By Gyan Pathak
Internationally migrated people are among the most vulnerable groups to suffer disproportionally from COVID-19 pandemic. Due to repeated wave of infections destination countries and their people are hardening their policies and opinions about accepting the migrants. India is to greatly suffer in the present scenario posing a big challenge to the country.
India is presently battling the second wave of the pandemic. Even before the present wave, death in India – relative to the population – was highest in Asia. If we compare the situation as origin and destination countries for migrant workers, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries were worse than India, both in infection and deaths. It was a matter of serious concern for India because a large number of our citizens were there in the GCC countries. India needed to rescue its migrant workers through it Vande Bharat Mission.
The pandemic impacted the employment in destination countries very hard as the ADBI report on “Labour Migration in Asia: Impacts of the COVID-19 crisis and the post-pandemic future” has noted. Employment in the host economies of Asian migrant workers contracted significantly in 2020, according to ILO. India saw deployment numbers of migrant workers collapse. The outflow of workers in India between April and September 2020 was only 1.6 per cent of the same period in 2019, and decreased from 175,400 to only 2,900.
The government of India embarked on a large-scale evacuation and repatriation mission called the Vande Bharat mission. The evacuation flight missions started in May 2020 and within 2 months, 504,000 stranded Indian migrants, including workers, from 137 countries returned to their home in India. By the end of July, the number approached 900,000 returnees by air and over one million across land borders. Vande Bharat, by its eighth phase in November 2020, had repatriated over 3 million Indian nationals.
Return and Repatriation exercises in such a large number were complex. It required close coordination between different ministries, between the central and state governments, and with governments in countries of destinations. Ensuring the health and safety of returnees and avoiding community transmission was in itself a key issues. When the foreign variants of the virus were detected in the ongoing second wave, probing fingers are raised on the safety measures taken by the governments. Apart from the spread of new variants, rehabilitation of returnees has been an issue that is presently put under carpets. However, the issue may become serious in near future for which India need to be alert, because it would be complex with psychological problems too.
The present institution response by India included a new skill-mapping initiative and the Skilled Workers Arrival Database for Employment Support to facilitate the reintegration of migrant workers in the domestic labour market. However, given the worsening condition in the domestic labour market, and loss of employment, it is not going to be an easy task. Even before the pandemic, workers’ emigration from India had been declining compared to the last decade, which stood only at +8 per cent (370,000). Flow of Indian workers to GCC countries was 160,000 in 2019. The pandemic has shattered all hopes of improvement in migration from India. Deployment from India comprises almost men, though a large number of females are deployed in GCC countries in health sector.
Indian workers have been also been in employment in OECD countries, only second after China by 2013 (400,000 workers). By 2019, Indian workers in those countries grew by 15 per cent. The pandemic has reversed the trend from OECD countries also. Policy changes may block the outflow of workers from India to US, UK, Canada, Germany, Australia, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Netherlands, France, Poland etc. The main temporary permit for skilled migrant workers is dominated by Indians in the United States, who comprised 70 per cent of new recipients in the US in 2019, and 75 per cent in 2020. As a whole in OECD countries, India was the main Asian nationality in 2019, comprising 25 per cent of the total as a whole, but the pandemic may dampen this prospect.
International student mobility is also going to be seriously impacted. Though the government of India has been trying to become an important educational hub, enrolments have been almost stable at around 50,000 international students since 2015. Outbreak of the epidemic has almost stopped the international flow of students, both into and out for India. Large number of students are opting either for online classes or joining education institutions in their own countries. Students from India to other countries are largest from Asia. The pandemic has also disrupted their outflow and thus their education in foreign countries. A survey had reported last year that about 50 per cent of Indian student were reconsidering to go abroad. After the recent spike in infection all over the world, more students may not be willing to go abroad.
During 2016 and 2019, remittances to Asian countries as a whole increased by more than 20 per cent which topped $300 billion for the first time in 2019. Out of that India received $83 billion which was also a record. According to a World Bank report, such an encouraging level of remittances was expected to be followed by the sharpest decrease ever in 2020. If the second wave in India, and repeated waves elsewhere does not stop, and the countries of destinations do not soften their stance on migration into their countries, remittances for all the countries will suffer.
Since India receives the largest amount of remittances in Asia, it would become the worst sufferer in absolute terms, though may not be with sharpest decline as in Kyrgyz Republic or Uzbekistan. Share of remittances in GDP in India was 2.8 in 1019 as against 3.8 in 2013. This already falling share will fall sharply due to the pandemic, which the government would need to make up from other sources of foreign money to maintain the balance of payment position and repayment of debts. It would be difficult for India at a time when GDP was shrinking in 2020 and the green shoots of economic recovery seen early in 2021 has become uncertain after the worsening second wave of the pandemic. (IPA Service)