Not the time for evacuation of citizens from Gulf: Former Ambassador

Not the time for evacuation of citizens from Gulf: Former Ambassador

This story first appeared in ETV Bharat

In an exclusive interview with senior journalist Smita Sharma on the COVID-19 crisis in the Gulf and its impact on Indian citizens, Former Indian Ambassador to UAE, Navdeep Suri, said that the situation has not escalated to be called a humanitarian disaster yet where evacuation of millions of Indians from the Gulf can be a solution.

New Delhi: Reports of inadequate healthcare, isolation and quarantine facilities in the Gulf countries have raised concerns about the plight of the large Indian migrant work force in the region. UAE, which alone has more than three million migrants of the nine million plus Indian blue collar workers in the Gulf, has also asked countries including India to repatriate their citizens in the coming days. The matter was also flagged by Pinarayi Vijayan, CM of Kerala, which sends the majority of migrant workforce to the Gulf, in his recent letter to PM Modi.

Senior Journalist Smita Sharma spoke to Navdeep Suri, former Indian Ambassador to UAE and Distinguished Fellow with ORF (Observer Research Foundation), about the crisis brewing in the Gulf, job losses and its possible impact on the huge remittances that flow into India. The retired diplomat feels it is not a humanitarian crisis yet where evacuation of millions from the Gulf can be a solution. He added that panic must not be created.

Suri said that the economic downturn preceded the Coronavirus and groupings like G20 will have to do a lot more before their proposals to collectively fight the pandemic become implementable.The former envoy added that the Islamic countries including the custodian of the two Holy Mosques, Saudi, is taking a hard look at what changes may be needed to religious congregations including the Hajj.

To another question he replied that lessons from WHO apply to several other international organisations of repute today to ensure they do not lean under Chinese influence. He also says that that supply chain bottlenecks will have to start clearing up as an important step towards some restoration of economic normalcy in India. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Q – Migrant labourers in the Gulf have had long standing health care issues. What kind of a humanitarian crisis they now face amid a pandemic?

Different Gulf countries, be it Saudis or Emiratis, have certain different systems. I haven’t come across any report that there is a humanitarian disaster or crisis because of healthcare issues. You have odd cases. As of now most of the governments are saying that they are committed to providing requisite health care. They would obviously want people to return to their countries, those who are stranded or those who are out of jobs, but that is secondary. There is an economic situation, there is a health crisis and Gulf is not spared from it. It is as badly affected as other countries are. Each country is trying to handle it in its own way.

Q – Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan wrote to PM Modi about this. Nurses, small businessmen, labourers have been infected in good numbers as per reports. Most migrants stockpile cheaper medicines from India. How can the Indian Government step in to deal with this acute shortage?

I would suggest talk to our Ambassadors and Consul Generals and see that they are actively engaged in providing the best possible assistance they can. They have set up these networks of community organisations which are working closely with the host governments. The numbers are so large of Indians there. Primarily it is still the responsibility of host governments and of employers with whom these persons are working. Wherever there is an issue the embassies definitely step in and my understanding is they have been working round the clock to make sure wherever they can assist they do.

Q – UAE has said it will impose strict restrictions on countries reluctant to take back their nationals in the Gulf country. How will it affect future bilateral relations? How long can India not evacuate its citizens from the Gulf?

Please take a look at the exact language of what the government of UAE has said and in what context. Our embassy is in regular contact with the government and would be relaying any issues that might be of importance to Delhi. It is important to distinguish between relatively small group of Indian nationals who were stranded in UAE because of expired visas or they went on a tourist visa which they have now run out of vis a vis the larger community of those who are there on work visas or with different visa categories. There is a smaller group which seems to be a more pressing matter. Even the Kerala CM in his letter is referring to those relatively smaller number of individuals and not really the millions of Indians who are in the Gulf.

Q – Reports do say many workers have been locked up, laid off and are stranded in crowded neighbourhoods. Does this not leave them extremely vulnerable?

We have nine million plus Indians – which is the size of a big metropolis. An average aircraft carries 180 people. Do the numbers and tell me how many flights would be required to bring a million people back? Where would you put them in quarantine? Are we sure that the strain of virus currently prevalent in the Gulf is the same as strain of Coronavirus we have in India. Let us think through mechanics of this before coming to a situation where we talk about evacuation.

The government is right in saying at this point you are genuinely better off where you are and for us to make sure you get the best possible attention in the locations where you are. India has a formidable track record compared to many of our neighbouring countries and others in terms of looking after our citizens. Having served in UAE, I can tell you that we have an excellent network of community organisations as well. Yes there will be people who are jobless. There has been an economic downturn that precedes the coronavirus. We had handled situations where companies would lay off workers and then you would have to make arrangements to either repatriate them or to look after them in the interim while they looked for jobs. It is something our missions are geared for but what we do not want to do is to create this sense of panic and desperation. It does not help anybody at all.

Q – With loss of income and jobs, how will it impact the huge remittances India has been receiving from the GCC?

It is bound to impact. There is a very close connection between the GCC and Kerala in particular, but also workers who have gone from Bihar, UP, Telangana and other places. Last year, the remittances from UAE alone amounted to some 17 billion USD. And remittances from Gulf as a whole was close to 50 billion UDSD- that is almost 2 per cent of India’s GDP. So there is a possibility that jobs will be lost and people may have to come back. It will obviously impact remittances. But it is not different from what we are seeing within India itself. Are we not seeing that when migrants have left jobs in Delhi and Mumbai and gone back to their villages. That remittance economy has also dried up. It is a logical economic consequence of the catastrophe that we are witnessing around the world.

Q – We have seen several multilateral initiatives – how do you view G-20 proposals to mitigate the crisis? How implementable are they?

Lot more work needs to be done before these things can really be translated into action on the ground. At this point while there is some effort towards international coordination, reality is that most countries are depending on national efforts.

Q – The WHO (World Health Organisation) has come under criticism for its handling of the pandemic while China’s role in the outbreak faces serious questions. Do you think the international community should fix accountability of WHO and China?

There is no doubt when you look at the timeline of what has happened that China seems to have exercised a disproportionate influence in the current leadership of WHO to toe its line. The Chinese knew as early as November 2019 that there was a problem. In December, there were reports in the Chinese media that there were cases of human transmission they were worried about. People were writing about it. Yet as late as the 12th of January this year, China and the WHO were saying that it is not clear if there has been any human transmission. Flights were continuing. We should look at this in two parts.

WHO has been an extremely important international organisation that is even today playing an important role in coordinating various advisories, warnings and so on. And the manner in which the leadership of WHO has acted at this particular point of time. The lessons of this are not limited to WHO alone but would go beyond to other international organisations also because you see increasingly that the Chinese are trying to exercise control over several international organisations . We certainly do not want to see international organisations of repute, of importance, gather Chinese characteristics.

Q – Having served in the Gulf do you feel something like Hajj will have to undergo major process changes to deal with COVID-19 19 and the aftermath?

Countries like Saudi , Egypt, UAE have been fairly prompt in taking early steps and saying not even the Friday prayer gatherings at mosques will be allowed. They have actually changed the Call To Prayer from saying ‘Come to Pray’ to ‘Stay At Home and Pray’. Whether it is the Umrah or Hajj or other similar congregations, a hard look is being taken particularly for now. Having said that, it is a certain long standing tradition. The Hajj has been an annual event even during times of war. So for the Saudis to say that this year there will be no Hajj is going to be a huge decision and they will take it with a lot of deliberation.

Q – Which are the key economic areas where government should focus on in the months ahead?

PM has spoken that ‘Jaan Bhi Chahiye, Jahaan bhi Chahiye’. There were indications in his speech that from April 20 you may see some degree of balance being restored. That there is a lockdown but areas of economic activity will be progressively opened up. I think it is crucial because of the nature of the Indian economy and because there are so many people who are utterly dependent on daily wages. Economic sustenance for them is critical. This is a challenge that is engaging the government every day at the highest level. But we will need to make sure that some of the supply chain bottlenecks have to be cleared like truckers having gone back to their villages or ports being clogged. The economy is like a living organism, it is like a body. If one part doesn’t function properly, the rest of the body will also get impacted. Those supply chain issues are really critical to the restoration of some degree of normalcy into the economy.

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About Smita Sharma

Smita Sharma is a senior award winning independent journalist. She writes on foreign policy and security issues for various news organisations including ETV Bharat and Huffington Post. She was the Consulting Executive Editor for TV9 Bharatvarsh and Deputy Editor with The Tribune in the past. In more than 16 years of her journalism career she has also been a bilingual prime time anchor and foreign policy Incharge with leading TV news channels- India Today/ Aajtak/ CNN-IBN/ IBN7 and DD News. Her reportage of the Kashmir conflict in 2010 won the Ramnath Goenka Award. She is a an alumni of the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies (DKI-APCSS) in Hawaii.