The strength of Indian diaspora is 25 million in 110 countries. There are an estimated four to five million Indians in the Gulf alone. The new Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi, veteran Congress party leader from Kerala, recently said that he would address the problems faced by Indians in the Gulf and the demand for voting rights from Non-Resident Indians (NRIs).
Replacing Oscar Fernandes, Ravi took charge of the portfolio with a cabinet minister’s rank on January 30. Jagdish Tytler, who was the first to take charge of the portfolio created for the first time by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in May last year, had to resign after he was linked to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi.
Ravi, 68, started his political career as founder president of the Kerala Students’ Union in the early 1960s. He went on to become one of the youngest members of the Congress party’s working committee in the 1970s. Sify.com spoke to Ravi at his residence in Delhi’s Copernicus Lane on issues related to the Indian diaspora.
Excerpts from an exclusive interview:
You recently said that you would focus on the problems faced by Indians in the Gulf. What problems are you looking at addressing first?
I said that addressing the problems faced by Indians in the Gulf will be my "first priority"; I am concerned about all NRIs and PIOs in all countries.
The problems faced by Indians in the Gulf are many. There is a lot of resentment among Indian workers there. For instance, when they go to the Gulf, travel agents and recruitment agencies often cheat them and the workers go without any proper form or visa. Their travel payments and wages are delayed. Their wages are cut. Their contracts are hardly fulfilled. Their living conditions are poor. I think the implementation of [Gulf’s] labour laws is one of the major issues, but their labour laws are good.
Another issue, which we have been raising for quite some time now, is that the workers in the Gulf earn very little. Though they want to come to India once in two years at least, the airfare is very high due to the monopoly of Air India. So, they and their families naturally suffer. One of their demands is that the airfare to India be reduced and made affordable. They also complain that when voting takes place in India, they are not able to exercise their rights to vote.
Yet another major concern is that when women go from here to the Gulf, they should have proper attestation and documentation. In addition, they should also be given pre-departure training.
How many recruitment agencies are there in India?
Around 4,500 recruitment agents are registered, but only about 2,000 of them are actually active. Some agents give their license to someone else. There’s a lot of fraud happening. But most complaints are against fake recruitment agents.
(It’s 9 p.m. and the phone rings. The Jordanian Ambassador is on the line to let Ravi know about a group of workers facing problems at the Jordan airport.) See, you have an example right here. About 280 Indian truck drivers are not being allowed through the immigration clearance. They went as tourists to Colombo from where they boarded for Jordan. But the so-called agent, who was supposed to lead them, deserted them. Although all went as drivers, only 100 out of these 180 people know how to drive.
This is despite the fact that it is a rule here in India that drivers going to Jordan and two other countries must get a clearance from us. I am very sad that these people have fallen prey to cheats. But we will do everything to protect them and bring them back. Their families must be worried about their safety.
What amendments in the 1983 Emigration Act are you looking at to offer solutions to such problems?
We need to check the illegal recruitment and cheating by recruitment agents by making the Emigration Act more stringent. As per existing provisions, the punishment is merely imprisonment up to six month and a fine up to Rs 1,000; it should be more. Then, we need to find out how we can catch cheating agents. In fact, we are now proceeding to take action against such recruitment agents. When we identify an erring agent, we will issue a suspension order for 30 days. And if need be, we will cancel their registration.
You also said recently that the demand for voting rights from NRIs was a genuine one. Why do you think so? There is an argument that they are not living in India and they are not familiar with the ground realities here and nor are they affected by these realities?
We are not bothered about such arguments, which come only from elite groups. The demand for voting rights comes from millions of poor people who do not want to vote in the countries they are living in. They want to vote in India when they are here. If there are PIOs who do not know about the situation in India, I can sympathise with them.