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Did PM Modi Really Hold Students and Labourers on Foreign Soil Close to Heart?

Knee-jerk rescue ops and constructing a temple in a Muslim nation are depicted as victories in migration governance.

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On 10 March, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) uploaded a one-minute video on its X account featuring a worried father and mother at an airport, awaiting the arrival of their daughter.

As the aircraft touched down, the piercing screech of tyres echoed, followed by a heartwarming scene of students emerging from the terminal, proudly waving the national flag. Among them, their daughter, embodying the essence of homecoming, raced into their arms with unbridled joy.

With tears of relief and happiness, she uttered those reassuring words, "Haven’t I told you? Wherever you are, whatever the situation may be, Modi Ji (Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi) will bring us home."

And as the scene faded, leaving a lingering sense of warmth, Prime Minister Modi's voice resonated, declaring, Mera Bharat, Mera Parivar (My India, My Family), encapsulating the profound connection between the nation and its people.

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Although the advertisement does not explicitly mention the Ukraine-Russia war, it evokes memories of Operation Ganga, during which student evacuations took place. Over the past decade of Modi's rule, only one major student evacuation occurred, stemming from the conflict when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

This operation, named Ganga, saw the repatriation of 18,802 Indians, primarily students, commencing with delays in the initial days leading to significant chaos.

Regrettably, at that time and even presently, the Indian government lacked data on student migration. Consequently, it was the students themselves who sought shelter, crossed borders, arranged return flights, and often financed their airfare. Tragically, one Indian student lost his life due to shelling. Interestingly, when Indian ministers sent to the ground, attempted to capitalise on the crisis, they faced opposition from local politicians who expressed strong disapproval.

When the BJP advertisement boasts of successful rescue missions, it fails to acknowledge the uncertainty that awaits the returned students. The Indian government did not provide clarity on their future, leaving them in limbo. They were not allowed to continue their studies in India. Consequently, some students suffered losses by discontinuing their education, while others took the decision to return to Ukraine or other countries in 2023, risking their lives once again.

Some Important Data on Immigration, Labour Complaints, and Fake Recruitment Agencies

If we take a closer look at the woes of student migration, we can observe that in 2019, when the Indian government released a draft bill to revise the Indian Emigration Act of 1983, there were some measures proposed to govern student migration. However, when another draft bill was released in 2021, the entire section pertaining to student migration disappeared.

Even though suggestions were sought from the public to revise the 1983 Emigration Act in 2019 and 2021, the Modi government failed to introduce it in Parliament for its updating.

In short, despite being the largest migrant-sending country, including students, and the biggest remittance-receiving country in the world, India still governs Indian emigration with a 41-year-old Emigration Act.

As a migrant rights researcher who closely follows the happenings and policies in India, neighbouring migrant-sending countries, and host countries, I must say, that Bangladesh, Nepal, and even Sri Lanka have efficient and updated migration policies and laws, while we struggle with outdated ones and an absence of policy.

Most often, the Indian government portrays knee-jerk rescue operations and the construction of a temple in a Muslim country as victories in migration governance. The Vande Bharat Mission (the COVID-19 evacuation of 1.59 crore Indians), Operation Devi Shakti (the Afghan rescue mission involving 206 Afghan Hindus and Sikhs), Operation Ganga (the evacuation from Ukraine), and Operation Kaveri (the rescue from the Sudan crisis), are the four operations that the Modi government boasts of.

However, despite the COVID-19 outbreak occurring in November 2019, and the Arab Gulf countries (where the majority of Indians work) beginning to close their borders in March 2020, the Indian government only took action in May, leaving millions of Indian migrant workers in distress for months.

The majority of Indian workers in the Arab Gulf are in the construction sector, receiving low pay and lacking basic human rights protections. When the COVID-19 outbreak occurred, they lost their jobs, shelter, food, medicine, and wages.

Many of these workers returned empty-handed, victims of wage theft. Personally, I know hundreds of Indian workers still trying to reclaim their lost wages from the Arab Gulf. Unfortunately, despite being aware of past and ongoing wage theft, the Indian government has turned a blind eye to the issue.

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Even in the Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Sudan rescue operations, there was chaos. Due to the lack of an updated Emigration Act, a migration policy, and basic data on how many Indians work or study abroad, the Indian government lacks standard operating procedures (SOPs) to be activated during rescue operations. If we come to the other labour migration woes, we can see that due to the lack of labour-friendly laws in the Arab Gulf, the majority of migrant workers, including Indians, are subjected to exploitation.

The RTIs filed by me provided answers that, from 2019 to 30 June 2023, the Indian embassies in Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia collectively received 48,095 labour complaints from Indian migrant workers.

All reported issues indicate signs of forced labour as defined by the International Labour Organisation, which states that various indicators can be used to ascertain when a situation amounts to forced labour, such as restrictions on workers’ freedom of movement, withholding of wages or identity documents, physical or sexual violence, threats and intimidation, or fraudulent debt from which workers cannot escape.

Issues in the workplace in host countries are prevalent. Interestingly, even though India is the largest migrant-sending country, safe, regular, and orderly migration is still a distant dream for many potential migrants. My calculations show that, the money fleeced from potential migrants and fake foreign job recruiters can finance three Chandrayaan-3 missions or buy three Rafale jets annually.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs clearly states that registered recruitment agencies can charge a maximum of ₹30,000 for their services. Over 1,700 such agencies operate across India, authorised to recruit for overseas jobs.

However, a document placed in the Parliament reveals that the Ministry of External Affairs had identified 2,295 illegal or fake recruitment agencies by 30 October 2023.

A Parliamentary document placed on the floor in February 2023 states that approximately 1,000 foreign job applications are processed across fourteen ‘Protector of Emigrants’ offices in India daily. Simple calculations reveal that 1,000 applicants paying $361 (Rs30,000) each generate $361,000 per day for recruitment agencies in India. This translates to $10 million per month and $129 million per year.

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When the Ministry of External Affairs itself acknowledges that illegal or fake agencies are charging every potential migrant somewhere between $2,500 to $6,000, the calculations bring out mind-boggling figures.

Even if we consider that each of the 2,925 illegal or fake agencies has recruited only five migrants in a month, charging $2,500 each, the amount translates to $36.5 million in a month. For a year, the figure will be $438 million. With this money, the illegal or fake recruiters can fuel five Chandrayaan-3 missions, as one costs only $75 million, or they can buy three Dassault Rafale jet units, which cost $115 million apiece, with some change to spare.

Unfortunately, these fake agencies play a vital role in duping Indians and sending them even to war-torn countries like Russia and Israel, where Indians either die in the crossfire or are forced to fight the war. In Russian and Israeli labour migration, I will point fingers at the Indian government only because Indian immigration has failed to stop migration to these countries and hasn’t put them under the Emigration Clearance Required list, as they have done in cases of Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

In short, Modi has never held students and labourers who have migrated close to his heart. While building a temple in a Muslim country can be seen as a sign of brotherhood and stronger political ties, when workers are denied decent working conditions and labour rights, there is nothing to boast about in the name of a temple.

In the BJP advertisement, Modi may say, Mera Bharat, Mera Parivar, but for many who have endured hardships on foreign soil, this sentiment often fails to resonate.

(Rejimon Kuttappan is an independent journalist, labour migration specialist and author of Undocumented [Penguin 2021]. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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