Be colour blind

Be colour blind

The intention behind different-coloured passports is right. But marking the vulnerable violates equal rights

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The intention behind different-coloured passports is right. But marking the vulnerable violates equal rights (File)

The government must rethink its decision to have different-coloured passports for citizens who require emigration checks and those who don’t. So far all Indian citizens were issued passports of the same colour and design. As per the new rules issued by the Ministry of External Affairs last week, those who require emigration check (the ECR category) will hereafter be issued orange-coloured passports while others (ECNR category) will get blue ones.

The idea behind the proposal is that the government will be able to protect vulnerable labourers, who form the bulk of ECR category, from exploitation when they travel outside India. The intention behind the proposal is, no doubt, laudable, but in practice it is likely to facilitate discrimination. The colour of passport could become an easy marker to segregate Indian citizens on the basis of their socio-economic profile and discriminate against vulnerable sections.

The Emigration Act, 1983, insists that certain categories of Indian passport holders obtain an “Emigration Clearance” from the office of the Protector of Emigrants (POE) before travelling to certain countries. The “ECR” stamp is to ensure the safety of uneducated and unskilled Indian citizens, leaving India with the intent to secure employment, against the prevailing legal conditions in those countries.

This system could continue, but to colour code their vulnerability on their passports and brand them as different is unacceptable. The passport is the primary document of citizenship. The Indian Constitution promises all citizens equal rights and envisages an equal social order, irrespective of caste, class, language, ethnicity etc, in place of a society, which practised, in Babasaheb Ambedkar’s words, graded inequality. Different passports for different classes is a return to an unequal social order: You can’t be equal if you are kept different.


Explained: What’s behind the change of colour, trimmed information in new Indian passports

It’s a non-brainer that people with limited social and economic capabilities face relatively more hardships when they emigrate. The colour code on the passport makes them even more exposed to discrimination, segregation and exploitation — embassies to airline companies will now find it easier to identify them. It only helps to reinforce and institutionalise class prejudice.

According to a 2015 PEW Research Centre study, 15.6 million people born in India were living in other countries and their annual remittances amount to $69 billion, much of it from migrants to West Asia, who work in extreme, exploitative conditions.

This unheralded lot could do with more outreach from the government. States like Kerala have dedicated departments and welfare initiatives to address the needs of the emigrant diaspora. Even so, official India is far too distant and alien for them in times of need. The MEA could focus on these aspects than devise ways to institutionalise discrimination.