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Indian Labourers In The Middle East Toil For Us, But The Wealthy NRI Is Our Hero

Giving a new meaning to the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas.

06/01/2017 2:53 PM IST | Updated 06/01/2017 3:59 PM IST
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Narendra Modi addresses delegates during the second day of the Fifth 'Pravasi Bharatiya Divas' (Overseas Indian conference) in New Delhi, 08 January 2007.

Even as yet another Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, the annual jamboree of the external affairs ministry that celebrates the global Indian, unfolds in Bengaluru tomorrow, the real heroes of the Indian diaspora will continue to be unseen and unsung.

They are not the heads of states of Indian origin, or the representatives of the indentured-labourers turned Indian diaspora, or any of those later migrants who made it big in technology and finance in the US or UK. They are the labour migrants to the Middle East who bring in more than half of India's overseas remittances - untied, liquid cash that is almost equal to the country's FDI (in 2015-2016).

When India talks Pravasi, the quintessential image is that of a loaded NRI from North America or Europe; or for esoteric reasons, somebody from the Caribbean, Mauritius or South Africa or even Surinam, whose forefathers left Indian shores as desperate labourers in the 19th century. The first one has an attractive socio-economic profile that resonates well with urban Indian aspirations, and the second has the neo-cultural allure. Both are certainly important to us because the NRIs have an instant connect with us, while we owe a certain socio-cultural debt to the old diaspora.

When India talks Pravasi, the quintessential image is that of a loaded NRI from North America or Europe; or for esoteric reasons, somebody from the Caribbean, Mauritius or South Africa or even Surinam, whose forefathers left Indian shores as desperate labourers in the 19th century.

Since Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister, the NRIs that appear to matter to us, mostly because of the media attention and events such as the Madison Square address, are those in North America and the UK. They are a new constituency of political activists for the BJP and Modi. Far away from home, they live a virtual life of a nationalist Indian. They provide dazzling opportunities to political nationalism and are the go-to constituency for the BJP. Some of them also lend a hand to online propaganda. Other than that, there's nothing spectacular about their contribution in terms of investment or bringing in technology even as the country is waiting with a red carpet.

Caren Firouz / Reuters
Indian workers line up to board a bus after a day's work in Dubai, November 18, 2005.

Of course, Modi also went to the Middle East, but it was largely a show of Arab patronage and low key events where the distraught and parched Indian labourers remained almost invisible.

According to the latest figures of the World Bank, at US$ 69 billion a year, India is the biggest beneficiary of remittances. And more than half of this comes from the Middle East, not from North America or Europe. NRIs in America send only US$ 10.96 billion and those from the UK, US$ 3.63 billion. Remember, these remittances are stabler than FDIs, hardly ever get repatriated and contains no volatile equity investments.

According to the latest figures of the World Bank, at US$ 69 billion a year, India is the biggest beneficiary of remittances.

Yet, the Pravasi Divas celebrates the fashionable pravasi, the western NRI and not the labourer pravasi. It certainly is a bad deal to the contributors to India's growth. Even this year, there is just one session on on them.

Why does the Centre organise the Pravasi Divas? According to the then BJP government (2003) which established such a day, it was to to mark the contribution of the overseas Indian community to the development of India. To make it truly meaningful, it was held on the day Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa. And which overseas Indian community has made, and still makes, the biggest contribution to the development of India?

When one further disaggregates data, the Centre's attitude appears more unfair. Out of all the remittances India receive, about US $ 15 billion are the earnings of the people from Kerala in the Middle East - most of them low-wage labourers and semi-skilled workers. This is about 20 per cent of India's total remittances and nearly half the remittances from the Middle East. Do they get a fair deal? Do they a get a fraction of the pravasi limelight at all?

This is reflected in the Centres's policy towards them as well. The consular assistance to the labourers in the gulf countries, in case they into difficult circumstances, is highly unreliable and there's no scheme to rehabilitate them- even temporarily - if they come home jobless. Barring a handful of occasions, many incidents in the recent past have shown that the labourers are left to themselves when they are in serious trouble. Philippines, which is another remittance dependent country, in comparison has a much stronger consular system that keep its nationals empowered and relatively more secure from exploitation and slave-like working conditions.

When one further disaggregates data, the Centre's attitude appears more unfair. Out of all the remittances India receive, about US $ 15 billion are the earnings of the people from Kerala in the Middle East - most of them low-wage labourers and semi-skilled workers.

It's not just for the sake of recognition or a place in the hall-of-fame that the workers in the gulf countries need more acknowledgement, but for their safety and future. The Centre of course acknowledge those Indians in the Middle East who get into the Forbes rich list and give some of them even Padma awards, but that doesn't mean anything to the workers that toil in hard and exploitative conditions.

For instance, although the workers from Kerala send home about one lakh crore rupees every year and fires one third of the state's economy, most of their lives are marked by debts and uncertainty. The increasing localisation of the workforce in the gulf countries (migrants outnumber natives in most important gulf countries), exploitation of the middlemen, and the economic slowdown are a constant threat. Although there are no reports of large scale retrenchment and repatriation, migration trackers do indicate a waning employment trend. Neither the Centre nor the state have done anything to provide the returnee migrants with some alternatives.

By placing the labourer pravasi, the real hero of the Indian diaspora story, instead of the suited-booted NRI, on the centre-stage, the government could have made a meaningful political statement, but that doesn't help its vain aspirational optics.

Let the labourer make the money, but the credit must go to the pompous and loud guys because they make political sense.

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