Migration in Times of Pandemic: Can India Defuse the Ticking Time Bomb?

THE WRITE LINE By Manishankar Prasad

Migrants on the move (File/Pixabay)

The Indian diaspora can be found in almost all corners of the world. Some go back by 200 years or so, such as the ones in Singapore and Malaysia, while many others comprise the more recent waves of mass migration to the Gulf. Newer markets have opened up in Spain and Italy for Punjabis in the agriculture and dairy sectors as per migration academic Chinmay Tumbe’s seminal work #IndiaMoving, which captures a longitudinal swathe of the patterns of migration. #Covid19, a truly global ‘import’ to India, has made us sit up and take note of the muted migrant worker, who keeps the stove burning in millions of desperate households, and who keeps the mighty wheels of various economies moving.

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The #coronavirus #pandemic has brought the spotlight firmly back on the notion of ‘home’ and the ‘other’ that ties in with key themes of deglobalisation triggered by populist politics and Brexit. Epidemics and restrictions of movement go hand in hand, as we learnt from the #BombayPlague of 1896. That #outbreak had fuelled restrictions on Indian ships in the Persian Gulf back then.

The same #epidemic also laid the context for ‘surveillance’ and ‘segregation’ aka ‘social distancing’ and ‘contact tracing’ built into the arcane Epidemic Act of 1897; now in force during the lockdown forced by Covid-19. The population of Bombay, as the city was known back then, was halved in a year as migrant labour working in the city’s textile mills and living in congested chawls ran back home to their villages. These events sound eerily familiar as the playbook for pandemic response is the same today as it was in 1896.

The new coronavirus, like many other viruses, is highly contagious, and in order to arrest its spread, social distancing is mandated. But for migrant workers crammed in the dormitories of Singapore and living in rooms housing 10-12 workers each, social distancing is not practical. At present, foreign workers from India and Bangladesh constitute the biggest rise in infections in the city-state. This steep increase in infections has led to criticism in the international media, including #SouthChinaMorningPost and #AlJazeera, which has dimmed the shine on Singapore’s healthcare success story. Singapore takes pride in its governance; it will certainly introduce measures post Covid-19 to attract local talent to work in the non-glamorous construction and shipping sectors, which attract the bulk of migrant workers.

In the Gulf, foreign workers living in poor living conditions are significantly more vulnerable. In addition, the low oil price environment in the region is triggering a spiral of retrenchments and default in salary payouts. Remittances to India from the Gulf from migrant workers feed millions of families in the southern states; and in recent times, in the Hindi heartland as well.

The Gulf Dream was powerful as it lifted millions of families out of poverty as most workers were low-skilled, in comparison to our #H1B cousins who stayed back in the US as they have the master-key to citizenship in the west, unlike in the Gulf. The Gulf’s infamous ‘Kafala system’ of labour governance ties the employee to the ‘Arbab’ or the sponsor, effectively limiting labour mobility. In recent years, a spate of nationalisation programmes across the region has hugely restricted the employment of foreign workers in a multitude of sectors.

The #SultanateofOman, probably the most at risk due to historically low oil prices, has brought in a rule permitting companies to fire foreign workers or place them on unpaid leave in the light of the coronavirus lockdown. An exception here is Qatar. Borrowing from the international bond markets is something unprecedented for the tiny, wealthy state, but it has guaranteed salaries both for locals and foreign workers for three months.

When international flights resume, there will be an avalanche of workers returning home, unwittingly endangering the health of host communities as seen in Kerala, where most Covid-19 infections originated from Dubai returnees. Wage arbitrage helped millions of Indian migrant workers to build lives and communities for the three generations in the Gulf and Singapore. As these countries restrict work-related stints due to bio-securitisation of passport controls and to spark employment for their own citizens, India would have to look at avenues that can plug the budgetary balance of payment deficits caused by plummeting ‘remittance riyals’.

India at the government-to-government level should negotiate with recipient countries about the best ways for a win-win situation for the workers and the governments. Philippines and Indonesia have set excellent best practices for outward migrant governance. So far, Indians have leveraged deep institutional networks to navigate choppy waters, such as the oil price crash after the 1998 #AsianFinancialCrisis. The Modi regime has had a successful outreach to the countries of the Gulf and Singapore, and hopefully will work the phones to avert the impending crisis.

(Manishankar Prasad is an independent researcher, writer, consultant and an expert in migration studies. He lives in Pune, India)