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Non-existing Indians

We’re so proud of the NRI success story. But any takers for the ugly side of the diaspora tale, asks Lalita Panicker.

india Updated: Dec 02, 2007 23:08 IST
Lalita Panicker

A few months ago, New York hosted the first overseas Pravasi Bharatiya Divas to showcase India’s progress at 60. Conferences, receptions, cultural shows and business meetings flew thick and fast as the Big Apple got a taste of the fascinating entity that is India. All eyes were on foreign investment and the upbeat mood among NRIs who were at last beginning to see India as an attractive business destination. Of course, it is another matter that few thought of throwing a few pennies India’s way when the economy was not doing quite so well. Many of the NRIs whom we now celebrate as our boys and girls made good were not exactly beating a path to our door in the bad old days.

But things are changing now and why grouse about the past. In fact, many Indians who have done spectacularly well are now even engaged in social development in India. We know all about them because they are the success stories that make for great news. But how little we get to hear of the other side of the diaspora, those who work abroad in low-paying jobs and send the bulk of their money home.

“Just a few days ago, Dubai saw a major uprising by workers, the majority of them Indians. Since I was travelling in the region, we got some idea of the simmering anger and frustration among Indians. Their working conditions were pitiable and with the falling value of the dollar they were losing Rs 7-8 per dollar of their earnings.” Not words from some do-gooder NGO but an answer to a question put to the Minister for Overseas Indians, Vyalar Ravi, whose home state Kerala’s economy is fuelled by remittances from emigrant workers. Many workers who dared to revolt stand to lose their jobs today.

Five million Indians work in the Gulf, many of them in horrific conditions and for as little as a $ 1 an hour for backbreaking work in the sweltering desert region. The Pravasi Divas jamborees of which we have had many here hardly feature them. For years, the lesser pravasis have been complaining about the stepmotherly treatment meted out to them by the Indian government. The largest number of emigrants work in Saudi Arabia, not exactly on the top of the charts for its adherence to human rights. For minor offences that are not usually proved in a court, several Indians have been sentenced to death. Contrast this with the furore that Western countries make when one of their nationals is convicted in another country.

In Malaysia, which has been in the news recently for its institutionalised policy of discrimination towards even its citizens of Indian origin, the plight of Indian emigrants is pathetic. Around 150,000 Indians, many of them unskilled workers and labourers, now find that their visas have not been extended. The government has now vowed action, but the Malaysians are not exactly trembling in their boots.

When those who are turfed out abroad come back home, the government coolly looks the other way. A comprehensive policy to deal with people who have lost their jobs abroad has been in the works for years. The problems faced by women emigrants are worse still though they remain a faceless part of the diaspora. Those who go abroad as housemaids in the homes of exploitative employers are forced to work long hours and subject to torture and abuse of various forms. Many are the only breadwinners for their families and cannot return.

A while before the New York fiesta, an Indian housemaid jumped off the third floor of an apartment in Bahrain to escape her employer. For a meagre salary of 40 Bahrain dirhams a month, the woman from Andhra Pradesh was beaten so severely that she tried to escape several times. Each time, she was caught and brought back and today lies critically injured after the last and final attempt to get away.

How many of us even heard this story, so very similar to those of thousands of Indian women? Yet, a few years ago, top billing was given to Sir Vidia Naipaul who was the star of a Pravasi Divas meet in Delhi. The celebrated author has made no bones about the fact that he dislikes India and to the best of our knowledge has not given a dime to any cause Indian.

Each passing Pravasi Divas lauds the enterprising spirit of the Indian who goes to seek his fortunes elsewhere. In many cases, it is sheer desperation and the often misplaced hope of a better life that drives people out. When the Minister for Overseas Indians has a moment, maybe he could look into the organised employment tout racket that often robs the aspiring pravasi of his small dreams even before he leaves Indian shores. As for those who run into trouble abroad, they would do better than to count on the Indian embassies. The intrepid minister pledges helplessness, he is on record saying that the embassies are too caught up in daily work to assist people in distress. Really, and we thought that our embassies’ daily work was to first assist Indians in distress and then promote India’s interests.

Today, more than ever, India with its newfound economic musclepower is in a position to ensure a better deal for its economic diaspora. Even when it was not shining so much, the government has been able to intervene for its citizens as the Vajpayee government did with Malaysia and the short-lived Chandrashekhar government did during the first Gulf war when it mounted the world’s largest evacuation operation. But such examples of willingness are few and far between. Since the trend to emigrate is not going to go away until the magical growth rate transforms millions more lives, a mechanism should be formulated to provide some security for our workers.

We cannot have a situation of telling people that their money is welcome but their problems are not. The brain drain is an issue that excites us tremendously. The argument being that after all your country of birth has done for people, you waltz off to contribute to the economies of other countries. This, of course, applies only to the upper end of the employment market. We want them back and are willing to pay top dollars to lure them. The poor small pravasi who has faithfully sent money back to India and who has never been a burden on the exchequer is not exactly welcomed back with open arms.

Let us not forget that it is the unsung emigrants’ hardwork and thrift that has created a favourable image of India long before we made it big on the billionaire’s list. They are the ones who have helped set the foundations for the bells and whistles that go with Brand India today.