The unprecedented migrant distress witnessed in India in the weeks following the lockdown showed the neglect of a massive, critical presence in the country’s urban workforce. S Irudaya Rajan, professor at the Centre For Development Studies, has been studying internal and external migration patterns, especially the Gulf. Rajan spoke to Aditya Srinivasan about the lockdown’s impact on the future of migration in India and measures to bring it back on track

Why do you think the central and state governments failed to account for a massive, vulnerable group like the migrants while framing lockdown strategies?

Migrants were never in the mainstream. They are typically neglected by policy makers despite the enormity of their contribution to families, communities, the economy and society. Entire cities in India depend on their work and presence, which became evident when large groups of migrants tried to leave major urban centres. Because migrants were not in the mainstream, policy makers failed to recognise their contribution. A slightly longer notice period — perhaps three or four days — before the lockdown would have allowed migrants to move. This would have spread the virus, but prevented the crisis of mobility from reaching this scale. The crisis is also indicative of migrant vulnerability before the lockdown. Their lives are precarious even in ‘normal’ times — jobs are vulnerable and salaries were variable. The pandemic only serves to bring this everyday vulnerability into focus. We are now talking about their needs as a group and policies concerning migration.

When do you see internal migration in India returning to pre-lockdown levels?

I expect business as usual in another six months, but migration flows will take a year or two to reach pre-lockdown levels. The extended pause pushed migrants back to square one. Transport and other infrastructure may rebuild, allowing migrants to move once more. But the intensity of migration will not recover unless the industries themselves rebuild. The monetary incentive for migrants will likely return only after an extended period.

Will we be seeing changes in the seasonal migration patterns of 10 million rural migrants?

Distance is now going to be a more important factor — shorter distances will likely become the norm. The actions of the government at the central and state levels will also play a role in shaping circular migration. Employment opportunities in source areas need to be strengthened so that those covering long distances are not rendered acutely vulnerable. Circular migration will also be affected by changes in salaries, new employment opportunities, and so on — the effects of which are still unclear. People will likely move when there are better wages and projects coming from urban expansion and development. If cities can shape their policy frameworks, circular migration will continue.

Kerala’s diaspora is already keen to return. Will there be more emigrants rushing back to India?

Many livelihoods will be lost and this will push people abroad to come back. But India itself could face an economic slowdown for months. Those returning to India will need to deal with this dual crisis. I expect at least 10-15% of Indian emigrants to return to India to tide over the crisis and its aftermath. In Kerala, we are expecting at least 2-3 lakh returnees. But policy and crisis management in destination countries will significantly determine return patterns.

Will there be a shift in migration corridors?

Corridors will likely change, but largescale changes are unlikely, especially in traditional corridors such as the Gulf. The aspirational value of some dream destinations is reducing, especially the US. Canada, the UK and Australia will likely emerge as new key corridors. The US and some other countries will become less attractive — both due to the severity of the pandemic and their responses to the crisis, which could create a trust deficit for migrants.

How can industries, especially in the informal sector, prepare for such crises?

Economic packages can help with this problem. Industries now need to stick together and inform the government about their losses, mandates and needs. This can ensure an adequate support system in times of crisis and reduced vulnerability of the industries, and by extension the migrants. Cash transfers, tax holidays, and other measures could prove to be catalysts.

What are the broad lessons for other states from Kerala’s management of migrants?

The administration recognised, accepted and adapted to the role of migration in shaping society. The first lesson is that basic attitudes need to change. Economic development cannot be spoken of independently of migrants. Second, this acceptance vastly improved the speed and efficiency of Kerala’s policy response. Kerala considered a number of responses ahead of time — administrators knew that the main issues will be food, shelter and containment policy for migrants. Third, reacting swiftly also allowed the government space to prepare for potential complications. This applies to those who may return from abroad later. Preparation for the future as far ahead as this helps mitigate the crisis in real time. It has also created an investment plan — a return migration investment package which will provide financial support to return migrants.