Over the weekend a proactive ministry of external affairs, led by minister Sushma Swaraj, worked to help more than 10,000 Indian workers who had lost their jobs and were short of food supplies. Swaraj’s appeal, on Twitter, to the 3 million Indians in Saudi Arabia to help “fellow brothers and sisters” paid off. Ministers of state VK Singh and MJ Akbar are looking into the matter in Saudi Arabia and in Kuwait, where a similar situation has been reported.
Swaraj deserves all praise for her various interventions to address the problems non-resident Indians (NRIs) have faced in the past two-and-a-half years. She has used social media platforms to directly intervene and help NRIs — in June when a Class 10 girl tweeted that her father was jailed in Saudi Arabia, Swaraj comforted the girl that the Indian embassy in Riyadh was on the case, and united the girl with her father.
There is a personal touch and reassuring urgency that Swaraj brings when it comes to addressing such problems — but is that enough? With more Indians set to return from West Asia over the next few years does the Government of India have a plan on how to absorb this wave of returnees?
There are mainly two reasons why it can be anticipated that more NRIs will be returning.
One, the fall in oil prices have meant that governments across West Asia—including Saudi Arabia—have initiated austerity measures, and some forecasts say that oil prices will remain at current rates till the end of 2017. That would force governments and private companies to further tighten their belts, which in effect would see more NRIs losing their jobs.
Two, many governments are now making it mandatory for companies to hire local labour — like the Nitaqat law in Saudi Arabia. The impact of labour localisation policies adopted by many Gulf Cooperation Council countries on India is not fully understood. At the same time while the Saudi Arabia story was in the headlines, about 76 Indian nurses working in Oman were asked to leave.
The return of the unemployed NRI has severe social and economic consequences, many of which India is not prepared for.
The economic implications of more NRIs returning are that there would be a dip in the foreign remittances, and this would decrease the disposable income with households. This would, in turn, spike the unemployment levels and soaring unemployment levels often have an adverse effect on law and order.
The MEA deserves praise for its alacrity in reaching out to NRIs in distress. But that’s half the job, and leaves the question: Is the Centre and state prepared for the return of large numbers of unemployed NRIs?