s old age beggars. On a larger level, there has not been enough talk of livelihood in the wake of the current crisis and an economic revival that appears in the distant future. The Government has to ensure that these people are also availed the same facilities at their places of origin, making sure that the choice to migrate is not one borne out of desperation.


[This questionnaire was drafted and the interview edited by Ms. Akanksha Bahuguna, former senior editor, IJLPP and Mr. Aakash Chandran, Consulting Editor,  IJLPP]


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