The NR Eye: India should change its crisis-based approach in the Gulf

July 06, 2014 - 12:32:38 am

by Moiz Mannan

India’s “enormous efforts”, as described by an official of the Ministry of External Affairs, in getting a group of nurses out of war-torn Iraq, need to be praised. Considering the delicate nature of the whole affair and the difficulties involved in a crisis where usual diplomacy can hardly work, we do appreciate the officials’ hesitation to divulge all the details of the operation.

The Indian government has assured its people it would “redouble” efforts to evacuate other captives in the conflict zone, which includes 39 people in Mosul.

For Sushma Swaraj, who heads both the ministries concerned with foreign matters — the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry for Overseas Indians Affairs (MOIA) — this was baptism by fire. For her this dual responsibility is a challenge as well as an opportunity. A challenge because it doubles her responsibility; an opportunity because, like her predecessor Vayalar Ravi in the MOIA, she would not have to deal with an external affairs minister to get things working.

Meanwhile, another crisis involving Indian workers in the Gulf remains unresolved. Forty Indian workers have been languishing in jail for more than a year in Saudi Arabia for allegedly protesting against the death of a co-worker due to electrocution while working in a private company.

Swaraj has assured their families of “swift action” to get them out. What did she do? According to media reports, she directed the officials to “take immediate steps for release of the workers.”

We have to say once again, and rather sadly so, that these are fire-fighting measures. Why do our people have to face such hardships each time a crisis erupts, particularly in West Asia? Once again, we have to call for a lasting labour migration policy.

In the current crisis, for example, India is unable to plan effectively because we just do not know how many of our people are affected. Reports suggest that official records put the number of Indians in Iraq at around 10,000, but 15,000 to 20,000 more are suspected to be living illegally in the war-torn country.

During the Saudi Arabian ‘Nitaqat’ crisis of last year, it was discovered that out of 2.8 million Indian workers, almost 1.4 million did not have legal documents. Our emigration system seems just not equipped to tackle the menace of illegal migration which rears its head each time there’s a crisis.

How can serious issues such as the ‘kafala’ system be handled and bilateral labour agreements be truly effected unless we stem the tide of illegal migrants who basically are extremely poor and gullible people exploited by unscrupulous agents and employers? It has been reported that hundreds of trapped Indian workers have been unable to leave Iraq because their passports have been confiscated by employers and they have not been paid for months.

The Indian missions have proved incapable, for a plethora of reasons including understaffing and lack of training, to keep track of and develop feedback mechanisms for migrant workers.

One would expect a migration policy, if there was one, to factor in the leverage India enjoys owing to its close trade ties with the GCC countries. Most foreign affairs experts feel that in this area India has never really been assertive enough.

What Sushma Swaraj should be looking to do once the dust settles on the current crisis is lobby for a SAARC-level labour agreement with the GCC. She also needs to streamline coordination between the two ministries under her to smoothen consular processes and develop a better migrant protection mechanism than Vayalar Ravi was able to achieve.