How coronavirus has exposed the pain points of migration and globalisation

Topics Coronavirus

Cross-border movement of population promotes multi-culturalism, boosts economic growth and has been known to improve work ethic as well
Rewind to the decade of the 90s. That was the era in which India was ushering in economic liberalisation and a catchphrase called globalisation began capturing political imagination the world over. National boundaries became blurred, economic integration and cross-border migration gathered momentum, as world leaders bought the globalisation story even before it began to play out.

Fast-forward to the present day. Suddenly, globalisation is no longer seen as the panacaea it was 25-30 years ago and migration, earlier regarded as a desirable social process that supported the cause of a global community, is now viewed with trepidation and fear. What caused this 180-degree turn in mindset?

Before we answer that question, let's take a quick look at some numbers. By one estimate, some 17 million Indians were living outside the country in 2017 and around 391,000 went abroad as unskilled migrants. According to the 2001 census, 259 million people migrated from one state to another and from village to village.

Every day, the country welcomes migrants into its fold while simultaneously seeing a stream of ethnic Indians moving overseas for work or to become global citizens. It is a typical cycle, albeit not necessarily a vicious one from the emigrant's point of view -- on the one hand, the desire to improve one's economic lot provides the stimulus to emigrate and on the other, financial ability to emigrate provides mobility to the mover. Cross-border movement of population promotes multi-culturalism, boosts economic growth and has been known to improve work ethic as well.

But there is the flip side to migration. For starters, it has the potential to radically change the demographics and culture of a nation, especially when the influx of foreigners is complemented by an outflow of the ethnic population. The other aspect, which has come into focus recently due to the spread of the coronavirus, is the potential of the accepting nation to import diseases from the incoming foreigner or returning Indian. Everybody's uncle will tell you that the Coronavirus spread from Chinese migrants to the populations in their host countries, and that disease made inroads into India due to the influx of Indians returning home from abroad and foreigners visiting the country. There is little argument against the theory that entrepreneurs, businessman, employed public, and entertainers who travel to various parts of the world have contributed a lot in dissemination of this malady in India. This is especially true in the case of semi-skilled, unskilled Indian migrants returning from the Middle East.

The fallout of this is quite evident. The traditional welcome accorded to those who returned from destinations within and outside India has given way to a great deal of fear especially, in cases where the returnee is from the US and Europe, or from Mumbai, Pune and Kerala, where Covid-19 infection is rampant.

Covid-19, in fact, seems to have stirred up an older theory about HIV-AIDS having made deep inroads into the country through lower middle-class migrants, and poor labourers. This segment has traditionally been treated with much disdain in larger cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Ahmedabad, with the affluent sections viewing them as unclean and keeping them at more than an arm's length, although they have no qualms about using their labour in their factories and homes. This problem is more conspicuous in larger metros like Mumbai, where stark lines have virtually bifurcated the city into the have-not segment of slumdwellers, and chawl and basti residents, and the richer classes living in highrises.

Yet coronavirus is different from AIDS in that it has wrecked this great divide and brought home to the affluent sections that the disease is agnostic to economic status. Unlike AIDS, it isn't largely limited to the poorer class, and that you could contract with as much, if not more, ease from your next-door neighbour or best friend as you could from your maid or factory hand. So suddenly, colleagues at work and social circles have become the new untouchables, to use a particularly harsh term. You don't pratice social distancing with your laundryman or maid--you practice it with those of your kind and stature.

One argument states that it is also out of context to believe that poor migrants are the principle carriers of epidemics in the host country. More often than not, it is the other way round, and they contract diseases in the destination country and bring it back home.

This mindset is exemplified in a folk song popular among womenfolk in the villages of Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh, which goes: ‘Railya na Bairi, Jahajiya na bairi, Paisawa bairi na, Mor saiya ka bilmawe re paisawa bairi na’. (Neither the rail, nor the ship, only money is our enemy, for taking away our husbands to distant places for work).

The sum and substance, however, is that while economic mobility adds to the GDP and foreign exchange reserves, it also brings with it negatives in the form of epidemics that have the potential to wreck large-scale destruction of humanity. The silver lining, as history has shown, is that humanity has this remarkable potential to rise from the ashes and reinvent itself.

A friend from Uttar Pradesh's Jaunpur district-town, which has been under lockdown due to the coronavirus spread, puts this understanding of globalisation quite succintly with this sage piece of advise: 'Save your self from Pardeshi’. Bideshi is the Hindi word for foreigner, though it also refers to the native who settled abroad or stayed there for years at a stretch. Pardesi is the term north Indians use to describe migrants seeking livelihood in other nations.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel