Migrant workers boarding a bus to go home
Migrant workers boarding a bus to go home|Photo credit: Thomson Reuters Foundation
Write-In

Horrors Of Homecoming

Migrants within the country are walking, migrants from abroad are descending on India but do we have a plan?

TP Sreenivasan

TP Sreenivasan

The overwhelming sentiment in India that Mother India has a duty to welcome her children back to her bosom has given way to some concern about the overwhelming number of arrivals of Indians by air, land and water to our shores.

Alarm bells have begun to ring in health circles about the fear of shortages of beds, machines and quarantine facilities. Such a phenomenon of the nationals of the country returning in thousands must be unique to India. Since the pandemic does not discriminate on any basis, the concern is universal.

Even in the good old Before Corona (BC) years, the general preference was for the cousins to continue abroad and remit money and visit occasionally rather than come home permanently. After Corona (AC), with their tales of woe, they are even less welcome.

We proudly say that the Indian diaspora is the only empire today on which the sun never sets. When an Indian farmer leaves for his cane farm on the Taveuni island in Fiji at daybreak, an Indian technologist will be driving back home in his fancy car from a day’s work in San Jose. Both have memories of the land they left behind, but their future lies in their country of adoption.

After the initial hesitations about brain drain, the floodgates were opened for migration of Indians not only to the developed nations but also to far flung areas in search of the promised land. Indians may have gone to Fiji in ignorance, but even on a small island in the Pacific, Nauru, highly qualified Indians accept jobs just for the money. It was an indiscriminate exodus on the expectation that any country will be better than ours. Nothing was planned or regulated and the government played no role in the process.

The waves of migration created a bewildering multitude of overseas Indians ranging from poor farmers eking out an existence in the paddy fields of Myanmar and cane farms of Fiji to billionaires in the glamorous capitals of the world. Many of the early migrants had no national pride or sense of duty to feel indebted to the country they left. It was only when they felt alienated from the foreign cultures that they began to discover the value of their own culture and legacy.

But still they accepted other nationalities without integrating themselves with the local people. The first generation Indian migrants are still confused about their identity, while the second generation is only fascinated by the Indian brand.

The migration of professionals to the US and Europe in the sixties and the flow of unskilled and semi-skilled workers to the Gulf in the seventies added a new dimension to the Indian diaspora.

Those who went to the western world grew their roots in foreign soil and found reasons not to return home. Indians without any prospect of permanent settlement thronged to the Gulf region to create a new genre of temporary migrants. Their hearts and wealth were in India, only their bodies were abroad. They had no sense of belonging to the country they worked for, but saw their own future in the prosperity of those lands. They worked tirelessly in horrible conditions with the only hope of returning home to live in reasonable comfort.

But like the mirage in the deserts, the oases moved farther and farther away as they grew old. There were occasional loss of jobs, threat of imprisonment and misery, but they remained firm in their determination to reach their goals.

Back home, the sense was of relief that the men found jobs abroad, they were sending remittances, which transformed homes and villages, built the economy and enjoyed high social status when they came home in branded attire with glittering gifts.

Even those tempted to stay home were persuaded to return to complete the remaining work on the luxury homes and their strong and decorated walls. The thought of their returning home was nightmarish as their taste in lifestyle and their demands could not be sustained for long in the village.

The general expectation was that the Gulf bonanza will never end. The Kuwait experience of 1990 was a shock, but it was forgotten soon enough as most people were able to go back. The exceptional stories of MA Yusuff Ali, Ravi Pillai, Sunny Varkey, PNC Menon and Azad Moopen were not for emulation, but for adulation. As the Outlook magazine pointed out recently, “For every Yusuff Ali, there are thousands of cautionary tales.”

There were clouds in the horizon in terms of rising nationalisation, growing exploitation, high volatility in the Middle East and unsteady oil prices, but they were taken care of by a wing and a prayer.

The collapse came not from them, but from a pandemic as an existential threat which made survival the supreme goal. For months together it was sheer panic around the world and even today no one knows the nature of the ravaged world that COVID-19 will leave behind. The choice, it seems, is either to die with the disease or to live with it for life.

When the pandemic blew up the dreams of individuals, societies and nations, the first response was to fend for oneself and flee to safe havens. It was when that became futile against the backdrop of mass burials and anonymous and lonely deaths that the self-preservation instincts gave way to collective efforts.

Politicians stepped in to clamour for thoughtless wholesale repatriation of Indian nationals from the Gulf without thinking of the grave consequences of adding nearly ten million vulnerable Indians to the population. But better sense prevailed in India as well as among the returnees on account of the magnitude of the problems which came to light.

A phased return of the Indians from the Gulf was put in place. People had breathing time to plan better and to decide on their return plans. If the repatriation was at government expense, more may have rushed back.

But the fact that the shift of the population abroad had resulted in the movement of workers from state to state was forgotten till the famished workers, who lost their livelihoods, defied the quarantine regulations and demanded facilities to return home. The long march of the labourers to their villages and their clamour for food and water and their mutilated bodies on rail tracks shot by world famous photographers, will adorn the museums around the world to India’s utter shame.

Why was this not anticipated? Why was it not dealt with even after the magnitude of the problem came to view?

Even Donald Trump’s senseless actions of killing people to save business did not match the cruelty to fleeing workers. At the same time, the richer Indians have begun arriving in thousands on flights that may be the carriers of the Coronavirus. An effort was made to exempt the flyers from quarantine, while those who came by road or rail received no such mercy. But fortunately, the discriminatory move was abandoned.

Then came the discovery that Indian students and others were in the most unexpected of places, as it happened before when crises erupted in different parts of the world.

The magnet of medical education is like candles to moths even today. How many have heard of a medical school in Arkhangelsk, from where a young girl is asking for rescue? What will happen to the rest of the courses which will be interrupted now? Can Air India fly to Arkhangelsk to bring back this damsel in distress? Such are the problems that India has to tackle in the middle of COVID-19.

An unprecedented demolition of some skyscrapers in Maradu on the Kochi water front was symbolic of the crashing of the dreams of the Indians in the Gulf. This happened in early 2020, which may well be called “Annus Horribilis” around the globe.

“Shortly before noon on January 11, paradise was lost as carefully placed emulsion explosives tore down the two residential blocks of Alfa Serene—aptly named the ‘Twin Towers’. For most NRK owners of the downed towers in Maradu, found to be in violation of CRZ norms, the experience was Kafkaesque. The only silver lining the COVID lockdown afforded them was that it put a stop to the voyeurs indulging in ‘debris tourism’ around the desiccated husks of the flats. How may one label that site? A memorial to hubris? A graveyard of dreams? Or an art installation for the next Kochi-Muziris Biennale?” asked Siddharth Premkumar in Outlook.

The horrors of the homecoming of Indian nationals are yet to be visible. The massive efforts needed to cope with the additional patients who will need treatment and rehabilitation will be mind-boggling.

But given the decision that Indian nationals have the right to return whenever they wish, the nation will have to face it even at the risk of losing more lives and livelihoods.

When Indians left for the Gulf, oil was considered thicker than blood, but today, blood is more vital than oil money.

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