Left stranded on strange shores

Indian workers send home the world’s highest amount of remittance income, but there is no migration policy to protect them at any stage of their journey abroad and back.

Updated - July 25, 2015 12:35 am IST

Published - July 25, 2015 12:10 am IST

Way forward: “It is high time India gave its migrants their share of rights in return for the amount we receive in remittances.” Picture shows Indian migrant workers in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Way forward: “It is high time India gave its migrants their share of rights in return for the amount we receive in remittances.” Picture shows Indian migrant workers in Kabul, Afghanistan.

According to the latest World Bank figures, India continues to be the leading country in remittances, drawing in $70 billion to the country’s economy from its global migrant workforce in 2014. China doesn’t lag far behind, pulling in $64 billion. The Philippines, ranked third, gets less than half of what India does ($28 billion) from its migrant population. This gives an idea of how much remittances contribute to India’s foreign exchange reserve, to society, and to families in India. And this figure is only expected to grow, with the International Organization of Migration predicting that India will also soon emerge as one of the largest migrant-sending countries of the world.

Ironically, however, although we have data on the number of shoes or cars exported from India, we have no clear idea of the number of Indian migrants. The first holistic attempt to estimate the number of migrants was made during the tenure of the National Democratic Alliance-I government. Its High-Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora reported that there were 16 million Indian diaspora. The number increased in the foreword of the report to 20 million. Later, the United Progressive Alliance government-I, which set up the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA), estimated the number to be 25 million.

According to the World Bank, the number of migrants who remit to India is 14 million, but according to our assessments at the Centre for Development Studies, based on research on migration to the Gulf, the number is about 16 million, of which 8 million live in the Gulf region.

Why is the number of migrants and those who remit so important? The World Bank report shows that remittances are massive and government reports indicate that migration is large-scale; yet, sadly, India lacks a good migration policy. A policy is crucial to generate solid data on the number of migrants and their contribution to the economy.

Three stages for migrants As members of the Committee set up by the MOIA to draft a migration policy, we submitted a draft about five years ago. But the Emigration Management Bill is still waiting to be placed in the public domain for debate.

There are three stages in a migrant’s life cycle: the time before departure, the time spent in the new country, and the rehabilitation process after return. A look at the governing structure at each stage shows that India is probably the only country in the world where migration is managed by three different Ministries: the passport is issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), emigration clearance for Emigration Check Required (ECR) passports comes under the MOIA, and departures are managed by the Bureau of Migration of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

So, how do we coordinate migration? A major drawback of the existing system is the application of the Emigration Act of 1983. Till 1983, emigration flows took place without a proper administrative or legal framework, though certain provisions of the Emigration Act of 1922, which did not cover the emigration of people with technical qualifications and professional expertise, were invoked at times, as a matter of convenience.

Unfortunately, the 1983 Act also brought into force a new system of “emigration clearance” under which “no citizen of India” was permitted to emigrate without PGE authorisation. Subsequently, subscribing to the logic of “protection by exception”, two kinds of passports were created: Emigration Check Required (ECR) and Emigration Check Not Required (ECNR). Though the Passports Act 1967 talks of only three types of passports, ordinary, official and diplomatic, in practice there are two classes of ordinary passports: ECR and ECNR. This system needs to be abolished at the earliest because ECR passports can be imaginatively interpreted as ‘Exploitation Compulsorily Recommended’. These passport holders are exploited at every stage of migration: at passport offices, by the protector of emigrants officers, recruitment agencies, travel agents, airports, and emigration and customs officials. An inclusive approach that recognises just one category — irrespective of their educational qualifications — who might emigrate safely and through legal channels, is urgently required.

A major drawback of the existing system is the application of the Emigration Act of 1983.

Emigration clearance is managed from just nine locations across India, with an approved 1,439 recruitment agencies as of 2012. Of these, about 58 per cent exist only on paper. “The administrative apparatus itself has accentuated corruption as a result of the nexus formed between erring government officials and recruiting agencies,” said the MOIA in Parliament in September 2007. The governance structure needs a complete revamp to make migration easy.

Expensive proposition Equally bad is the cost of migration. According to the Kerala Migration Survey 2008, a person migrating from Kerala to Saudi Arabia spent Rs.74,606 — almost four times more than the PGE-approved service charges of Rs. 20,000 for unskilled workers. Nurses report that they pay about Rs. 3 lakh at the time of recruitment. As Indian workers, both skilled and unskilled, are in demand everywhere, the costs of migration should be brought down to a minimum or to “zero cost of migration”.

Another problem is at the destination where workers depend on the Indian Embassies. For instance, in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which host about 20 lakh Indian migrants each, the direct contact for most workers on any issue is the labour attaches affiliated to the Indian Embassy. In both countries, only two labour attaches are available in both the embassies and the consulates. Assuming that each attache has 20 workers to help them handle labour issues, 40 aides per 20 lakh people is not only meagre, but unacceptable to take care of the workers’ problems. Tasks range from visiting jails and helping bring back dead bodies of undocumented migrants to visiting migrant camps regularly and checking on them. The Indian government has to deploy far more labour officers at the destination countries, especially in the Gulf where half the Indian migrants are concentrated.

The third problem is the lack of a rehabilitation policy when migrants return. An effective rehabilitation policy will help migrants use their enhanced skills when they return home. Take for instance, migrants who have worked in the construction sector for about 10 years in Dubai where they would have acquired skills that will be in demand in fast-growing cities such as Kochi. Do we encourage and offer them re-employment? Do we even know the exact numbers of those who return to India?

It is high time India gave its migrants their share of rights in return for the amount we receive in remittances. A strong migration policy is the only way forward.

(S. Irudaya Rajan chairs the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs Research Unit on International Migration at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.)

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