As India celebrates the return of the Kerala nurses trapped in Iraq’s civil war and New Delhi intensifies the effort to bring many others home, Prime Minister Narendra Modi must create a strong institutional framework to cope effectively with the recurrent crises involving Indian citizens abroad.
Over the last decade alone, Delhi had to launch two major military operations to rescue Indian citizens from war zones abroad. In Libya (2011), Indian armed forces evacuated nearly 18,000 people. In Lebanon (2006), the Indian navy helped get nearly 2,200 Indians, Sri Lankans and Nepalese out of the war zone. There have been other cases that have drawn much public attention in recent years — the violence against Indian students in Australia, the arrest of Indian traders in southern China and students caught in fake universities in the United States, to name a few.
Dealing with the diaspora — people of Indian origin, citizens living abroad, and stateless people who originally migrated from the subcontinent — has been a major preoccupation for independent India. The expansive globalisation of the subcontinent under the Raj in the 19th century saw significant movement of Indian labour and capital beyond the subcontinent. In the decades after Independence, the lack of opportunities at home drove many Indians abroad, especially to English-speaking lands and to the Gulf, after the oil boom there from the mid-1970s. The economic reforms at the end of the 20th century did not reduce the outward flows, but have added new streams to the Indian diaspora.
If citizens’ expectations from Delhi were low in the past, Delhi is now under great pressure domestically to respond purposefully to the challenges of securing the Indian abroad. Recall the importance S.M. Krishna, external affairs minister (from 2009 to 2012) in the UPA government, attached to the issue of the Indian students in Australia, and note current External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s vigour in leading the diplomatic effort on Iraq. And don’t forget the pressure from the Kerala and Punjab governments on Delhi in the last few days. If politicians understand the new pressures from below, the media accentuates them by 24×7 coverage of any Indians in trouble beyond borders.
More Indian passport holders are living today in foreign lands for work, education and business. According to one count, in 2012, there were nearly 11 million Indian citizens abroad. There are others travelling for pleasure. The number of Indians leaving national shores, on short or long trips, has gone up from a little over four million in 2000 to nearly 15 million in 2012. There are nearly 2,00,000 students abroad today. With more than 50 per cent of the Indian economy now made up of exports and imports, Indian businessmen tend to huge commercial stakes abroad.There is a variety of situations — ill-treatment, denial of rights, loss of property, hijacks, natural disasters and military conflicts, to name a few — that demand different degrees of Delhi’s involvement, from consular support to the deployment of armed forces for large-scale evacuation.
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India needs both additional resources as well as better systems to deal with the recurring challenges of supporting citizens abroad. On the resources front, there is no escaping the fact that India needs more officers and staff on the ground and in the headquarters for dealing with expanding consular work.
At the level of systems, it makes sense to set up a well-staffed permanent mechanism, say a centre for consular protection with representation from all stakeholders under the ministry of external affairs, long the lead agency in this domain. Three important functions present themselves to this new mechanism.
The first relates to information collection and dissemination. The government needs more comprehensive and reliable data on the movement of Indians across national borders. Effective tracking is critical for understanding the broad patterns and changes within them over time, identifying potential problems and offering better services. Delhi must ensure that Indian workers get mandatory briefings on local conditions and risks in their specific destinations as well as their rights vis-a-vis the Indian government. Delhi must find ways to improve global access to information being put out by the government on rapidly developing situations.\
The second relates to the codification of India’s rich experience in evacuating Indian citizens abroad. In an important recent study, Constantino Xavier, an international relations scholar at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, has counted 26 Indian evacuation operations between 1947 and 2003. But there has been no real effort within the government to study this experience, learn lessons and build a more secure foundation for protecting Indian citizens abroad. The new mechanism can draft and circulate to all key departments at the Centre and in relevant states comprehensive reports on how each crisis was dealt with, and the lessons learnt.
The third relates to coordination among multiple government agencies that will have to participate in responding to the crises. The permanent mechanism for consular protection can help strengthen India’s regular engagement on consular issues with key foreign governments as well as develop a partnership with Indian communities abroad. It can help structure regular consultations on diaspora issues with interested state governments. It can also better service the standing committee on crisis management that steps in when situations of the type we recently saw in Iraq develop.
The centre must closely monitor developments in regions where there are large concentrations of Indian citizens and provide early warning of negative developments and explore the possibilities for pre-emptive action. The centre could also be made responsible for developing standard operating procedures for quick and effective responses from Delhi.
The BJP has always taken an extra interest in the diaspora. The prime minister, who successfully mobilised support from overseas Indians during the general election, is well placed to take a major initiative on getting Delhi to more effectively discharge India’s responsibilities to citizens abroad.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’