Beyond relief ’n’ rescue

The nurses are safely back, but millions of others are still working in Iraq. India now needs to scale up its strategic and economic engagement with West Asia


Srinath Raghavan | July 16, 2014

The ongoing crisis in Iraq posed the first serious external test for the NDA government. New Delhi’s handling of the rescue and evacuation effort has been commendable. Yet the government needs to look beyond the immediate crisis. In particular, it should reconsider some fundamental assumptions that have long underpinned India’s response to instability in West Asia. Such an exercise must begin with the acknowledgement that our stock response to major crises in the region – evacuation of Indian nationals in conflict zones – is not really sustainable. A shift in our strategic approach to the region is long overdue.

During every major West Asian crisis in the recent past – Kuwait and Iraq in 1990, Iraq in 2003, Lebanon in 2006, Libya in 2011 – New Delhi has orchestrated large-scale evacuation of its nationals back to India. Successful evacuations of the past should not, however, encourage the notion that we can respond in a similar fashion in the future. Two factors in conjunction could render this approach unsustainable.

First, India’s ties with West Asia are far deeper than in the past. The region accounts for 63 percent of our crude imports and $93 billion of trade. The Gulf countries alone host nearly seven million Indians. Between 2008 and 2012 India sent an average of 7,00,000 workers every year to the region. Remittances from West Asia amounted (in 2012-13) to $24.94 billion. It is worth bearing in mind that the total remittances to India in the same year stood at $67.62 billion. In other words, remittances from West Asia play a key role in our balance of payments.

They are also important for the local economies of the states of India that send out workers. (In 2012, the largest component of migrant workers came from UP, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Punjab.) A major evacuation of Indians from West Asia will not only have an adverse impact on these counts, but may make it more difficult for Indian workers to secure employment in the future.
Second, West Asia is in the throes of serious instability – one that could potentially turn into a wider upheaval. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 fundamentally transformed the regional balance of power. The removal of Saddam Hussein turned Iraq, in one stroke, from a major adversary of Iran to a significant ally, if not client. This coupled with Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capability deeply unsettled the prevailing pattern of regional power relations. On top of these geopolitical changes came the so-called Arab Spring which challenged the legitimacy of dictatorial regimes in the region. The military-security apparatus that underpinned the old regimes has survived in countries like Syria – and even fought back to power in Egypt. With the exception of Bahrain, the Arab kingdoms have so far been unaffected by the political forces unleashed by the Arab Spring. But it is difficult to imagine that they will remain immune to it forever.

Together these geopolitical and populist currents have made West Asia rather volatile. The Arab states led by Saudi Arabia are locked in a spiralling strategic rivalry with Iran. This has been overlaid by a sectarian Sunni-Shia divide that runs within states as well as between them. The crises in Syria and Iraq are manifestations of these trends and portents of wider instability in the region. Iraq is a particularly important warning. It showcases the ease with which jihadi groups with pan-Islamic pretensions can insinuate themselves into local political contexts.

In short, Indian workers’ links with West Asia are deepening just when the region seems poised for greater turbulence. In particular, if the Gulf monarchies are affected by regional unrest the consequences for India could be grim. After all, Saudi Arabia and the UAE host almost three million and two million Indians, respectively. In such a scenario the impracticability of our existing approach will be driven home with devastating clarity. To forestall such an eventuality, it is important that we place our interests in the region on a firmer footing. 

To begin with, we need to deepen our strategic and economic engagement with the region. Our interests lie on both sides of the Saudi-Iran divide. The challenge is not only to maintain the delicate balance in our dealings with both countries, but also to emerge as an important strategic player in the region. If India can present itself as a credible security provider for West Asia, then it will have more leverage in dealing with the increasing volatility in the region. Similarly, New Delhi needs to be less risk-averse in exploring economic opportunities. The government of Iraq, for instance, has been keen on inviting India to invest for some years now. We declined to make the most of this owing to concerns about security. But unless we put our chips into the pot, our leverage will remain low.

Further, we need to broaden our engagement in West Asia. As political uncertainty sweeps the region, it is imperative that we expand our engagement to include a wide swathe of political actors and civil society groups. A pro-active engagement with both governments and other democratic forces will give us a wider range of options in the event of major crises.

Even as we work towards expanding our leverage, it is important to pay attention to blind-spots in our current policy. While most of our attention has been taken up by evacuations, little thought seems to have been given to rehabilitation and reintegration of returning workers. This is particularly the case with very low skilled workers. UP, for instance, is the largest provider of migrant workers to the Gulf countries and a majority of them work on construction sites. Finding suitable employment opportunities for them will be crucial to mitigating the fallout of large-scale evacuation. Some states like Kerala are well organised to deal with such problems: the state government has a non-resident Keralites affairs department. Others such as UP and Bihar are poorly organised and barely capable of keeping track of their migrants. It is imperative that the central government work closely with states to craft a sustainable policy.

(This appeared in the July 16-31, 2014 issue of the magazine)



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