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Another diaspora conundrum-Saudi Arabia

Evacuations of expatriate Indians from foreign countries present our policymakers with tough questions and it is time that the Indian government sets out a clear cut policy

By Guru Aiyar(@guruaiyar)

The recent rescue operations by the Indian government from South Sudan looked like a well scripted Hollywood movie where the country comes to the rescue of its beleaguered citizens abroad. Within two weeks, another crisis looms in Saudi Arabia where Indian workers are reportedly living in sub human conditions. The Minister of External Affairs, General V.K.Singh (retd.) has already left for Saudi Arabia and has confirmed that 7700 workers are affected.

The above situation is nothing new. The expatriate workers from South and Southeast Asia belong to the cheap labour pool who work in sweatshop conditions. In 2006, 4000 South Asian labourers were deported by the United Arab Emirates on charges of vandalism when they were only protesting for fair wages and working conditions. The Indian government is signalling a very important message now. The message says that you can’t mess with the Indian workers. Providing food to the starving Indians in the camps is one thing. But to evacuate them back to India completely changes the dynamics of the situation.

There are approximately 3 million Indians in Saudi Arabia alone and about 7.3 million in West Asia. Mass evacuations using the military and commercial assets implies a huge cost to the exchequer. In this, using commercial assets is the best option. Military assets like naval ships and air force aircraft are much costlier (use of C-17 Globemaster costs US $ 24,000 per hour). Of course, it needs to be understood clearly that when human lives are at peril, no cost can be attached. In this particular situation, it can be said that workers cannot pay for their passage and thus it needs to be borne by the exchequer.

If cost-benefit analysis is to be the basis for evacuations, then the government must have contingency plans drawn up. West Asia is the most volatile of regions in the world. India has been involved in six evacuations within the last decade itself. Even geographically, the distance to Doha and Riyadh are less than 3000 km. I have argued in my earlier columns for evolving a strategic evacuation policy which calls for involving the commercial airlines and shipping. With Air India beset with its own travails, this has become imperative.

Diaspora politics can be extremely tricky and a veritable landmine for diplomatic and international relations. Should all the diaspora be treated with the same yardstick? Does a Non Resident Indian (NRI) blue collared worker surviving on the margins of host country deserve the same kind of treatment as a wealthy Indian billionaire based in North America or Europe? Does the Indian state bear any responsibility towards fifth or sixth generation naturalised Indians in Mauritius or Guyana? Should the Indian government evacuate Indians from Fiji if there is ethnic or racial violence? Or should it have a line that says that the Indian state is responsible only to ‘Indian passport’ holders and not others? These are the kind of questions that our policy makers in the ministry of external affairs ought to be grappling with. There are no easy answers. The final call lies with our elected politicians.

Guru Aiyar is a Research Fellow with Takshashila Institution and tweets @guruaiyar

 

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