Worried over illegal immigration and horror stories of Indian workers being cheated and abused abroad, the government proposes to overhaul the existing law.
“The new measures would include stiff penalties, including jail terms up to five years, for agents exploiting poor people,” Vyalar Ravi, minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, told Hindustan Times.
This newspaper has run stories in recent weeks of Indians workers abroad being cheated or dumped by unscrupulous agents, starting with the case of 120 workers agitating in the US state of Mississippi.
It then ran a high profile five-part series of articles about legal and illegal immigrants from the hubs of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala and their travails from around the world. There are an estimated three lakh Indians illegally staying and possibly working abroad, the ministry says.
The government plans to amend the Emigration Act, 1983 — during the next session of Parliament — to bring stringent measures to prevent the smuggling of people, rich or poor, and regulate the trade.
“The government is also considering laying down eligibility standards for recruitment agents and giving statutory powers to the Indian missions abroad for ensuring workers safety,” Ravi said.
The amendments will, among other things, make it compulsory for the recruitment agents and authorities to have a documented record of all Indians leaving the country for overseas employment, officials said.
Maintaining that the responsibility of checking the thriving illegal business of unauthorised agents lay with the states, the Union ministry proposes to ask states to have specific laws to crack down on erring agents. “The prosecution powers are with the states. We have found their attitude to be lukewarm in dealing with this serious issue,” Ravi said.
This is a big battle and the ministry is not holding back punches. It has also launched a series of awareness programmes to encourage the legal ways of going abroad, and highlighting the dangers of illegal practices. “Multilingual helplines providing information about the immigration rules have been launched in some states. A Rs 90-crore skill upgradation programme is now running in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Punjab. We aim to train nearly two lakh people to acquire specialised skills in construction industry during the next four years, to turn the foreign aspirants to develop specialised skills,” said G. Gurucharan, joint secretary in the ministry.
The government is working to reverse the trend of large-scale migration to the Gulf countries, by encouraging Indians to take up jobs in the European Union member countries.
The government is also working on a EU-sponsored pilot project with the International Organisation for Migration, to remove bottlenecks from legal immigration of Indian workers, Gurucharan said.
But critics are not convinced about the measures being planned.
Former Union minister Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, who has been fighting for people cheated by unauthorised agents, terms the measures cosmetic, and says there is a lack of political will to tackle this menace.
He wants harsher measures. “District officials, wherever unauthorised agents are found functioning, should be suspended. And the agents should be charged with non-bailable offences, including kidnapping, alluring the poor and cheating.”
Recruitment agents, not willing to be named, agreed. “It takes just one bad fish to bring a band name to the entire profession. Action against frauds should be harsh,” said one.
The ball has at least been set rolling.