Alarmed at the growing crisis over laid-off Indian workers in Saudi Arabia, Union Minster of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh is travelling to Riyadh to seek a solution to their problems and make an “on-the-spot assessment of the ground situation” for a possible evacuation of thousands, officials said.
Addressing the Rajya Sabha, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said she was sending Gen. (Retd) Singh on Tuesday, even as the government ensured free rations to 2,450 workers of the Saudi Oger company stranded in camps in Jeddah.
“If any Indian worker abroad is unemployed, he will not sleep hungry,” Ms. Swaraj said. “The government takes full responsibility to feed them. If they get another job, that is fine, but if they want to return home, then I assure you we will bring them home.”
Sources said those in distress included another 3,172 Indian workers in Riyadh who were being fed at their work camps, but had not received salaries for several months. Officials in Jeddah and Riyadh say that by an initial assessment, the total number of Indians who may require assistance is 10,000, but the numbers may swell as the government’s plans crystallise. The layoffs have increased sharply over the past two years, after plummeting oil prices put the Saudi Arabian economy in trouble, causing a major downturn in funding for infrastructure projects where Indians are employed.
Many workers who have been laid-off were employed with companies that have themselves folded up, and therefore the requisite “no-objection” certificates needed for emergency exit visas are proving hard to procure, Ms. Swaraj said.
Another major concern is securing back wages for the workers, many of whom have not been paid for more than eight months.
Once the formalities are completed, MEA officials say they will prepare the arrangements for the evacuation of those out of three million Indians who live and work in KSA needing to return to India. This in itself is a mammoth and unprecedented exercise as although India has conducted several evacuations for citizens in the past three decades, this is the first peace-time operation for Indians fleeing an economic situation.
The government is also considering its options for evacuations. In 2014, the government had used commercial flights to evacuate hundreds of Indians from Iraq after the ISIS made gains there. In 2015, the government had used air force, naval and merchant ships as well as Air India flights to transport about 5,000 Indians out of war-torn Yemen. Last month, the government sent 2 IAF C-17 Globemaster planes to fly about 150 Indians out of South Sudan. “Logistics and modalities of a possible repatriation of those who want to return will be worked out only after Gen. Singh returns,” a source said.
Our special correspondent from Kerala adds:
The Department of Non-resident Keralites Affairs (NoRKA) has taken the initial steps to facilitate the return of Keralites stranded in various camps in Saudi Arabia following loss of employment, besides ensuring recovery of their wage arrears.
Earlier in the day, amid mounting concerns, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan directed the Secretary, Non- Residents Keralites Affairs Department and the Resident Commissioner in Delhi to get into the loop of coordination activity being under taken by the External Affairs Ministry to bring back Indian nationals, including Keralites, many of whom are starving.