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Despite Islamic State threat, workers from Bihar’s Siwan move to Syria, Iraq for jobs

The rush to go overseas for work can be gauged from the fact that the Siwan police verified around 200,000 passport applications from 2007 to 2013

india Updated: Jun 30, 2018 08:51 IST
B Vijay Murty
B Vijay Murty
Hindustan Times, Siwan
Siwan,Bihar,Jobs
Ashkant Vikram Singh, younger brother of Santosh Kumar Singh, shows his brother’s portrait. (HT Photo)

Barely three days after he cremated the remains of his elder brother, Sushil Kumar, 27, a resident of Mauja Tandwa village in Bihar’s Siwan district, received a call from an overseas placement agency.

“Your visa for a job in Iraq has been approved. You may visit us soon and proceed for the trip after fulfilling necessary formalities,” the man from the agency said.

Kumar’s elder brother, Sunil Kumar, 33, a migrant labourer, was killed by Islamic State (IS) terrorists in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Trapped between poverty and fear that he could meet the same fate as his brother, Sushil Kumar has put his travel plans on hold after his mother forbade him from taking the job. The jobless man, who has passed Class 12, hasn’t said no to the agency yet. “There are no other job avenues here. We all migrate for work. Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Oman and Qatar are our favoured destinations. We are not averse to travelling to Iran, Iraq, Algeria or Nigeria if the pay package is attractive,” said Kumar, who has had his head tonsured — a ritual performed by Hindu men following a death in the family. He flaunted his passport to this reporter.

On April 2, the entire district plunged into mourning after a special aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) flew to Patna carrying coffins of five local men, all migrant labourers, killed by IS terrorists in Mosul. Sunil Kumar was among them.

The killings, however, haven’t dissuaded locals (Sushil Kumar is a rare exception) from migrating to the Middle East, even to trouble-torn countries like Iraq and Nigeria, for work. A few local men said they had also been to Syria, but stopped going there for work after the ongoing civil war intensified.

The rush to go overseas for work can be gauged from the fact that the Siwan police verified around 200,000 passport applications from 2007 to 2013. Siwan superintendent of police (SP) Navin Chandra Jha said his office verifies applications for around 4,000 new passports every month. “But we cannot say which countries they travel to as it is the domain of the ministry of overseas affairs,” he said.

Every young boy, irrespective of his caste, race or religion, in this densely populated northern Bihar district bordering Uttar Pradesh grows up with the dream of getting a passport and migrating to the Middle East for work. They go there to work as manual labourers, mechanical fitters and plumbers. In the rush to go early and earn quickly, a majority of them drop out after Class 10 or 12. Few opt for higher studies.

“Roughly 10% of Siwan’s 3.2 million population are in the Middle East for work,” said Siwan district magistrate Mahendra Kumar. Recently transferred to Kishanganj, Mahendra Kumar said foreign remittances in Bihar had steadily increased over the years and contributed immensely to the local economy.

“You won’t see any ‘kutcha’ (thatched) houses in Siwan, even in the rural areas. The standard of living is pretty high compared to other Bihar districts and the flow of foreign money has given rise to several new institutions of learning, art and culture,” he added.

“Bihar receives around Rs 400 crore from abroad via Western Union, the bulk of which comes to the Siwan-Gopalganj zone,” said Anil Kumar, post master general, India Post Bihar. He said in terms of foreign remittances, Bihar earns Rs 2,000 crore per month, which is the second highest received by an Indian state, only behind Kerala. Siwan-Gopalganj is the major contributor.

At Sahasraon, a Rajput-dominated village 15 km from Siwan town, each extended family has at least two to three men living and working in the Middle East. Among the five bodies that arrived from Mosul on April 2, two were from this village. Chandra Mohan Singh’s elder son, Santosh Kumar Singh, was among the dead.

Armed with a passport and a certificate as a mechanical fitter, his younger son, Ashkant Vikram Singh, also had plans to migrate. The youngster, pursuing his graduation from a local college, is keeping fingers crossed for now. “I am the lone support for my old parents. I will see if I get some work here. The option of migrating to the Middle East is always open,” he said.

In neighbouring Chhajwan, Amit Kumar, 25, has no hassles going back to Iraq. He candidly reveals that he went to Basra in Iraq last year on a tourist visa and overstayed for nine months working for a construction company. “There is no option but to migrate,” said Amit Kumar. “Here you are not assured even of a Rs 5,000 per month livelihood. A short trip of nine months to the Middle East helps us build capital to do business on return,” he said.

First Published: Jun 29, 2018 08:12 IST