The two-month-long offer of amnesty and regularisation for emigrant workers that the United Arab Emirates launched on December 4 constitutes a legitimate clean-up effort. It will let those who have overstayed their visas or lack proper documentation, to either leave without penalty or regularise their stay by paying fines. The fact that more than 45,000 Indians are expected to seek amnesty in this round points to the scale of the problem. The UAE had offered similar amnesty schemes in 2007, 2002 and 1996, which led to a total of 8,42,000 people either legalising their stay or leaving without being penalised. On its part, India ought to handle the situation with sensitivity and understanding. One of the demands this time is for the waiver of, or reduction in, the fee for the issue of Emergency Exit Certificates. Following hints from India that this might indeed be done, the response to the amnesty process has so far been slow. The Central and State governments should take steps to encourage people to come forward and legitimise their status. The authorities should decide on the fee liability, and whether free air passage could be provided to the returnees, many of them low-paid workers. Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi has favoured this in deserving cases.
On a broader plane, the situation highlights the need for well-regulated and orderly processes for those who seek to emigrate in search of livelihood. It is well known that dodgy practices resorted to by recruiting agents, who work hand in glove with unregulated visa-providers, often hold out before prospective emigrants false promises in terms of the nature of work and the quantum of pay. Sponsors and employers who illegally retain passports in order to keep migrants in thrall, and those who deny fair wages and reasonable working conditions, continue to have a field day as opportunities shrink. The Emigration Act should be tightened to ensure harsher punishment for malpractices. The Indian consular corps need to provide a more accessible and enabling environment to emigrants in distress. Bilateral agreements that have been periodically announced, including one signed with the UAE in 2006 relating to labour and manpower, have not entirely succeeded in ensuring the welfare and protection of Indian workers, especially those at the lower end of the wage band. Also taking into account the economic dividend that accrues to the economy thanks to significant remittances from the Gulf countries, India should take a long-term view and work to safeguard the welfare of the diaspora. Once migrants return, the State governments ought to do more to help them find their feet and locate alternative means of livelihood.