Securing the diaspora: Is India geared up for the future?

Even with past experiences in mass evacuation, India isn't well equipped with standard operating procedures for emergencies related to diaspora evacuation

Indian diaspora in US. Wikimedia

February 18, 2017:  What if an emergency situation comes up in Saudi Arabia that puts 3 million strong Indian diaspora in risk; How long would the Indian government take in the transportation of everyone from Riyadh to Mumbai? According to a Takshasila Institution Report, the time needed could be between 15 to 50 days depending on the availability of air and marine assets.

While many diaspora evacuations have been successfully executed by India, including the airlift of more than one lakh non-resident Indians from Kuwait in 1990 which is considered to be the largest civilian evacuation incident in history, India still isn’t completely equipped with the standard operating procedures (SOPs) in case of such emergency events.

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According to Guru Aiyar, Research Fellow at Takshashila and author of the report. “It’s not that India does not have a strategic culture. Practically, we have done good vis-à-vis major developed countries like the U.S or U.K that have comparable force levels. Having said that, MEA [Ministry of External Affairs] or the armed forces do not have SOPs, and evacuations have been conducted more as crisis management than a planned activity.”

During the 1986 Yemen civil war, it took days before India could convince a merchant ship to pick up the 850 Indians. By that time, the British, French and Russian nationals had already been evacuated in a joint operation conducted by their countries.

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The question has been raised time and again; Why, even with extensive experience in such cases like India, does it lack a formalized procedure? Part of the answer can be found in India’s past foreign policy. Nitin Pai, director at Takshashila, recently wrote about the fact that it was preferred by earlier governments that non-resident Indians assimilate with their adopted countries. Steps taken by the country to help NRIs keep up their emotional or communal connections to home were considered to be nothing but counter-productive.

Short-term institutional memory of the government may be another reason in this issue. Constantino Xavier, a fellow at Carnegie India who has recently written about the need to institutionalize diaspora evacuations, strongly believes that governments have a tendency to forget experiences of such crisis situations once they are over.

“Some officials emphasize that each crisis is unique and therefore, a general evacuation plan is not necessary,” he mentioned, ” Others have expressed their concern that any emergency plan and scenario based exercises could be leaked to the public.”

he also added that such risks are minimal. He pointed out that there are many benefits of institutionalizing benefits in terms of financial costs, speed of action, preparedness, training. “Simple standard operating procedures can facilitate evacuation processes tremendously.”

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According to statistics, As of 2015, nearly 16 million Indians or persons of India origin lived overseas, making it the largest such cohort around the world. Among these, half of them lived in the Western Asia countries, such as Qatar, UAE, Yemen where the diaspora population increased by 150% in the past decade. Out of the thirty odd evacuations carried out by India since 1947, ten were executed in such countries like Kuwait, UAE, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.

“The Gulf region is of particular importance, as testified by Saudi Arabia’s recent changes in immigration law which left dozens of thousands of Indians undocumented and in dire life conditions,” Xavier stated. The risk factor for Indian expatriates are also because of rising political populism around the world and the escalating reach of Islamic terrorist organizations, Xavier feels.

The time has come for India to work on the improvement of its preparedness for another such crisis. “Unlike a few years ago, there is now a significant openness to learn from the past, institutionalize best practices and develop new procedures to conduct evacuation operations more efficiently and in general, ensure the diaspora’s safety,” Xavier concluded.

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prepared by Durba Mandal of NewsGram. Twitter: @dubumerang