Uncertain Journeys: Labour Migration from South Asia
AS Panneerselvan (editor)
Speaking Tiger/ Panos South Asia
Labour migration out of South Asia is as old as colonial globalisation, with lascars and ayahs in 18th century London and the voyage of the Komagata Maru in the early 20th century. It has created the world’s biggest diaspora, according to a 2016 UN report, with 15.6 million overseas, more than many national populations. We applaud the remittance economy that it has created, and the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is an important annual event. But in Uncertain Journeys, 11 essays collected by AS Panneerselvan, readers’ editor of the Hindu and executive director of the non-profit Panos South Asia, look at the dark side of the diaspora.
While we celebrate the pathbreaking economist or surgeon of Indian origin in the Anglo-Saxon world, Rejimon Kuttapan looks at Indian workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations, and wonders if he is documenting modern slavery. Janak Sapkota from Nepal shows how weak regulatory frameworks allow the unscrupulous to turn legitimate labour flows across borders into human trafficking.
Nila Kumar’s essay ‘Liberal Image’ reveals racism by region at work in the Emirates, with cabbies talking of graduated payscales, with whites at the top and African blacks bringing up the rear, far behind South Asians. They also allege that complaints invite harassment by state agencies.
In ‘Return to Nothingness’, RK Radhakrishnan explores the enormous risk that migrant labour takes, and the ever-present possibility of having to return home empty-handed. Haniya Javed follows on with an analysis of the plight of Pakistani workers following a crisis in the Bin Laden construction group, which highlighted the need for a new migration policy. Islamabad’s main concern, it appears, is to increase inward remittances through formal banking channels. A safety net has not been contemplated, and would perhaps be distrusted by workers in a country where the government never appears to be completely in charge.
The only real safety net, of course, would be to secure a credible growth in jobs, which almost all governments in our region have failed to do. Uncertain Journeys highlights the magnitude of the cost that workers have to pay when they are uprooted by financial need — a need so pressing that despite the hardships, they are inclined to return to foreign parts after they come home. But cross-border migration is only part of the story. There is a need for a similar book on domestic migration, triggered by the failure of some state governments to assure citizens a decent living.