Standing Up For The NRIs
On Jul 12, 2010


For a long time the millions of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) have one unified demand/request to the changing Indian governments: voting rights.

The NRIs are our cash cows, often milked dry and exploited by family and political leaders alike, but they are hardly given the kind of understanding and place they deserve in the heart of our nation.

I know their frustrations. I know the pain of their nostalgia. I know the fever of displacement. I'd been one among them for nearly 15 years.

Now, a draft bill to give voting rights to the NRIs has been approved by a group of ministers, and it is likely that it will be introduced in the Parliament soon.

A good move. A flicker of light at the end of the long tunnel.

While we appreciate the ministers, it would be good to take a look at what it really means.

The proposed bill will allow people with Indian passports to vote, but the catch is, they have to be present in their constituency.

Now, how many of the millions of Indians can come home just to cast their votes?

Let me take a look at the Non-Resident Keralites (NRKs) in the Gulf countries. They run into hundreds of thousands.

Kerala is not just what see geographically, a friend of mine, who now heads one of the leading news channels here, once told me. “Kerala is all over the world,” he said.

He is right.

But those in the Gulf countries are a unique lot. I am sure, with my little bit of travelling around the world and experience in working in newsrooms and handling international pages, there is not another expatriate community like the Malayalis living in the Gulf.

Unlike those who live in the US, UK, Africa or Singapore, they are not given either citizenship or Permanent Residence. They are just expatriates forever--with no sense or permanence--but they are very much an integral part of the workforce in the foreign country and are inevitable to the economy back home.

When my wife suffered a stroke, I approached the Immigration of Dubai Government to get a visa for a home nurse. I was told that Indians were not permitted to keep home nurses. Fine, it is their policy as it is their country. But it hurts when we find the same kind of apathy from our own government.

Ask any NRI/NRK about the experience he or she has at our airports. A drunken foreigner with the right kind of connections can slap an airport security staff and get away scot-free, but the poor construction worker who comes home once in two or three years with goodies for his family is stopped and asked a thousand questions which his poor IQ or illiteracy cannot even comprehend.

And, this poor construction labourer, who works from dawn to dusk under a scorching, acrimonious Middle East sun and lives in matchbox-like shanties called Labour Camps where you can't even stretch your arms, and doesn't get paid regularly, is an important contributing factor to Kerala's economy.

Let me tell you an incident. A relative of mine works in a big sports stadium in Dubai. His two sons are studying in colleges in Kerala, and I have seen them riding their latest bikes and sporting trendy sunglasses and sports shoes their father sends from Dubai. One day I was driving by the stadium and thought of paying him a visit. I asked a few people about him, and guided by them I finally found him, and what I saw really shocked me. This man, who sends money regularly to his wife and children to have a good time, was squatting down and cutting grass under a blistering sun at noon. He was sweating profusely and was reddish-black. He was ashamed that I saw him at his work place. He bought me a soft drink from the canteen and asked me never to tell any of our relatives what he was doing at the stadium. And, you should see him when he comes home on vacation--in denims and t-shirts, smelling of perfumes.
He is just one of the millions. I don't blame them. This is their life. Then there are the middle-class families, always finding it hard to make ends meet. Then the business class, and those who work for the MNCs and oil companies.

All of them don't have a sense of permanence in these foreign countries. Even though they live there, their heart and soul are here in Kerala. They listen to the radio, watch all serials and listen to every news bulletin, and they know about even the tiny socio-political changes happening here in Kerala. You should see the crowd at the remittance centres in the first week of the month. The NRKs send home about Rs30,000 crore annually!

Apart from that, they are exploited by political leaders who make months-long visits to all these countries--and why they visit? Your guess is as good as mine.

Yes, the expatriate Indians should be given voting rights, but to come home to cast the votes is not practical.

Countries like Indonesia and the Philippines open facilities at their diplomatic centres in these countries where their people can vote. It may be a huge task for India considering the sheer number of NRIs, but if the government really wants to make them take part in the electoral process of the country, they have to think of either postal ballot or providing facilities at the diplomatic centres, however difficult the task may be.

Can you imagine a Kerala economy without the remittance from the NRKs? Or an Indian economy without the contributions from the NRIs? Their contribution is not only to the exchequer but to the society as well. Do you know how many unemployed youth will be loitering around here if they couldn't find jobs in these Gulf countries?

And, do you know how passionately they love their home country in their own ways? Do you know a stream of their literature where they write about nostalgia and displacement? Husbands look long and blank at the photographs of their family back home; sons weep, not being able to go home when a parent dies; men in overalls calculate exchange rates before they buy a meal.

But, you should see their passion to celebrate Onam, and recreate a Kerala where they live.

Surely, they deserve to take part in the electoral process because they are contributing to the country's economy and social setup. But to come home just for that will not be affordable for the majority of them. It will only be possible for the rich.

Even when the world economy was in recession, the remittance from the Middle East to India didn't suffer much because the NRIs sent their families home, cut down their expenses and shared their accommodation to make sure that the money sent home wouldn't be affected.

We should remember that the NRIs in the Gulf countries are very much Indians in document and in feelings. Isn't it their fundamental right to cast their vote in the Indian electoral process? Don't they have a right to say who should govern India and who should not?

I rest my case, and now you decide whether they should be given the basic rights of voting, that too in a feasible way, not this hogwash.

sabin yentha
Sabin Iqbal

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Wow! How well you have spoken the truth.. nd with a heart.. One hopes that we shall be allowed to vote.. nd without having to travel too.. nd maybe the NRI votes may bring in a much needed change in Kerala.
Happy Kitten, on Jul 15, 2010 04:35:50 PM
Thanks, Happy Kitten. The NRKs are a unique community. I was one among them for years. We are neither there nor here.
Sabin Iqbal, on Jul 17, 2010 12:59:03 AM
Thumbs up Sabin....Having been born and brought up in the U.A.E, it hurts me a lot when people back home snigger and act as if the money we send is something we pluck out of trees here. Though we were lucky enough to have parents working in the govt and business fields we did see the darker side mainly through our parent's eyes. My parents always explained and showed us instances where people who work for the cleaning companies often think twice about eating an extra bread piece for a meal. Back home they think it is easy sitting inside an ac room for which we are paid huge sums...Nobody thinks of the people who work from dawn till dusk and then return to cramped spaces for a few hours rest and doing it for years at a time. They only see the glitter not the tears.
Smita, on Jul 17, 2010 08:21:14 AM
@Smita, your comments have really touched my heart. All of a sudden I felt a twinge--pain for a people who are grossly misunderstood or sniggered at. Thank you for expressing your views.
Sabin Iqbal, on Jul 17, 2010 09:58:18 AM
Mr Sabin, Its not the Vote, but these poor laborers from Gulf need the helping hand from the Government. If a Philippine worker and Indian worker is doing the same job the Philippini will get more salary since their Government supports their own people and fixed the minimum salary for them at higher level than Indians. Unfortunately the debate is going on for the Votes to those shameless Politicians who will never care about the living conditions of these poor laborer. It does't matter for our politicians as well as for the Government whether these NRIs cast their vote or not. But these poor guys need Governments support. If you want to stand up for the NRIs please stand up for their fundamental needs not for the greedy politicians votes. Jai Hind
Mohan, on Aug 07, 2010 02:39:07 AM
@Mohan, yes sir, you are right. Our government turns a blind eye towards the rights of the NRIs. The govt. is just indifferent. As you said, if anything happens to a Filipino worker, his embassy will get involved. Indian embassy is not so bothered.
Sabin Iqbal, on Aug 09, 2010 07:07:51 PM
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