On Aug 2nd, 1990 Kuwait, with a population of 2.15 million, landlocked on one side with Iraq, woke up to find their imperious neighbour being ruled by a tyrant dictator Saddam Hussain, had despatched his country’s troops into Kuwait as a prelude to invasion. Kuwait then had 0.6 million expatriates. The sudden invasion coupled with movement of Iraq army’s vehicles and ammunition noticeable at every nook and corner created a war like situation within hours. This abnormal situation which was a threat to life and naturally carried heavier importance than means of livelihood forced expatriates as well as some Kuwaitis to leave the country. While expats moved out to their native country, native Kuwaitis, especially women and children moved to neighbouring Arab countries seeking asylum. The turn of events overnight shook the entire world who sympathized with the sufferings of weak Kuwait at the hands of mightier Iraq.
180,000 Indians were in Kuwait then, more than 95% wanted to return. India government repatriated them through 488 flights over a span of less than two months. The speed of return was faster than the speed of bullet to escape the fury of war.
If the future of Kuwait under a ruler of another country, annexed out of force even as the world was debating over the legal aspects of invasion was uncertain, so was the case of all Indians who returned to India then. If escape from the jaws of war looming large in the streets was providential, making their choice for next means of livelihood whether within India or outside India tough with not many options available before them. Yet the then repatriates hoped the war would end soon and they would be called back. Optimism outweighed pessimism as world powers and UN got involved to find a way forward.
History repeats itself and so is the status of Indians now after three decades when enmasse approx. 8 lakhs have to pack their bags for a return journey. However, there is a subtle difference. This time Kuwait bids goodbye with no ifs and buts as the return is scheduled once and for all.
The Constitutional Monarchy of Kuwait that now has a population of 4.8 million has decided to bring down the number of expats so as to allow native Kuwaitis to have more share of distribution of resources and employment. Following COVID and slump in oil prices, resources have shrunk and Kuwaitis demand reduction of expats. Indians who form the highest number in expat population amounting to 1.5 million now find that half of them will have to face repatriation to India. In a way even this is migrant labour returning home.
If COVID 19 is the harshest disease India has seen since Independence, migration and displacement of people following lock down has been the largest movement of people this country has witnessed that has impact on relocation, rehabilitation and resettlement. No clear data is available on number of migrants following lockdown though best estimates had put it at 3 crores. The exact figure is likely to be much more as this does not include the people who came back to India through Vande Bharat mission from foreign countries. The people from Kuwait though not a fallout of COVID but occurring at the same time add up to home coming migrants
Indian repatriates from Kuwait of 1990 and 2020 have many similarities. On both occasions, it is forced upon them with no other option. It has been a sudden development with probability of reversal of decision not in horizon. With war imminent, in 1990, the faster the return to India, the safer it appeared for the people but now Kuwait government is likely to give some relieving time to them.
Gulf War of 1991 lasted 42 days. Armies of 28 supporting countries led by USA in an air and amphibious attack overrun Iraq’s Republican Elite, crippled their weaponry, arms and ammunition arsenal to collapse like pins and Saddam Hussain recapitulated signalling his surrender. Following the victory, organizations in USA signed an agreement on rebuilding the oil wells which paved the way for many Indians who lost their jobs to return to their previous employer. Iraq destroyed more than 600 oil wells during its invasion and war. But Kuwait with the technical and financial support of USA and resource support of expatriates’ chief among them being Indians & Egyptians, rebuilt all of them within the next decade. Thus, migrant Indians of 1991 forced out of Kuwait could make up for all that was lost. But present scenario is vastly different. Being a bill by the Government to restrict expats, return to Kuwait for employment will not be feasible unlike 1991 when the ray of hope existed and played its share. Returnees will have to work out alternatives. But the silver lining this time is that Indian repatriates will have time to pack up all their belongings and take them back.
Kuwait returnees of 1990 were more fortunate back in India. The new government in Delhi in 1991 came up with economic reforms through liberalization that opened up many job opportunities. On the contrary in 2020 returnees find their home country battling the pandemic and economy struggling to cope up.
The days ahead will be challenging for both the Government as well as the migrant labourers. While Government on its part has developed skill centres to get the labourers employed in their respective places, effectiveness of such schemes is still uncertain. The migrants even if white collared will find adjustments in work, remuneration, job satisfaction very difficult and painful too.
For many Indian Kuwaiti repatriates, this will be their last sojourn in life from the land that gave them livelihood all these years. Parting with the land that they called home for all these years will be difficult. Parting is always painful more so when it is compelled than voluntary. Even assuming that with the earnings and savings made, repatriates can survive for some time without job, it is imperative they get to work soon. In the aftermath of COVID 19, when opportunities will be few and far apart, migrants face a grim challenge in their choice between livelihood and work.
Impact on the Indian economy because of this decision of Kuwait Government will be felt when in days ahead there will be a substantial drop in remittance.
Of those returning from Kuwait, the worst affected will be the labour category workforce who may find it difficult to get immediate employment comparable to their earnings till now. They have to find ways to equip themselves and ensure their livelihood gets along.
Repatriates with professional experience with good financial support can opt to remain in India and plan on a start-up in their line of expertise. New incentives extended by GOI post COVID 19 and their prowess can set them apart and give edge over others. This will stimulate competition, improve quality and speed of Product / Service at an optimum cost. Thus such returning migrants show themselves to be an asset to ailing economy and not liability adding to woes.
COVID 19 has affected countries most of which have had lockdowns. Yet India is one of the few countries affected most on account of ‘migrant’s issue which is an off shoot of the pandemic. Be it US H1 B visa or Kuwait’s bill, Indians by virtue of their strength are the ones affected most. Needless to mention, the higher one is or the stronger the strength is, the more will be the hit.
(This post first appeared here in The Tilak Chronicle.)
S Raghavan is a Renewable Energy analyst and Scribe - fields of interest being Politics, Women welfare and development, Rural Development and Climate Change.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.