One of the states which has been lauded for it’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak is the South Indian state of Kerala. As of April 17, 2020 the total number of coronavirus cases, in the South Indian state was estimated at 395, with a total of 7 deaths (the total number of cases in India as of April 17, 2020 is 13,387 with 437 deaths). The state has been successful in flattening the curve in recent weeks, and the efficiency of the government in dealing with the outbreak has been acknowledged not just in India, but even globally.[RVListenButton]
The relative success of Kerala has been attributed to aggressive testing, timely detection, prompt contact tracing, a strict home quarantine (of 28 days) and an efficient public health system. Kerala is one of the few Indian states, which has attempted to follow the South Korean approach towards dealing with the epidemic – with a focus on testing (the state has even set up walk in sample kiosks (wisk) for mass collections of samples for coronavirus testing)
Kerala has been efficient, not just in terms of handling the virus, but state Chief Minister, Pinari Vijayan was quick to come up with an economic package, with a clear thrust on bolstering health care and providing some sort of relief to all sections of society. Some of the key highlights of t the package (estimated at Rs 20,000 crore) announced on March 19, were; Rs. 500 crore was allocated for the same), Rs 50 crore was allocated for providing meals at subsidised rates, Rs 100 crore for free food grains to be distributed to needy families. In addition to this, Rs 2,000 crore was sanctioned for an employment guarantee program, Rs. 2000 crore was allocated for the state’s poverty eradication and women empowerment scheme, and two months welfare pension was distributed in advance.
Apart from the above measures which are important, the package also took into account a number of other sectors, and provide relaxations, such as reduction of entertainment taxes for cinema halls, tax relief for passenger vehicles, and lowered fitness charges for autos and taxis.
Not all states have been as prompt in announcing such a comprehensive package.
Indian workers in the Gulf
While Kerala has done efficiently in controlling the virus, it is likely to face some serious challenges in the short run.
Of the Indian workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Countries — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman, a significant number (an estimated 1.8 Million) are from Kerala and most of them are stranded in the Gulf. The workers in the Gulf have contributed a whopping 90% of the total remittances received by the state, estimated at nearly Rs. 90,000 crore (Rs.88,000 Crore), were from Malayali workers in the Gulf.
The Kerala CM in a letter to the PM flagged the point that in the UAE out of 2.8 Million workers, 1 Million are from Kerala, and currently are at risk, because they live in cramped conditions and due to inadequate quarantine facilities, there is a possibility of community spread. Vijayan requested the central government to take up the issue of safety of these workers with the UAE government.
Some GCC countries like UAE have agreed to repatriate Indian workers, but the Government of India has stated, that it can only repatriate the workers on a priority basis, once the lockdown is over since there are not enough facilities for quarantining the workers. The Government of India has stated that it is in continuous touch with governments across the Gulf and is
It is not just the Government of Kerala which has raised the issue of blue collared workers in the Gulf. An NGO by the name of Pravasi Legal Cell, has filed a PIL in the Supreme Court of India, to repatriate workers from the Gulf since the blue collared workers have been quarantined in over crowded camps which do not have proper water or sanitation facilities. As a result, these workers are at a greater risk of contracting the virus. According to the PIL, these workers are not getting proper medical treatment, since the GCC countries are giving preference to their own citizens. The PIL has also urged the Government to compensate the families of these workers.
Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus, blue collared workers in the Gulf not just from India, but from other parts of South Asia have been ill treated by their employers in the Gulf. The problems they face include; not receiving salaries on time, poor accommodation and in many instances their passports have been confiscated by their employers.
Challenges for Kerala and other states with large number of migrants
Kerala’s challenge in the short run is to ensure the safety and well being of these workers in the Gulf, and to also have enough quarantine facilities in place, so that they can be repatriated at the earliest.
Given the state of the economy in the GCC, and the turbulence caused by the coronavirus, a large number of blue collared workers in the Gulf are likely to return.
On the one hand, Kerala is likely to face a major loss in terms of remittances, on the other hand in the longer run it needs to come up with innovative policies, to create employment opportunities for these workers. Apart from remittances, Kerala’s economy has been dependent upon tourism, which is likely to be severely impacted by the coronavirus. Getting the state’s economy back on track is likely to be a Herculean task.
In conclusion, states like Kerala will need to work jointly with New Delhi, not just to confront the short-term implications of the coronavirus, but also the economic implications. New Delhi should also provide greater economic support, to state governments to deal with the economic impact. ‘Cooperative Federalism’ can no longer be a mere slogan it needs to be put into practice. It is important for the central government to pay greater attention to the plight of blue collared workers in the Gulf who have contributed not just to the growth and development of their respective states, but the country as a whole, through their hard work.
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Consulting Editor, Geopolitics with The Dispatch, Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst. He is associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana. He is a former SAV Visiting Fellow (Winter 2016) with the Stimson Centre, Washington DC. Mr Maini was also an Asia Society India-Pakistan Regional Young Leaders Initiative (IPRYLI) Fellow (2013-14), and a Public Policy Scholar with The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Chennai (November 2013-March 2014). His research interests include; the role of Punjab in India-Pakistan ties, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the changing nature of Indian federalism. He is a contributor for a number of publications including; The Hindu, The Diplomat, Modern Diplomacy and The Geopolitics.