Gulf PM left unbridged

Gulf PM left unbridged

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 for the Palestinian people since 1938 and 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 relationships with Israel and Palestine and allowing it to flow on parallel tracks.

It was exceptional since King Abdullah II of Jordan 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 is, did the visit help in finding a solution to the grave problems now being faced by millions of Indian workers in the region? The huge crowd of Indians at the Sultan Qaboos Stadium or at Dubai Opera House would have liked Modi to detail his government's steps to ensure better job security for them in host countries or setting up a Philippines model of insurance for migrant workers, rather than hurling accusations against the previous Congress regime.

The World Migration Report, 2018, by the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) says that the 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 the foreign direct investment (FDI) that flows into India. In 2013, the diaspora remitted $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 falling oil prices.

For 2017, it is expected to be $65.3 billion. This is 2.8% of our GDP in 2016, according to the Financial Times. As against this, FDI in India was $35 billion in 2014 and $44 billion in 2015, according to the UNCTAD World Investment Report, 2016. As the Financial Times noted, 36% of Kerala's economy was hit by 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 May 2016 survey by The Guardian revealed that UNDP's 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) would not be sustainable merely with 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 to abolish MOIA and merge it with the Ministry of External Affairs. This was a retrograde step as a single point concentration on overseas wage-earners was lost. The confusion over our 39 missing Indian workers in Mosul since June 2014 would not have been there had we dealt with overseas Indians with assiduous attention.

'Forced labour'

Further, is it correct to treat some of our own people as illegals and exclude them from compensation and embassy services? ILO reports raise a human rights angle. Some 15% of Indians in the Gulf are "forced labour". 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 to attend to domestic emergencies are forced to approach touts who give them bogus documents. Which was how 12 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 to obtain the "demographic dividend" and to offset 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 law 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 for 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% 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 KN Bhatt of GB Pant University have recommended that by "leveraging the demographic dividend" of the 21st century, we can increase our GDP by a 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)

(The Billion Press)

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