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India defers controversial ECNR registration: NRI backlash forces Big Brother to back down, but bitter aftertaste lingers

There is little that is more discomforting than a government that dispatches commands only to rescind them because it didn’t think it through to a logical conclusion. Take last week, when some mandarin in the external affairs ministry had an epiphany that all 11 million NRIs living in 18 West Asian and Gulf countries have to register on E-Migrate web portal (whatever that is) and sign in online. As Indian embassies and consulates across the region were inundated with queries, doubts and fears that the ridiculous one month registration period was nowhere near enough, it was announced that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj would meet select NRIs over lunch on 5 December in Dubai.

 India defers controversial ECNR registration: NRI backlash forces Big Brother to back down, but bitter aftertaste lingers

Representational image. AFP

In the interim, several hundred Indian associations launched their representatives and protests over the imposition. And less than 24 hours later Swaraj's visit was cancelled. The Indian missions, already dealing with the last gasps of the amnesty declared in the UAE, saw themselves swamped by this utterly pointless diktat.  Fine, no sweat.

However, the draconian order carried a rider that if you were not registered by this date you would be offloaded from any India-bound flight. Not only was this now bordering on the absurd, it was also insulting. Can you imagine the chaos that would have descended on airports as thousands were prevented from flying, families split apart like some Trump-like penalty for living outside the motherland? This was punitive action against NRIs.

Within 36 hours, as pressure mounted, the ministry did an about-turn and ‘temporarily’ suspended its own order. This is because over 85 percent of these 11 million NRIs — where emigration clearance is required —  are blue-collar workers with little or no access to computers or the wherewithal to use them to register online. The website is lumbering, clumsy and complex.

Now, the ministry is being projected as a great saviour, sensitive and efficient and very much on the ball for backing down and understanding the plight of the NRI fraternity. What is not being asked is why this exercise was undertaken in the first place given its reason, aim, intent, foolishness and most vitally, its impracticality?

If this was a pre-election effort to create some sort of data bank of Indians abroad, that already exists: Immigration. Whenever NRIs return, they are put into the system, stamped in and out. It's all there. No one sneaks out of the country. Besides, for those with Emigration Check Required mandates there is the Protectorate of Emigrants that supposedly conducts due diligence before allowing these people to leave India’s shores.  It even takes a security deposit that seldom, if ever, is returned when someone retraces his footsteps and returns to his native land.

It is bad enough that the foreign ministry imposed a cockamamie scheme that is hostile, aggressive and without any visible redeeming feature, but then it backtracked quickly once it realised it could not be implemented. Didn't they work this out in advance? Who is responsible for the panic it caused? Surely, if there was a sufficient reason such as security or terror, such a major ‘Big Brother is watching’ measure would have stayed come hell or high water and not been so tamely rescinded. Legal eagles in the Gulf have concluded there is something more diabolical about collecting data on Indians abroad and it is tied to the elections. Though what can be done with the data remains unclear.

No wonder Sushma cancelled lunch on 5 December. She would have been served more than her just desserts when 11 million NRIs would have asked: Why this disdain for us?

Updated Date: Nov 30, 2018 17:10:42 IST