A few months ago, while checking in for a flight to Dubai, I was told by the counter girl that she would not check me in. The reason was that my passport did not have a ECNR stamp (supposed to be given to any genuine 12th standard student or graduate from an Indian university).
The matter escalated to the immigration manager who hemmed, hawed, expressed much disappointment in educated people not being aware of the law and after much haranguing, gave me a temporary clearance. This, after I, brandished copies of my IT returns (I was forewarned about the hurdle at immigration since the ticket was bought just a day before), pointed out that I was not likely to work as a driver with a sheikh or a menial worker whose passport might get confiscated and my work was only for two days (do see my tickets). So, he or the Government of India did not have to worry about `protecting’ me from being sold for cheap in the middle eastern job market.
It was half an hour to go and the aircraft doors were about to close. I was now mentally ready to stay back in my dear country which cared so much for my welfare outside that I was tempted to ask if my job would ever be protected inside. Even the last, last boarding calls had stopped. But lo and behold, the immigration officer himself walked back with me to the check-in counter to request the airline people to allow me in. So, after putting me through 45 minutes of agony, he did his kind deed for the morning.
Look Ma, No ECNR
For various reasons, this writer has the distinction of not having a ECNR (Emigration Check Not Required) clearance on his passport. This is despite several legitimate attempts to get it knocked off. They include the travel agent producing my graduation mark sheet, my three years of income tax returns only to be told only the graduation certificate and the original copies of the returns would do.
What, I asked my travel agent, about my PAN card ? There is a number there with a photograph, which clearly shows I am registered and filing taxes. Why can’t the passport officer or the protectorate or emigrants hook up with the Income Tax database and verify for himself ?
“Sorry sir, they can’t do it, you have to go yourself and explain or get the originals.” How in the lord’s name is one expected to produce certificates from crumbling universities (Bombay) or stand in line at the passport office starting 8 am with originals of my IT filings. Sure I can do it, but why should I ? Why does the government collect taxes from me, put me through hell while paying them and not have the common sense to share that information with its own bretheren ?
There is an option. You can get your ECNR temporarily `suspended’ by going to a small building in one corner of north Bombay housing the relevant arm of the Ministry of Labour. There, on showing your passport and return air ticket, you are given a one-month relief on the ECNR. That means you can travel to all the aforementioned countries, though there is no real proof otherwise that you would return, ever.
Four days before I was leaving for China last month, my alert travel agent was on the line. “Have you got your ECNR done ?” she asked. No, I said, wanting to add I was now thinking of suing the Ministry of Labour for even thinking it could protect me when its Ministry of Surface Transport (presumably a sister concern) has broken my vertebral column with its terrible roads. Sure, some roads are state subjects but so what.
“You need to have one,” she said or you can’t go there. I then remembered the travel agent getting it done for my previous visits as well, so back went my passport. I was spared personal agony (though another page on my passport is gone) as the travel agent got it done but this surely took the cake. How can the Government of India ask Indians to have an ECNR for China, a country where its own residents can’t move freely from one place to another ?
The point is that labour markets have changed in the last few years. The middle east continues to be tricky in more ways than one. But not south east Asia and surely not China. For one, China is not a place you can be smuggled in to work in a sweat shop (I would surely like to know if you can be). For one, there are enough Chinese to work in sweat shops.
More simply, in China or South Korea (exempted after an exhaustive review), as an Indian, you will stand out from a mile. No one may look at you oddly but that does not mean you have blended with the dormitories of Shenzhen or wherever. And finally, do trust the Chinese government to do a better job of managing migratory flows (of its own and outsiders) than your own Ministry of Labour.
And this is when the Al Qaeeda is picking up Indian truck drivers and using them for target practice when it wants to. Believe me, if more Indians are not getting kidnapped in Iraq or Afghanistan or being targeted in Saudi Arabia, its because they really don’t have the same `market-value’ as unfortunately, some westerners do. As a friend working in a middle eastern oil company and who travels regularly to Riyadh told me, “As an Indian, you have nothing to fear, but as a westerner, its tough. You have to constantly live under tight security.”
The Emigration Act, 1983
I digress. As always, there is a law which in some meritorious way, makes sense. The Emigration Act, 1983 provides a framework that hopes to regulate emigration of Indian workers overseas, particularly those on contractual basis and seeks to safeguard their interests and ensure their welfare. These words are the Government’s not mine.
Some of them unfortunately do need safeguarding, but that’s because this country for all its great IT and manufacturing resurgence story does not offer them better opportunities. I don’t see why a normal person with a family would want to become a truck driver in Iraq. I always thought the attraction for those kind of jobs in that part of the world was high in the eighties and early nineties and started waning since. I was totally wrong and the figures are if anything startling. Anyway that’s a larger issue.
In practice, the law its an utter disaster. And I return to my original point. Forget the destination country, I can be stopped at immigration and sent back if this I am not able to prove something the government makes my life miserable in trying to prove. And no, my PAN card won’t do, because it belongs to another department.
Nor will my credit cards because quite possibly, the poor and uknowing banks who issue them usually do so to jobless workers wanting to flee to the United Arab Emirates. And nor will the government put a man at the airport to do the stamping for passengers who have the proof in their hands (permanently and non temporarily) but not the time to visit them personally.
Managing 1.3 Billion People
I am tempted to say this is another thing we should learn from the Chinese, how to manage people flows. No, its not about (as some would like to believe) strip searching and flogging people people who desert their posts or show up in the wrong county. Its about having a nationwide citizen database that works, is inter-connected and knows exactly who deserves to go where and why.
And guess what, the system does not make them sweat in long lines to prove who they are. I know, I asked a local Chinese citizen in Beijing. Even a lost citizen's card is replaced reasonably quickly in your local government office.
This is a nation of 1.3 billion people so it must not be easy. But the determination to make something work, as always, is strong. Our Ministry of Labour and its parent the Government of India should take some lessons here and not make me run around the passport office in circles.