This section consists of the primary findings arranged thematically to highlight the various challenges faced during the reverse migration, repatriation and reintegration of both the categories of migrant workers. Under each subheading, first the narratives of the internal migrants are presented followed by those of international migrants. In the next section, a comparative analysis of the findings is done and some common problem areas emerging from the findings have been delineated.
Economic challenges during reverse migration
Due to the COVID-19-induced lockdown, the working class, especially the low-income migrant workers, have been the worst affected (Pandey, 2020). They were retrenched in large numbers, were rendered unemployed with their wages unpaid in the destination states which forced them to return to their origin states. Lokesh, one of our respondents and a construction worker who returned from Karnataka to Odisha, the lack of employment and wage theft pushed him to return to his native state during the lockdown. Similarly, Mahesh who was working in a hotel when the lockdown was imposed stated:
“I was in Delhi for the past 15 years… During the lockdown I was provided with full salary for March and very less salary for April. The salary for the month of May was unpaid. I cannot survive in Delhi on my savings without any job. So finally, I came back in the month of June to Bihar.”
A few internal migrants reported that they received work under the same employer/contractor after the lockdown but complained of non-payment of wages during the lockdown period. They were forced to return to their villages due to unpaid wages, no place to live with basic facilities such as electricity and water provided by the contractor/employer and no immediate governmental protection. While recalling the plight of these migrant workers, a social worker in Delhi explained how the migrants faced wage theft and retrenchment by their employers when the lockdown commenced, however, when the restrictions eased and industrial work resumed, they were ready to pay the workers. Such instances reveal how the migrant workers were treated as a means to an end and not as citizens whose welfare matters. However, there were a few internal migrants who had stayed back in Delhi, which was their destination state, even during the lockdown period. The reason they reported for not returning was lack of work in their village and that they still hold their jobs in Delhi. They also stated how their employers had arranged for a place to live on the construction premises, took care of the basic facilities like food, electricity and water supply and that they resumed work once the restrictions were lifted.
Similar despicable conditions were experienced by the Indian migrant workers in Gulf countries. There was an urgency to return to India among them caused by large-scale retrenchments due to the unplanned lockdown (Kumar & Akhil, 2021). Hassan, a driver by profession and the only earning member of his household, was one of the many workers retrenched by the private companies in UAE. He was forced to survive on his savings after returning to his native state Tamil Nadu. Wage theft was commonly reported by both internal and international migrants. Bala, a returnee from Oman to Tamil Nadu, reported how his employer did not pay him his due wages, retrenched him and did not even offer to cover the flight expenses to India. Arun, a construction worker, who returned from Kuwait to Tamil Nadu stated his plight:
“Along with me, three were working as helpers in a construction site. Since the lockdown the work was halted, and we were not getting paid. For a few days, the employer gave us food…Then he asked us to return to India as he has no money to take care of us. When we asked for our salary, he threatened us that he would file a false complaint to the police against us if we ask for money…”
However, a few international migrants reported that their employers paid their due wages, arranged for their return, got their Covid tests done and therefore did not face any problem as far as their return to their village was concerned. None of the respondents of this study were a part of trade unions.
Social challenges during reverse migration
This segment consists of the social challenges faced by migrants before and after the governmental repatriation. The migrants interviewed reported instances of discrimination against them and being viewed as the spreaders of the virus in the destination city/state, during their journey back home, in quarantine facilities and in their villages. Maitheli, who is a wife of a migrant construction worker, experienced stigmatization when returning from Maharashtra to her village in MP a week before the lockdown. She narrated:
“We started our journey before the lockdown in a bus as we had to attend a wedding in March… However due to the news of the spread of Covid, even then people were avoiding interactions with us… some people even placed a cloth to cover their mouth and nose while passing by…”
Rahul returning from Delhi to the state of Bihar reported his experience of caste-based discrimination at the quarantine centre. He explained how people belonging to the higher castes resided on the ground floor with all the facilities while those belonging to the lower castes were kept on the second floor without facilities. Another international migrant reported lack of basic facilities at the quarantine facility in UP and that his family had to provide him with food. This points to the gross neglect of the migrants and puts the entire rationale of quarantine and social distancing into question.
Amanatullah, an international migrant returning from Kuwait to UP reported how even after completing the quarantine period in both the origin and destination states with proper Covid testing done, the villagers, though temporarily, maintained their distance for a few weeks. The interviews revealed that the nature of discrimination in the villages ranged from physical distancing to isolation and hostility which included threats of cutting off supplies of basic necessities to the migrant workers and their families on the basis of mere suspicion of being infected with COVID-19. Dilip, a construction worker returning from UAE to his village in MP, also reported similar discrimination. However, when inquired about his sentiments regarding this, he also blamed the migrant workers for inviting such discrimination:
“Yes some villagers discriminated against us… It felt bad… but even the migrants are at fault as they hide their symptoms, escape the Covid tests and don’t follow the rules so somewhere or the other the villagers rightly set their distance with them since the nature of virus is dangerous...”
At the destination countries, the Indian migrant workers in Kuwait were stripped of their accommodation and were forced to resort to cramped shelters and unhygienic living spaces. Raju, described the despicable situation of Indian workers in Kuwait, where he had been staying under a shed in a nearby car parking space for the 2 weeks along with 150 more workers. Hailing mostly from Indian states like Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal, these migrant workers were getting limited support from a voluntary organization of one meal per day.
Since the international migrants had to incur their own travel fare during their repatriation, the interviewed returnees had inculcated a feeling of discrimination when compared to other Indian citizens who could afford the expenses to return to India. Most of them had limited financial resources which were insufficient to bear the cost of accommodation, food and return tickets. This category of migrants have low literacy level and have little to no bargaining power with their employers who retrenched them abruptly and alienated them in a foreign country.
Migrant workers’ mobility challenges
Initially, the central government was reluctant to rescue the stranded migrants both within and abroad, despite appeals from different stakeholders such as state governments, civil society and trade unions (Desai, 2020; Haider, 2020). Despite the strict mobility restrictions imposed by the government, the distressed internal migrants kept moving on foot or in unsanitary lorries or trucks towards their origin states due to their inability to sustain in the expensive urban areas (Rather & Yousuf, 2020). They faced numerous problems while attempting to cross state borders such as police brutality, grievous injuries with reports of even death due to exhaustion and dehydration (FPJ Bureau, 2020). There was a lack of coordination among the central and state governments resulting in contradictory stances while handling the mass migration (Rather & Yousuf, 2020). At the same time, the employers retrenched the migrant labourers as their businesses were shut due to the lockdown. This resulted in thousands being stranded on various inter-state borders such as Karnataka-Maharashtra and Delhi-Uttar Pradesh (Abi-Habib & Yasir, 2020). Rannvijay, a construction worker who returned from Delhi to Bihar, was rendered jobless and due to lack of proper transportation arrangements by the government, he had to travel back independently in a truck to his village. One of the social workers we interviewed described the desperate circumstances that the low-skilled workers had to face in Delhi due to the imposition of the sudden lockdown. He explained:
“Most of the workers stranded on the streets were from low-income groups and belonged to industries such as construction, restaurant, etc. Many workers were stranded on the streets with their families and were rendered jobless. Nobody was there to help them.”
There was an increased pressure from all the stakeholders as several petitions were filed in High Courts and the Supreme Court of India to rescue stranded migrants in various states/countries (Desai, 2020; NH Political Bureau, 2020). After one and a half month of the lockdown, the central government started Shramik (workers) special trains and local buses on the request of the state governments. From May 2020 onwards, 4621 Shramik special trains were operated for rescuing both stranded persons and migrants which transported 63.19 lakh (around 6 million) passengers to their origin states (Ministry of Railways, 2020). The Indian Railways allowed only those passengers to travel who were facilitated by the destination state governments. Given the lack of availability of latest data on internal migrants, the Indian government also launched the National Migrant Information System where details of the migrants commuting via the Shramik trains could be maintained for seamless communication between state governments and contact tracing if needed (Karthikeyan, 2020). There was widespread criticism against the central government for making the poor and distressed migrants pay for their ticket despite amassing huge amounts in the PM-CARES Fund established to provide emergency relief during the COVID-19 crisis. Following much confusion and a political tussle between the central and state governments regarding the sharing of travel expenses even when the special trains were running, the state governments later offered to cover their fare (Dhingra, 2020).
Interviews with migrants revealed the difficulties they faced while boarding the special train. Deepak, returning from Delhi to UP, reported that the passengers were not provided with food and water while other respondents reported that they were provided with one meal on a long journey. The train Deepak boarded left him at a place which was 84 kms away from his home. This experience was shared by a few other respondents where they had to cover the remaining distance on their own. Another complexity was related to the online ticket booking process since most of the migrants lacked access to and knowledge about digital technology. The information regarding the Shramik trains was advertised on digital media and the ticket could be booked only in online mode. One of the respondents highlighted how some migrants were unable to return due to their lack of awareness and inability to book the ticket online. Here it is important to emphasise the role played by NGOs and trade unions in the repatriation of migrants either by bus or special train. Yogesh, who returned from Karnataka to Chhattisgarh, described how the migrants who booked the tickets through exploitative agents paid an exorbitant fee:
“Some received help from their family members and friends. But a majority of the workers went back with the help of NGOs, trade unions and their employers. Those who went back with the help of travel agencies and dealers had to pay around 1500-2000 rupees in order to reach home.”
A number of senior academicians and civil society members had pointed towards the ineffective governmental efforts in spreading awareness about the contact details of the designated officials to help with the free online ticket booking and caution them against the exploitative third parties (Counterview, 2020). This resulted in a number of migrants being unable to return on their own or returning late or still walking on foot towards their origin state even when the trains were operating in comparison to those migrants who had the necessary resources and support.
Following appeals from various stakeholders and Indians stuck abroad, especially from the Gulf countries, the central government initiated the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) on 7th May, 2020. As per the data provided by the MEA, until 11th September, 2020, over 1,385,670 Indian nationals stranded abroad had been repatriated under the VBM (MEA, 2020). MEA provided a list of country-wise and category-wise registration list of stranded Indians in foreign countries (MEA, 2020a). As per this list, Indian workers stranded in the Gulf were the highest amongst other categories requesting for their repatriation. As per the latest statistics available on 10th March, 2021, 3.25 million workers had been repatriated from the Gulf (MEA, 2021). The Kuwait government helped in repatriating the undocumented migrants back to India by paying for their amnesty flights and allowing these migrants to re-apply for their visa at a later date (Dutta, 2021).
In order to board a special flight, returnees from Gulf countries under VBM had to afford their own high-cost flight tickets as per the central government guidelines. Kumar, who worked as a driver in Kuwait, discussed his experience of availing the VBM flight during a telephonic conversation with the Indian Embassy in Kuwait as follows:
“First they asked for details like my name, where I worked, whether I am willing to go back home, they asked about the nature of my problem and after gathering the remaining details, they asked me whether I have the money to purchase the flight tickets. If I say ‘yes’ only then they were proceeding the call, if ‘no’ then they (may) disconnect the call. If I say ‘yes’ then they will ask me to undergo a COVID-19 test and fourteen days quarantine. If we agreed, only then they will inform us about the procedure to book the tickets and our name will be noted. Based on this, we can either go home or not.”
The above narration reveals the plight and vulnerability of the stranded Indian workers awaiting repatriation. Further, the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare had prescribed 14 days of mandatory quarantine for all international arrivals with the first 7 days to be spent in institutional quarantine (Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, 2020). All the respondents of this study reported undergoing the COVID-19 tests and either institutional or home quarantine. It should be noted that for internal migrants, quarantine facilities and COVID-19 testing were state-sponsored. However, for international migrants, the expenses for institutional quarantine and COVID-19 testing had to be incurred by the passengers themselves (Srivastava, 2020). They could avail exemption from institutional quarantine but only by submitting a negative RT-PCR test result, which was also an expensive test. Thus, the international reverse migrants had to bear a major financial burden during the governmental repatriation and only those who could afford the high travel expenses could easily avail the VBM flights.
Process of economic reintegration of reverse migrants
Before discussing the experiences of the respondents with regard to their economic reintegration, we will mention the short-term and long-term measures taken by the central government to reintegrate the migrant workers in the post-COVID-19 economy. The central government announced a Rs 1.70 lakh crore (US$ 22.8 billion) relief package for the vulnerable sections which included categories of people who are migrants (Ministry of Finance, 2020). The central government urged the state governments to mobilize the Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Welfare Fund which would benefit around 35 million construction workers registered under the Act (Ministry of Labour and Employment, 2020). However, it should be noted that there are an estimated 56 million workers in the construction sector (Nag and Afonso, 2021).
Additionally, several state governments such as UP, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan announced one-time immediate cash benefits of Rs 1000 to 5000 (USD 13.59–67.12) and free rations through the Public Distribution System (PDS) (Anand and Thampi, 2020). Subsequently, after immense media attention, another relief package was announced of Rs. 20 lakh crores (USD 270 billion approx.) to benefit the migrant workers, self-employed and small traders. (Ministry of Finance, 2020a). The scheme ‘One nation one ration card’ was announced to be implemented across India in 2021 to enable migrants to access ration from any fair price shop in India using a digital card. Between April 1 and May 20, 2020, there was a sudden increase in the registrations (around 3.5 million workers) for MGNREGA, a rural employment scheme promising 100 days of work, pointing to increased need for employment (Chauhan, 2020).
It should be noted that such short-term relief packages by the central government were absent in the case of international migrants. Kerala was the only state in India which provided a one-time cash benefit of Rs. 5000 to them (Mathrubhumi, 2020) Also, the Kerala government aimed to help around 5000 Non-Resident Keralites under the Non-Resident Keralites Affairs (NORKA) Department Project for Returned Emigrants (NDPREM) scheme by offering Rs. 50 lakhs (USD 67,123) to each expat to facilitate their own business ventures (ET Bureau, 2020). Acknowledging the huge amount of remittances from the international migrants which benefitted the economy, Kerala also launched an exclusive integration programme called the ‘Dream Kerala Project’. It provides a platform for the business sector to tap the expertise of skilled human resources returning to Kerala after losing jobs abroad (Press Trust of India, 2020). The role of Kerala government in caring for its migrant community from organising community kitchens for stranded migrants to introducing long-term reintegrative measures has been praiseworthy.
As a long-term measure for the labour market integration of both internal and international reverse migrants, the central government announced a Rs 50,000 crore (USD 6.9 billion) ‘Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan’ which involved skill mapping of migrant workers and connecting women with self-help groups for enhancing employment opportunities. (Ministry of Rural Development, 2020). In view of the lack of data on internal migrants, the government also announced to conduct an All India Survey on Migrant Workers and develop a National Database of Unorganised Workers (NDUW), which would include details of the migrants such as name, occupation, address, educational qualifications and skill type, etc. in order to secure employability and social security benefits for the inter-state migrant workers (Ministry of Labour and Employment, 2021).
SWADES (Skilled Workers Arrival Database for Employment Support), a joint initiative of the Ministry of Skill Development & Entrepreneurship, the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the MEA, aimed to create a database of migrant workers based on their skill set and experience to fulfil the demands of Indian and foreign companies (Ministry of Civil Aviation, 2020). For facilitating employment opportunities, details of SWADES registrations were integrated with Skill India’s ASEEM (Aatmanirbhar Skilled Employee Employer Mapping) portal. As per the latest data, i.e. January 25th, 2021, more than 30,500 workers have registered for the SWADES Skill Card, out of which more than 24,500 are returnees from GCC countries (Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, 2021). Further, all data regarding Indians returning under VBM was shared with the state governments.
The internal migrants interviewed reported a sparse coverage of the government relief package as only a few respondents received immediate cash benefits. Only half of the respondents from UP and Bihar received a one-time cash benefit while the remaining did not. Sudesh, a construction worker, reported that he received free ration which would sustain his family only for 15–20 days of a month. A survey of 11,000 migrant workers conducted in April 2020, by SWAN (Stranded Workers Action Network) reported that none of the workers had received ration by the government during the lockdown period (Pandey, 2020). Our study (conducted between May – August, 2020) revealed that half of the respondents were able to avail rations at their native states even though its quantity and duration varied from within and across states included in our study. Those who did not receive free ration reported that they did not have a ration card, or their name was not included in the family’s ration card or were not present to provide a thumb impression to the biometric machine as they migrated to other states hinting at the non-portability of benefits. The data of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs indicated that the free ration scheme had failed because almost 11 states distributed less than 1% of food grains allocated to them (Sharma, 2020). Also, an RTI revealed that barely 10% of the Rs. 20 lakh crore stimulus package was distributed (The Tribune, 2020). Almost all the respondents reported not receiving work under MGNREGA. Ram, a construction worker and a registered MGNREGA worker, who returned to his native state Bihar in June stated that:
“It has been in news that people who have migrated to Bihar shall be provided with employment. But I did not get work under MGNREGA ever since I returned to my village.”
As a result, they were unable to find secure employment in their villages and were willing to remigrate to the urban areas or work under the same contractor/ employer who were unsupportive towards them when the lockdown commenced (Kumar, 2020). Amongst the international migrants interviewed, almost all of them were willing to remigrate abroad once the restrictions eased both in India and at the destination countries. Prem, one of the international migrants from MP, spoke about his desperation to remigrate to cover debts:
“After returning from UAE, so far I did not find any good job opportunities at par with the salary which I was earning abroad. Also our family has some debts which I can only settle if I work abroad for a high salary as the salary is very low here.”
Palani worked as a driver in Saudi Arabia and returned to UP after he was retrenched. However, he was willing to remigrate to any foreign country owing to the low level of wages in India in order to take care of his family. Thus, the data suggests that most of them are eager to remigrate than to stay back in their native states due to low wages, inability to find suitable employment opportunities and governmental support for integration. The remaining migrants, both internal and international, were uncertain about their return due to job losses, closing of the businesses where they used to work at or were willing to begin a new venture in their native states.