This is a guest post by V J VARGHESE
The aborted move of giving the Emigration Check Required (ECR) passports a distinct look by orange-jacketing them was arguably driven by reasons of administrative expediency. Though unexplained officially, the aim was to ensure discreet and dedicated handling of the large number of ECR passport-holders emigrating from India for overseas work. Had the colour code been carried through, the orange passport holders would have been relegated practically to an inferior citizenship not just at overseas but also through the multiple stages of emigration at home and in transit. The ill-thought colour-bracketing would also have nearly stigmatized the most vulnerable section of Indian passport-holders through contravening ‘special’ treatment at multifarious levels.
The move was particularly horrifying as it was envisaged in complete oblivion of the troubles the ECR citizens routinely confronts during emigration and expatriate life by virtue of their special passport status. It is already a disempowered passport, defeating its benign intentions and impairing the very idea of equality in citizenship. Responsive to such instituted vulnerabilities, an affirmative governmental intervention should have attempted enabling amendments, instead of devising plans that would have driven the ECR passport-holders into further adverse treatments. A perfunctory audit is enough to ascertain that the history of ECR passports is an archetypal example of how professedly benevolent governmental measures could go astray and become a disabling haul on those weaker citizens seeking mobility through expatriate work.
Emigration Act and ECR Passports
It was with the Emigration Act of 1983 and the procedure of ‘emigration clearance’ that it set forth, the ordinary passport was divided into ECR and ECNR (Emigration Check Not Required) categories. Through a principle of ‘protection by exception’, the ‘emigration clearance’ has been enforced only on the ECR passport holders emigrating for work and made applicable only in the case of only eighteen (ECR) countries – currently, UAE, KSA, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Malaysia, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Syria, Lebanon, Thailand and Iraq – for having seemingly unfriendly immigrant labour markets.
The ECR passports are given to low-skilled, low-income and lesser/uneducated citizens, viewed as incapable of stonewalling themselves due to their lack of education, skill and exposure. The educational qualification for remaining out of the regulative framework has been progressively lowered from Graduation to Secondary School level over time. The office of the Protector General of Emigrates (PGE) with a network of Protector of Emigrants (POE) offices – currently ten across the country- has been regulating emigration with a licensed recruiting regime and by granting of emigration clearance after verifying the specified documents mandated from time to time. The privileged ECNR passport holders, on the other hand, are allowed to emigrate freely to any country without any regulations though the segment is scantly free from corruption and exploitation.
Coolies without Passports and Protection
What is also striking is the remarkable semblance of assumptions that run across the colonial and the present frameworks of emigration governance. This is particularly true with regard to differential treatment of citizens aspiring to emigrate based on their status. The passport, a modern documentary expression of nationality/citizenship, when introduced in India in the 19th century was a privileged entitlement available only to a select few, men of superior credentials in terms of means, education and social position. Consequently, it became a handy disciplining tool for the colonial government during the nationalist movement.
The vast majority of emigrations from colonial India, including the indentured ‘coolie’ migrations, on the other hand, were taking place without the emigrants possessing a passport, and thereby the attached promise of protection by the British crown. The regulations through ‘coolie agreement’ did not provide any security to the coolie as presumed, instead bound the labourer to a particular employer and stagnant wages for five years. The collapse of indenture into a ‘new system of slavery’ also engendered nationalist anger for the broken promise of imperial citizenship, apart from allegedly damaging India’s national prestige. Moreover, indenture migrations were a small fragment, as free migrations were taking place to the neighbouring colonies like Ceylon, Burma and Malaya without any documentation, alongside diverse other flows along the axis of labour, skills and capital. All such movements, except those to imperial counties and colonies marked out for white settlements, were going on without the involvement of a passport!
Protection Becoming Disability
In place of the colonial denial of passport to the ordinary, the present system reinvented discrimination by regulating the mobility aspirations of deprived subjects. The promise of protection as encapsulated in ‘emigration clearance’, however, proved to be empty and absent in practice, apart from resulting in denial of equal opportunity.
Furthermore, exceptionally tough and absurd conditions are enforced on the most vulnerable sections in the name of safety. The un/low-skilled women migrants – like those who emigrate as domestic workers- are a case in point, conditions for whom includes an age bar, direct contract with the employer, security deposit and minimum wage norms and a ban on private recruiting agents to recruit such women aspirants.
Emigration clearance is merely a document verification exercise, though the POEs do not have any goof-proof mechanism for the same. There are numerous cases of counterfeiting of documents, unscrupulous recruiting agents acting in collusion with corrupt government officials, and serious corruption charges even against the PGE – the most tragic of which happening in 2009 when the then PGE under CBI investigation supposedly slipping into depression and murdering five in his family before killing himself!
Other than an ordinary document corroboration activity, the government of India also has no on-guard mechanism in place at the destination countries to protect its expatriate workers under distress. On the other hand, from the experience so far the social cost of the ECR regime, with no legal force in the destination countries, proved to be extremely high due to the discrimination implicated and the excessive rules that shores up the prevailing prohibitive social norms on female and subaltern mobility. The ECR passports issued for the purpose of protection consequently has become a badge of its holders’ vulnerability to be exploited at different stages of expatriation. The situation often compel such hapless emigrants to circumvent the unrewarding legal route and rely on the ‘friendly’ informal players – as evident from the practice of ‘pushing’ in the airports and pervasive corruption in POE offices – which makes voluntary compliance futile and skyrocketing the transaction cost of the system, alongside making such migrants more defenseless.
Convenience over Citizenship?
An enlightened governmental intervention would have aimed at reversing this situation to ensure free and informed emigrations to all aspirants. The move instead was in the opposite direction strengthening the argument that greater convergence emerges across countries in institutional patterns and operational mechanisms regardless of political form and sending/receiving duality on migration governance in the contemporary globalised world. Though often justified by its advocates as an equalising strategy, the capitalist globalisation builds firmer barriers to human mobility across borders, particularly on those people with low/no skills, with a dual aim of restricting immigration on the one hand and keeping the immigrant labour force docile and vulnerable on the other. As a result, stringent policing is coincided with conceding of clandestine flows and criminalisation of informal flows go hand in hand with intermittent legalisation. This go in line with the post-Fordist paradigm of production, defined by downsizing of welfare and endemic uncertainty and temporariness, which creates simultaneously global ‘vagabonds’ and global ‘tourists’- the former constituted by unskilled temporary workers, refugees, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, whereas the latter are constantly on move choosing their jobs, employers and indulge in unlimited consumerism.
Contrary to the recent claim of the Prime Minister, Indian passport is on a downward slide according to the ranking given by the Henley Passport Index. Around 70 million people possess a passport in India today, but we don’t know how many of them falls under the ECR category. However, the number of emigration clearances being granted annually is on the rise irrespective of the recent slowdown consequent to the stagnation of the Gulf economy following fall in crude oil prices – it increased from 143,565 in 1990 to 415, 334 in 1995, 548,853 in 2005, 641355 in 2010 and 816,655 in 2013. Emigrations from backward states like U.P, Bihar and Rajasthan have been catching up over years, and nowadays U.P sends about one-fourth of the ECR workers from India through the channel of ‘emigration clearance’. On the other hand from states like Kerala with their long and robust migration history, women, scheduled castes and schedules tribes emigrate far lesser in proportion to their population, suggested the ‘pravasi census’ conducted by the government of Kerala in 2013. Hence, India needs to shed its regimes of hindrance as entailed in the ECR passport & emigration clearance and enable emigrations from the margins with safeguards, jettisoning the entrenched elitism in its emigration governance. Worse is a labour-sending country slipping to ‘handling’ comforts at a time when post-Fordism strives to keep the immigrant/unskilled labour further unsettled and unguarded.
(V J Varghese teaches History at the University of Hyderabad and is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Central European University, Budapest. Issues of transnational migrations form one of his research interests)