Assisting the unfortunate Pravasi Bharatiyas

The Indian government’s programmes to assist distressed workers and women overseas is a step in the right direction

Protecting Indian nationals wherever they might be in the world should be a key objective of India’s foreign policy. While India has demonstrated its commitment towards securing the lives of its nationals during major crises—like the evacuation of expatriate Indians from the Middle East during the 1990 Gulf War and the more recent conflict in Lebanon—assisting citizens in quotidian situations has not been its strong point. [Due apologies to our foreign service officers who help stranded Indian families in remote corners of the world]. Among those who most need the Indian government’s assistance are low-wage workers and women.

So it is good to see the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs do something beyond organising grand pow-wows and handing out awards to prominent non-resident Indians. Not only has it announced programmes to help distressed Indian workers and women, it has made the involvement of local NRI communities essential for their success.

The Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF) covers distressed workers in United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Malaysia, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Syria, Lebanon, Thailand, and Iraq. The government’s financial contribution is tiny—between Rs 500,000 and Rs 1.5 million each—but constitutes seed funding. The intention is to make the fund self-sustaining through charges for consular services at Indian missions, as well as voluntary contributions by NRI communities. Similarly, the scheme to provide financial and legal assistance to Indian women deserted by their husbands in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Gulf covers expenses up to US$1000, and is administered in partnership with community NGOs. Seventeen women have been helped so far—ten from Australia alone.

It is a good idea for the government to jump start the programme and rely on community funding for its financial sustainability. More importantly, the Indian government’s role should be to back the programmes with diplomatic clout and political resolve. Putting the onus on Indian missions abroad ensures that the ambassadors have control and are accountable for the results in the areas under their care. A degree of competition among them wouldn’t hurt at all. More importantly, getting NRI communities to chip in financially helps build social capital creating avenues for the relatively well-to-do members of the community to help the more unfortunate ones. This should also lead to community monitoring, administration and performance audit of these programmes.

And once the Indian government learns enough in these selected countries, it should extend these programmes across the globe.