No jobs at home: Why war zones lure Indians

Successive Indian governments have successfully evacuated stranded Indians from conflict zones.

Update: 2018-03-21 19:32 GMT
Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj before a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, at Jawahar Lal Nehru Bhavan in New Delhi. (Photo: PTI)

It’s a sad week for all Indians. The Narendra Modi government has finally confirmed that all the 39 Indian labourers who were abducted by ISIS in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in 2014, were killed and their bodies have been recovered. The families of the deceased heard it over television channels, when external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj broke the news in Parliament. The “end” came in a way that only added to the families’ grief, after they had lived on hope over the past four years, with the government making at least six statements that the 39 Indians were alive and safe.

It’s curtains down on one of the longest search operations in contemporary Indian history. But there’s no “closure” yet.  Today, there are  more questions than answers. And not only from 27-year-old Harjit Masih, the lone survivor who escaped, and who had maintained all along that his compatriots were killed within days of being kidnapped in 2014.

What did the government know, and when? Questions are being tossed at the government about the ethics of lulling the grieving families into a false sense of security, of disbelieving Masih, of breaking the news in Parliament before communicating it to the families personally, and so on. This will continue, despite the government’s statements that it did its best, and followed the due process.

But in the melee of the many unanswered questions, it’s important to remember the real issue — this  tragedy is the latest poignant  marker of the jobs crisis in our country. This isn’t only about the security of Indians working in trouble spots. It brings home, in a brutal way, a question that we should all be asking — what makes Indians rush to Iraq and similar conflict zones, knowing fully well the dangers ahead?

The short answer, as everyone knows, is poverty. Grinding, desperate poverty. A former ambassador told me: “What can any government do, besides issuing real-time advisories about the need to be cautious? This is a democracy. You can’t prevent people from going out, from taking high risks, when they have empty bellies.” He also said it’s anyone’s guess how many would step forward even today to go to places like Iraq.

And that’s the core issue. The dead Indians were construction workers from Punjab, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh and West Bengal, who had been taken hostage when ISIS captured Mosul in 2014. Mosul has been in the middle of the Iraq war zone for years. The hungry are likely to treat with scorn any warning of danger from those in positions of privilege, who have never known the horrors of hunger. It’s quite likely that even today, many are willing to head for conflict zones, risking their lives. Such is the magnitude of the jobs crisis in the country despite the economic growth.

Successive Indian governments have successfully evacuated stranded Indians from conflict zones. In April 2016, in response to a question in Parliament, the government said it “regularly and closely monitors the evolving security situation in the Middle East, including in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, which had substantial Indian communities”. The government has established 24x7 helplines functional in the Indian missions and posts in these countries.

In the immediate term, it is imperative to step up the information campaigns and advisories about the costs of going to a conflict zone in search of work. In the long run, the solution is clearly jobs and an  income necessary for a worker to meet his/her basic needs. There have been numerous reports in the media about fraudulent manpower agents luring blue-collar workers to dangerous places with the promise of lucrative jobs. A few years ago, one report noted that these agents charge anything between '2 lakhs and '4 lakhs per head, depending on the nature of the job. The workers are promised that they would be paid salaries of over $1,000 a month, and the people are more than ready to shell out money with the hope that they would earn much more than they can possibly do within India, not realising the trap they are falling into. Often, the workers are not sent to a conflict zone directly. The modus operandi is typically to send them first to Dubai or Saudi Arabia on a tourist visa. Once they are there, they a
re asked to wait for some days, and then illegal routes are used to take them to strife-torn areas like Iraq. This makes it very difficult to track these people, because in the official records they are still shown as persons on a tourist visa in Dubai or Saudi Arabia.

Many workers who had been evacuated from a conflict zone have chosen to go back to war-torn countries. An investigative report in a national daily in May 2015 told the story of one Nachhatar Singh of Hoshiarpur, who went back to Iraq in 2015. Singh told the reporter that initially he had no intention of taking another job in the war-torn country. “But after doing menial jobs to earn a living for a few months, I could not even make enough for two meals a day.” A desperate Singh then contacted a friend who was still in Iraq. “I asked him if he could help me return to Iraq, and he talked to the company people there. The company helped me get a visa.”

Another telling example: A nurse from Kerala who had been taken hostage in Yemen and subsequently rescued told a reporter that despite everything that had happened, she would go back to Yemen if she could, “because I have a family depending on me. I have two unmarried sisters, one has bone cancer and the other has uterus fibroid, a mentally challenged aunt, an alcoholic husband and two children to take care of”.

It’s time to grieve, but not passively. Everyone goes where the going is better. But the question that India should be asking itself is whether a country that aspires to be a global power can offer no options to its citizens besides risking their lives in war zones?


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