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Cannon fodder for conflict zones

C. Gouridasan Nair

Ramankutty Maniappan from Kerala is a scalding reminder of the dangers that face hundreds of Indians who are forced to work in the world's regions of conflict.

RAMANKUTTY MANIAPPAN, killed by the Taliban militia in Nimroz province of Afghanistan, is no longer a mere name or a face for Kerala. Nor is the tragedy that has visited his home at Chingoli in the coastal Alappuzha district that of a single family or a village.

Maniappan is today a scalding reminder of the dangers that face hundreds from Kerala and the rest of India who are forced to work in conflict areas of Asia, particularly in the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

With India playing an important part in the reconstruction of strife-torn Iraq and Afghanistan, the country has emerged as a major supplier of skilled and semi-skilled manpower for construction work, back-end jobs and supply functions, some of them with private agencies and others with Government organisations such as the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), to which Maniappan belonged. It is life under the shadow of the machete and the gun.

Antaryami, Tilak Raj and Sukhdev, abducted along with six others by Iraqi militants in July 2004, and threatened with beheading, escaped the jaws of death because the Indian Government got to work with alacrity and initiated negotiations, which turned out to be protracted, to get them released. That was not the case, it would seem, in Maniappan's case. The widespread feeling in Kerala is that the State and Central Governments failed to respond quickly in this instance.

Innocent victim

Maniappan is no martyr. He is, in fact, an innocent victim of primitive laws of retribution that he probably did not quite know about, or could do little about given the fact that he had to make a living with his job with the BRO, be it in the killing fields of Afghanistan or in Jammu and Kashmir.

His kith and kin back home in the sleepy village of Chingoli have been thrown into a whirlpool of shock, disbelief, and grief. When Maniappan was posted in Afghanistan he nurtured the hope that he would get that little extra cash as foreign posting allowance and risk allowance. (Even this was a pittance since he was a low-rung employee.) He wanted to build a house, set up an automobile workshop and look after his wife and two little children when his 20-year service with the BRO ended five years from now. In one fell swoop, a machete ended all his dreams in a pool of blood in the wasteland of ethnic conflict.

The State Government or the Protector of Emigrants in Thiruvananthapuram do not have exact estimates of the number of people who live and work in hazardous areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan, despite reports appearing periodically about abductions and harassment of persons living and working in such conflict areas. Only last year there were reports about harassment of Malayali workers in U.S.-run camps in Iraq, but there is no tab on who is where and under what conditions. An estimated 1.9 million Keralites now work outside the country sending home, according to studies done by the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram, over Rs. 400 crore annually.

Maniappan, the only son of his parents, did not belong to the league of emigrants seeking quick riches. He had joined the BRO for a basic livelihood, like hundreds who now work as part of organisations such as the BRO, and private agencies engaged in reconstruction work in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere as military and civilian support staff, including as chefs, kitchen assistants, service assistants, camp supervisors, mess supervisors, accountants, financial supervisors and drivers. His tragic end has a definite message for the Government about its responsibility towards the hapless victims of circumstances whose lot it is to work in conflict areas and who, when caught in the crossfire of unfamiliar conflicts, can hope to survive only if the powers-that-be respond swiftly to ultimatums and rush in with help. Ramankutty Maniappan represents the cannon fodder that India has ended up supplying to the world's conflict zones.

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