Free Press Journal

Modi ignored Indian workers in the Gulf



In purely diplomatic terms, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent three-nation visit to the Gulf and West Asia was path-breaking, exceptional and highly symbolic.

It was path-breaking since it was the first visit of an Indian Prime Minister to Palestine, despite our traditional goodwill to the Palestinian people since 1938 with Gandhiji’s remarks in The Harijan that Palestine belonged to the Arabs “in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French”. But Modi also succeeded in “de-hyphenating”our traditional policy of “balancing”the relationship with Israel and Palestine and allowing it to flow on parallel tracks.

It was exceptional since King Abdullah II of Jordan had extended the courtesy of elevating Modi’s transit visit to high level talks. It was also symbolic to his home constituency as he could visit the 125-year-old Shiva temple in Oman besides witnessing the foundation stone laying ceremony of the first Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi.

Yet the question arises, did the visit help in finding a solution to the grave problems now being faced by millions of Indian workers in that region? The huge crowd of Indians at the Sultan Qaboos Stadium or at Dubai Opera House would have liked the Indian PM to detail his government’s steps for ensuring better job security in host countries or setting up a Philippines model of insurance for migrant workers through home legislation rather than hurling accusations against the previous Congress regime.

The World Migration Report, 2018 by the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) says that Indian diaspora (15.6 million) is the largest in the world. India tops the world in home remittances from overseas workers. This is much more than our Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). In 2013, they remitted US dollars 69.9 billion. In 2014, it rose to 70.3 billion but dipped to 68.9 billion in 2015 and 62.7 billion in 2016 due to loss of employment caused by low oil prices. For 2017, it is expected to be 65.3. This is 2.8 per cent of our GDP in 2016 according to The Financial Times of London. As against this, the FDI in India was US dollars 35 billion in 2014 and 44 billion in 2015, according to UNCTAD World Investment Report, 2016. The adverse effects of lower remittances are felt in South Asia as reported by Financial Times dated 22 June 2017 (“Gulf woes resound across South Asia as worker remittances drop”). It said that 36 per cent of the Kerala economy was hit with low remittances. And Kerala has the third highest unemployment rate in India.

The World Bank (WB) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) always look at the migration-development linkage as they feel that foreign remittances from migrants are “more resilient than FDI or portfolio investments”. A survey by the newspaper The Guardian on 11 May 2016 revealed that UNDP’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) would not be sustainable merely with an aid from the developed world. Thus, the African Union (AU) has designated diaspora remittances as the “6th Development Zone”in addition to West Africa, East Africa, Central Africa, Southern Africa and North Africa.

Yet we consider foreign investors as VIPs and spend crores on trade fairs like “Magnetic Maharashtra”. But we treat our less educated overseas wage earners, especially illegal emigrants, as undesirables. It was only in 2004 that this thinking changed when the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) was created to specifically deal with their problems. The MOIA did good work. Unfortunately the first act of the Modi government in June 2014 was abolishing MOIA and merging it with the Ministry of External Affairs. This was a retrograde step as a single point concentration on overseas wage earners was lost. This was admitted to me even by a retired officer who had held a senior position in MOIA. The confusion over our 39 missing Indian workers in Mosul since June 2014 (dead or alive?) would not have been there had we dealt with overseas Indians with assiduous attention.

Further, is it correct to treat some of our job earners as illegals and exclude them from compensation and embassy services? ILO reports raise a human rights angle since 15 per cent of them are irregular. “Forced labour”amounted to 20.9 million in 2012. We do not realise that Gulf employers render them virtually Stateless by confiscating their passports. Since labourers move from country to country in search of better jobs through irregular channels, they do not report at Indian embassies. Even those who want to return on domestic emergencies are forced to approach touts who give them bogus documents —12 out of the 158 dead on the ill-fated Air India Dubai-Mangalore flight on May 22, 2010, had bogus passports. Our embassies are least helpful as they treat such migrants as criminals.

But this is not the case say, in the Philippines, which encourages labour emigration as a national policy for obtaining the “demographic dividend”and to offset home unemployment. Recognising the significant contribution of migrant Filipino workers to the national exchequer through their foreign exchange remittances, the Philippines enacted the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act in 1995. The Act protects both legal and illegal workers ensuring adequate social, economic and legal support to them. Amendments in 2016 provided regulation of recruitment fees, compulsory insurance of workers and families by recruitment agencies. Their 10.5 million overseas workers, including 1.074 million “irregulars”, remitted $26 billion during 2016. This is 11.17 per cent of the country’s gross national product (GNP).

There is a security dimension too. Law and order will be in jeopardy if employment avenues are not found for our youth who form one-third of the population. Experts like Prof K N Bhatt of the G B Pant University have recommended that by “leveraging the demographic dividend” of the 21st century, we can increase our GDP by one-third. Otherwise it will result in a “demographic nightmare”. This writer has long argued that Kerala State, which was rocked by repeated “Naxalite” attacks between 1968 and 1976, was saved only by the “Gulf boom” between 1972 and 1983.

The writer is a former Special Secretary,  Cabinet Secretariat. (Syndicate: The Billion Press).