As per the data tabled in the Parliament this April, around 88 lakh (87.76 lakh to be precise) Indians work in the six Gulf countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE); but, for every $1 billion they remitted back home to India in the six months of 2018, there were at least 117 deaths. This works out to 10 deaths per day.
Venkatesh Nayak, research scholar and programme coordinator of Commonwealth Human Right Initiative (CHRI), who procured this information through right to information (RTI) applications and researching proceedings in Parliament, says, “Not much is known about the human cost of such earnings which expand the country’s forex reserves quietly.’’
Another revelation under RTI is that during the first half of this financial year alone (April-September 2018), Indian blue-collared workers in these countries had remitted $33.47 billion back home. In fact, as per the World Bank estimates, Indian workers in UAE had remitted $72.3 billion between 2012-2017 whereas Indians in the US remitted $68.37 billion, UK at $23 billion and a mere $17.3 billion from Canada, during this period.
Observes Mr Nayak, “It appears that blue collared workers are contributing more to India’s forex kitty than the white-collared workers in the developed countries.’’
Mr Nayak filed an online RTI application in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). The information he sought was the year-wise list of the names, age, sex, and occupation of Indian workers, who died in the countries of Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE between 1 January 2012 onwards; and the cause of death as mentioned in the death certificates of every deceased Indian worker referred to at para 1 above for the same period.
"The Central Public Information officer (CPIO) of MEA promptly transferred the RTI application to the CPIOs of the Indian embassies situated in the six Gulf countries. “It appears that MEA does not maintain data about the deaths of Indian workers unless queries are raised in Parliament,’’ Mr Nayak said.
The CPIOs of the embassy of Kuwait (which had all this information on its website since 2014), Bahrain, Oman and Qatar provided the data. Strangely though, the CPIO as well as the First Appellate Authority of UAE refused information citing Section 8 (1)(i), which exempts the disclosure of personal information which may cause unwarranted invasion of privacy of the individual.
Mr Nayak says, “While the Indian embassy in Kuwait displays the good practice of proactive information, the embassy in UAE refuses even the basic data. The other Indian embassies have refused details regarding the deaths of Indian workers sought in the RTI application by either citing Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act or by claiming that the information was held in multiple files in disaggregate form. They are striving to adopt the lowest common denominator instead of following the sterling example of the Indian mission in Kuwait.’’
In order to fill up the gaps in the data (between 2012-2013, which the Indian embassy in Kuwait did not display) and the data which UAE refused to disclose, Mr Nayak researched the websites of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha in Parliament and found the required data, to compile a sordid picture of the vulnerability of blue collar workers to fatalities.
The following are the trends, analysed by Mr Nayak:
Available data indicates that at least 24,570 Indian workers died in the six Gulf countries between 2012 and mid-2018. This number could increase if the complete figures for Kuwait and UAE are made available publicly. This amounts to more than 10 deaths per day during this period
Most number of deaths occurred in Saudi Arabia during this period while Bahrain accounted for the least number, i.e., 1,317 deaths. The most number of deaths occurred in 2015 – 4,702 whereas the smallest number was reported in 2012- 2,375
By July-August 2018, already 1,656 deaths had occurred
Only the CPIO of the Indian embassy in Qatar provided some information about the cause of deaths. While more than 80% of the deaths have been attributed to natural causes, almost 14% of the deaths occurred in accidents. Almost 6% of these deaths were due to suicides.
Comparing datasets of deaths with datasets relating to remittances, Mr Nayak observes that, while the World Bank publishes estimates of remittances from every country across the world, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) website does not have information of country wise data regarding remittances.
Here is the comparative analysis of the data regarding remittances received from Indians working in Gulf countries with the datasets relating to death:
Indians working in the Gulf countries accounted for more than half of the remittances that India received from all over the world between 2012-2017. While India received a total of $410.33 billion in remittances from the world over, remittances from the Gulf countries accounted for $209.07 billion.
According to World Bank estimates, UAE topped the list of Gulf countries from which remittances were received at $72.30 billion followed by Saudi Arabia ($62.60 billion); Kuwait ($25.77 billion); Qatar ($22.57 billion); Oman ($18.63 billion) and Bahrain came last with $7.19 Billion.
When compared with the dataset regarding deaths of Indian workers obtained through RTI and parliamentary records, there were more than 187 deaths for every billion (US) dollars received from Oman during 2012-17; more than 183 deaths for every billion (US) dollars received from Bahrain and 162 deaths for every billion (US) dollars received from Saudi Arabia. Qatar accounted for more than 74 deaths for every billion (US) dollars received while the lowest figure of 71 deaths for every billion (US) dollars received was from UAE.
Interestingly, while UAE was the source of the highest amount of remittances from Indian workers during the years 2012-2017 ($72.3 billion), it also had the lowest deaths per billion (US) dollars remitted to India (a little more than 71 deaths). Conversely, Bahrain, which came at the bottom of the list in terms of total remittances during the same period ($7.19 billion only), stands at the second place in terms of the number of deaths of Indian workers per billion (US) dollars remitted (a little more than 183 deaths). In other words every billion (US) dollars earned by Indian workers remitted from Bahrain cost much more in terms of deaths than a similar amount remitted from UAE.
A comparison of the remittances data from Gulf countries with the remittances from the Indian diaspora in the advanced countries of the western world, namely, UK, US and Canada shows some interesting trends. Indian workers in the UAE remitted $72.3 billion between 2012-2017, while remittances from Indians in the USA were only $68.37 billion during this period. Remittances from the UK at $23 billion and a mere $17.3 billion from Canada compare poorly with the remittances that Indian workers sent from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait during the same period. However, the Indian diaspora in the developed world seems to wield more political influence in India than the Indian worker community eking out a living in Gulf countries. This phenomenon also needs a deeper examination from researchers and academics
It appears that blue-collared workers are contributing more to India’s forex kitty than the white-collared workers in the developed countries. However, as a proportion of the total forex reserves at the end of the calendar year the share of the remittances seems to be declining in recent years. In 2012 remittances from Gulf countries were equal to 12.57% of the forex reserves (excluding gold and special drawing rights) declared by RBI for the week ending 29 December. In 2017, the remittances were only 9.97% of the year-end forex reserves declared by RBI.
The above comparison is not an attempt to label the remittances from the Gulf as blood money. Instead, the purpose of this comparative analysis is to highlight the shockingly large number of deaths of Indian workers in the Gulf countries. This phenomenon requires urgent examination. It is hoped that the Central government will start this exercise by making more information about deaths of Indian workers in these countries public. There is an urgent need to commission experts to study the cause of deaths - especially the large number of deaths labelled in Qatar as “natural deaths” and examine the conditions under which Indians work there and identify measures that will prevent avoidable deaths.
Mr Nayak has filed an appeal with the Central Information Commission to examine the good practice of the Indian Embassy in Kuwait and direct the other embassies to emulate their standard of proactive information disclosure regarding the deaths of Indian workers abroad.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”