We have just concluded the Sixth Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas (PBD) on January 9. The Prime Minister spoke of the responsibility of Indian missions to look after the welfare of NRIs. But has the PM’s office gone into the details of what infrastructure is required for the missions to oversee the welfare of the Indian community? What did the non-resident Indians (NRIs) hear from the Minister of Overseas Affairs and the Minister of State for External Affairs (MEA)? The latter expressed their inability to add more staff in the missions because of objections from the Ministry of Finance. With over $ 275 billion in the foreign exchange reserves, should we continue with the same policies as when we were passing through $ 1 billion forex reserves?
When I was ambassador in Bahrain, I registered the 1 lakh-strong Indian community in the embassy in 1987. Initially, there was resistance from the Indian community as they thought we were collecting all these details to impose tax on them. So we avoided asking details of everyone’s income. I knew that we wouldn’t get any help from the MEA for doing this. I requested the community to come forward as volunteers and help. It was done. At that time, the Joint Secretary (Personnel) in the MEA had told me that it was the first Indian mission in the world to have had all the details of Indians. I wonder whether other missions have followed suit.
There were statements made in the PBD meeting that 50 per cent of our remittances come from the Gulf. The government stated that it attached great importance to this region. But has it made the life of the Indians in the Gulf comfortable? Yusuf Ali, a prominent Indian businessman in Abu Dhabi, touched upon the problems faced by Indians there. An observer can find that the speech he made in the Sixth PBD was exactly the same speech he made in the First PBD in 2003.
One of the first complaints was that our national airline, Air-India, sends the worst aircrafts to the Gulf region. As a result, there are often unusual delays. In the Gulf, when employees do not return in time, they lose their jobs. There are no provisions for having a stand-by aircraft. As ambassador in Abu Dhabi, I had once received a call from an Indian requesting me to lease a Gulf Air or Emirates aircraft to fly out some 300 stranded Indians waiting in a hotel. Out of desperation, they were going to march to my residence to lease an aircraft. I had told the gentleman that I had no authority to ask for an aircraft from a foreign airline to replace an Indian one.
The other regular complaint is that Air-India charges much more from Indians in the Gulf than from elsewhere. There is also the issue of the continuous increase of illegal Indians in the Gulf region. In all the PBD meetings, the same issue has been raised and till now the government has not taken any serious steps to stop the crimes committed by recruiting agents. In 1987, I went to the then Amir of Bahrain and requested him to issue amnesty for those staying in that country without genuine passports and visas. The fear of having to undergo detention for several years for no fault of theirs was palpable. The Amir agreed and as a result many Indians were saved. When I was Ambassador in Abu Dhabi, I requested the President of the UAE to issue a similar amnesty. More than 150,000 illegal Indians were pardoned by the President in 1996.
Despite more than a decade passing, we still have the problem of illegal Indians in the Gulf. The Indian government knows recruiting agents taking exorbitant amounts from labourers and leaving them in the wilderness is at the root of this menace. A maidservant from Hyderabad had explained to me how she had accepted the job of a maid thinking that she could take care of her 13 brothers and sisters back home. But when she came to Dubai, she knew that she had been cheated and been given a fake passport and a visa. She got exploited by many. Finally, when she heard about the amnesty, she knew that she could go back to India to get proper documentation and come back.
Why can’t New Delhi punish the defaulting agents and stop this problem? The reason is that many recruiting agents are working on behalf of companies owned by members of various political parties. The government could introduce a pre-immigration assistance centre to scrutinise the documents of those going to the Gulf for jobs.
Another problem aired is getting admission in universities for NRI children. In every PBD meeting, the government makes assurances. But the problem remains. The government has to take some serious steps so that time and again the same problem is not raised.
A serious problem raised by many Indians is that of the lack of legal help for the aggrieved labourer who is punished for no fault of his in the Gulf. The government should post legal advisors in our missions in the region. I know that the Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs has signed labour agreements with many Gulf countries. But there are obstacles in implementing them as the legal system in these countries is different from ours.
Before we have another PBD, we should examine the complaints raised by NRIs and see whether satisfactory answers can be found. Only then should we have a meeting of NRIs where the Indian government can show what they have done to remove their problems.
M.P.M. Menon is the former ambassador to Brazil, the UAE and Bahrain and was Indian High Commissioner to the Maldives.