Land for temple is fine, but Modi ignored the real problems of Indian labourers in UAE

At the heart of the migrants’ misery in the UAE, as well as in other Gulf countries, is their suspended life — unlike in the US and other western countries where Indians can seek to be “settlement migrants” (ILO terminology), in UAE, they can only be “contract migrants”, that too under the “Kafala” system, in which the government doesn’t take responsibility for the migrants and leaves it to “sponsors” that include individuals and companies. How much did Modi speak for them?

G Pramod Kumar August 19, 2015 08:31:11 IST
Land for temple is fine, but Modi ignored the real problems of Indian labourers in UAE

Whatever was the implicit message, the first announcement that came from Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his UAE visit was how the Emirates government has allotted land for a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi. Modi, who tweeted it himself on Sunday, the day he landed in the Gulf, said “this is a great step”. External Affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup followed it up saying, it was the end of a long wait for the Indian community.

When Modi addressed expat Indians at the Dubai Cricket Stadium on Monday, the land-for-temple became a highlight yet again. Modi wanted the crowd to give a standing ovation to the UAE Crown Prince for his kind gesture. The rest of the speech was largely a repeat of his Madison Square show — revving up nationalist pride in a group that is living with all the insecurities of displacement, and using them as a proxy to address his political constituency back home.

Land for temple is fine but Modi ignored the real problems of Indian labourers in UAE

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Dubai. PTI

The American audience was more appropriate for such a glittering and well-targeted exercise because Indian Americans are a fast growing and prosperous ethnic group which also includes a large number of well paid, ever-growing number of professionals. But in the UAE, although the 50,000 strong crowd that cheered Modi in Dubai may not have adequately represented them, the Indian community is a pathetic lot: Nearly 80 percent of them are labourers who work in exploitative conditions bonded to a unique contract system (Kafala) that confiscate all their rights. In fact, the Indian community is by and large these labourers — those who are kept on the margins by both the natives and wealthier Indians, and not those seemingly rich expatriates that most of us are familiar with.

But, how much did Modi speak for them?

A welfare fund, improving a faulty e-migrant portal, school admissions and monthly counsellor camps in areas where there are a lot of Indian workers. Is that all for 2.2 million (80 percent of the 2.8 million Indians) labourers whose contribution make up most of the US$ 13 billion in cash that India receives from the UAE every year? The e-migrant portal will be of little help to migrants who can hardly fill their immigration cards, and schools really don’t matter to them because they never will be able to bring their families along. Instead of counsellor camps, 24/7 hotlines (in Indian languages) could have made more sense.

At the heart of the migrants’ misery in the UAE, as well as in other Gulf countries, is their suspended life — unlike in the US and other western countries where Indians can seek to be “settlement migrants” (ILO terminology), in UAE, they can only be “contract migrants”, that too under the “Kafala” system, in which the government doesn’t take responsibility for the migrants and leaves it to “sponsors” that include individuals and companies.

S Iruydaya Rajan, who has been studying migration to the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Countries) for years at the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in Thiruvananthapuram, quotes a Government of India study in India Migration Report 2012 to highlight the pitfalls of this system: alteration of the original provision of the labour contract after arrival, denial of salaries and other benefits, and pushing skilled employees to unskilled labour. According to him, arbitrary reduction of salaries and non-payment for months are very common, and the (civil, criminal and labour) laws are totally in favour of the native employer.

Contrary to the conditions laid out in the contracts, the labourers are made to work for 10-12 hours a day, have no decent access to healthcare, and are forced to live in camps that are plainly inhuman. The most exploited are those who work in households (such as maids and gardeners) because local labour laws don’t acknowledge them at all. The worst, however, is the confiscation of passports by employers that make their lives really bonded. Although the UAE government has made it illegal, media reports show that it’s still the norm. Many human rights watchdogs such as the Human Rights Watch have campaigned against the hazards of the inherently exploitative Kafala system. At one stage, Philippines had even banned women from going to the Middle East to work in households.

The situation is uniformly the same across all GCC countries, but wary of losing precious foreign exchange, most sending countries keep quiet. India, despite its super power ambitions such as a permanent membership in the UN Security Council, is no exception. While making a political spectacle out of his visit on Monday, that made him look like a superstar, Modi too ignored the real problems of the real Indian community. He did visit a labour camp, but their issues were mostly swept under the carpet. Over the last four years, the Indian missions in the Gulf have received over 60,000 complaints, and this could only be the tip of the iceberg.

Instead of the real issues, what we had on display was the symbolism of a temple.

Statistically, a temple can only be an issue of pride for only a handful of Indians because of two reasons: one, the basic concern for 80 percent of the migrants is survival and the denial of their most basic human rights as a number of international organisations have documented; two, about 50 percent the Indians in UAE are Muslims and 25 percent, Christians (probably because half of the Indians there are from Kerala).

So, in the fallacious light and sound show highlighting the symbolism of the temple, the bonded and exploitative conditions of the majority of Indians and the lack of an official voice to protect them were washed away. In the dominant emotion of pride, we didn't even realise it. It’s most likely that we didn’t even see the real Indians because either they were sweating it out in some construction site or didn’t even know how to get into the stadium.

Lobbying with the rulers of the Emirates for labour reforms to protect the rights of the migrants, bringing them under the ministry of labour than the ministry of interior, equipping the Indian missions with round-the-clock redress services, and ensuring that the Protectors of Emigrants were not hand-in-glove with criminal labour exporters would have helped poor Indians who sacrifice their lives to bring in foreign exchange that’s equal to nearly half of India’s annual FDI. They could have worshipped their gods at home if they got better living conditions.

But then, how will you deliver your ornamented political message back home?

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