It was 100 years ago today that the greatest Indian pravasi returned to India. Mohandas Gandhi came back to change the moral and political landscape of India forever but not before he had left a lasting impression in the countries he lived in. This was a focal point of the pravasi bharatiya divas meeting, which ends today. It had Indians from all over the world participating.
But what do these meets really mean for the pravasi? For the labourers in Sri Lanka who found themselves trapped, it meant an uphill task to get the government to listen to their troubles. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of how he is a man who pays attention to the small details. This is absolutely relevant when it comes to the pravasi. But the focus of these pravasi divas events is almost always on those who have gone abroad from choice and made good. This is to forget the small pravasi whose contributions are rarely acknowledged and for whom the government of India ought to do much more than it does.
Many Indians abroad complain about how difficult it is for them to access the consulates and embassies for their needs. Even during difficult times like wars, the embassies often do not extend the help or information that the Indian abroad seeks. The prime minister spoke of life-long visas for people of Indian origin. This is a welcome step. But there are other pressing issues that need to be addressed. There are millions of Indians who have gone abroad not by choice but by economic compulsion. We have heard horror stories about Indians literally dying on choppy seas and strenuous overland routes to get to foreign countries.
The bulk of Indians in the Gulf, for example, go there to support families back home. Kerala alone has 2.3 million people in the Gulf who send back 14.57% of the total amount of foreign remittances. In fact, 30.8% of all remittances are from the Gulf, with 29.4% from the US and 19.5% from Europe.
It is no secret that Indian workers are left to their own devices once they are in the Gulf, where, unlike in the West, the rules and regulations which apply to guest workers are harsh. Often, the migrant finds his passport taken away by the employer and made to work for longer hours than stipulated in the contract. The plight of domestic workers is particularly heart-rending with many of them coming back in debt after having paid touts to get to the Gulf and then being short-changed by employers. This is not to generalise but such instances have been highlighted time and again. The government should use all leverage, including its economic might, to ensure that our workers get a decent deal in the Gulf.
Then there is the case of the returning pravasi. Again, Kerala has suffered hugely from workers being laid off in the Gulf. The competition from cheaper labour from South East Asia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh has forced many Indians out of jobs. In many cases, they come back home with nothing much to show for their work abroad and find themselves unable to enter the already tight job market. There has been much talk of schemes for their ‘rehabilitation’ but so far apart from their own associations, the government has done precious little to help.
The idea of a pravasi divas would be useful if something productive could come of it. The government ought to think of luring back professionals who could enhance and add value to sectors that need their expertise. One, of course, would be in scientific research where India is woefully short of trained manpower. Another would be in teaching faculty for higher education. Such people will not come easily unless conditions at home are made conducive for them.
The prime minister has shown the way in which the Indian diaspora can be used as a powerful lobbying tool in other countries. But so far, we have seen it work only in the US. The ministry of external affairs ought to consider getting NRIs in other countries also to try and influence governments, especially in the economic sector. In the Gulf, for example, barring the very rich NRIs, the pravasis have no clout at all.
At these events, in the past, we have seen the uber NRI being feted. But such people are canny with their money and will invest in India if assured of good returns, be it industrialists or professionals. And rightly so. Why should anyone put their hard-earned money into any project when it could be derailed by negative politics or bureaucratic red tape? Things could well change if the ease of doing business mantra is taken seriously but so far it has yet to kick in. The small pravasi, however, has no such ambitions. He sends the bulk of his earnings home. In fact, Kerala, which has a faltering economy, has been kept afloat largely by remittances.
In many villages in Punjab, the only route to economic salvation is seen in going abroad. The government should make it easier for people who want to migrate rather than make it so tough that they have to rely on touts. If there are proper records and a people-friendly procedure in place, we would not have the problem of so many illegal immigrants living under the radar in foreign countries with no rights at all.
The pravasi divas should, of course, be a celebration of the achievements of our people who have gone abroad. But it should lead to the serious business of the government being a facilitator for them whether it is to go abroad or eventually come back. And it could start with the small things like making the paperwork a little easier, offering skill development to unskilled workers who return, setting up a corpus for those who might return in debt and most of all using government to government contact to ensure that our workers get a good deal. That would be the greatest tribute to Gandhi as we celebrate his return to his homeland.