Amidst the ongoing stalled parliamentary proceedings, while answering a question posed by Shreyams Kumar, LJD parliamentarian from Kerala, the government recently informed the Upper House of some interesting data concerning Gulf migration. Moving from the usual queries, the Rajya Sabha member asked for details of Indians going abroad for employment during the past five years. But the detailed response of Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan should be a wake-up call, not just for the state of Kerala but also to the whole country. The Gulf dream is largely over.
According to the government, during the first half of this year, that is until June alone, 3,11,190 Indians went abroad ‘for employment reasons’. Given the travel restrictions, local lockdown and sluggish economic revival, that over three lakh people could go abroad for jobs is a heartening sign. However, reading the five-year figures tells a different story. Close to four million or 40 lakh people went for overseas jobs in 2016, and since then, the figures have been dropping and reached just over 25 lakhs in the pre-pandemic year of 2019; it dropped to just over seven lakhs in 2020 and until this June the number for 2021 stands at just over three lakhs.
The drop is more startling if one looks at the prime destination for Indian migration, the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE (see table).
If one looks at the figures for 2020 and the first half of 2021, migration to Qatar has increased substantially, and there are signs of growth in Indians seeking employment in Bahrain and Oman, but both are smaller economies. However, the momentum is sluggish vis-a-vis the larger economies and the most favoured destination of Indian migration, namely, Saudi Arabia and UAE.
One could also add the number of persons repatriated under the Vande Bharat Mission, and according to government figures, until 30 April, over six million or 60,92,264 Indians returned home. Once again the GCC countries take the lion’s share: Bahrain (78,128), Kuwait (2,26,777), Oman (3,29,139), Qatar (3,67,078), Saudi Arabia (4,79,103) and the UAE (25,44,288). Yes, over 25 lakh people came from the Emirates alone. In short, 40,24,513 out of 60,92,264 or 66% of those repatriated due to Covid came from the GCC countries. Let’s accept the uncomfortable fact: Most Gulf returnees are not going back there anytime soon. Looking for an alternative dream destination might work for individuals but not for such a large migrant population.
|Country||2016||2017||2018||2019||2020||Until June 2021|
|Total GCC countries||31,02,119||25,51,570||19,03,164||15,84,726||3,77,039||1,65,177|
While the pandemic is the main culprit, things were not rosy even earlier. As the figures indicate, Gulf migration is sliding since reaching a peak in 2016, especially in the Saudi and Emirati markets. Between 2016 and 2019, only Bahrain, despite facing domestic unrest, was showing some stability. This was not the case with other countries. And while more Indians went to Qatar in the first six months of June than the whole of 2020, this should be seen in the context of Qatar hosting the FIFA World Cup in November next year and the need to expedite infrastructure projects.
The falling number of Gulf migrants and increasing Gulf returnees point to India’s larger hardships in the coming years. Arabisation of the labour force, falling oil revenues, entry of women in the Arab labour market, especially in the professional and retailing sector, competition from migrants from other Asian countries and an overall slump in the construction industry have contributed to falling demand for Indian migrants. This, in turn, will have harsh implications for labour-exporting states like Kerala, which depends heavily upon Gulf remittances to manage the state economy.
Lesser Gulf migration means a host of cascading effects; lesser employment abroad, fall in remittances and lesser demand from semi-skilled professions in labour-exporting states like Kerala for internal migration from other parts of India. With none foreseeing an early end to the pandemic or an effective antidote, a vast majority of repatriated Indians will not return to their jobs in the Gulf. Countries that opened their streets and skies due to domestic economic pressures are witnessing a resurgence of different variants. The pre-Covid normal still appears a distant and even elusive dream.
MoS Muraleedharan has presented a stark picture. If India does not rise to the occasion, the falling Gulf migration, huge Gulf returnees and falling remittances are a cocktail for sudden social unrest.
P R Kumaraswamy
Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East there