Business Standard

Why is India ignoring the 'body bags' from Qatar?

More than 4000 workers will die in Qatar before the start of the World Cup in 2022 says ITUC. And many of them will be Indians.


Nikhil Inamdar Mumbai
A politics obsessed Indian Republic and its press have been a tad busy reporting the name calling that its leaders have indulged in along the campaign trail. The latest trading of salvos has seen none other than Finance Minister P Chidambaram crossing swords with BJP Prime Ministerial hopeful Narendra Modi. This noise has quelled a set of very disturbing international reports though, that have emerged through the course of the last week. The utter disregard for them perhaps because they concern themselves not with high profile diplomats like Devayani Khobragade, but with Indian migrant labour in Qatar.
An Amnesty International report last year created a stir when it highlighted the levels of exploitation of workers in the Gulf emirate engaged in building infrastructure for the World Cup in 2022. It sparked international outrage and has led subsequently to bodies like the UN and  ILO (International Labour Organization) exerting severe pressure on Qatar to get its act together. Sections of the international media have also been on an overdrive compiling scathing reports to put pressure on authorities.
But most recently the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) which calls Qatar a 'country without conscience' has made a startling estimate saying that based merely on "tragic statistics collected by two embassies - Nepal and India - which account for 50% of the total migrant workforce" 4000 more workers will die in Qatar before the start of the World Cup in 2022. Since 2011 nearly 700 Indian workers have lost their lives - an average of 20 a month with numbers peaking during the hot summer months.
A spokesperson from the Indian embassy in Doha was quoted by the BBC as saying that the "overwhelming number" of deaths were due to natural causes. The BBC also quotes the head of Qatar's National Human Rights Committee, a body close to the government which insists that  "If we look at the numbers of Qataris who died... of natural causes... over the past two years, we see that numbers of deaths among the Indian community are normal." There are about 500,000 Indians living in the emirate, twice the number of Qatari nationals.  
But ITUC, which compiled its report after interacting with thousands of workers at ten different labour camps outside Doha discredits such arguments vehemently. Its report is littered with horrifying case studies of exploited migrants who've faced all forms of harassment right from restricted freedom of movement through a draconian sponsorship law Kafala, discrimination on wages, enforcement of fraudulent contracts, confiscation of passports and appalling living, health and safety conditions all de facto sanctioned by an unfair legal system.  
"Whether the cause of death is labeled as work accidents, heart attack (brought on by the life threatening effects of heat stress) or diseases from squalid living conditions, the root cause is the same - working conditions"  ITUC stresses. It says quoting diplomatic sources that "the Qatari government is harassing embassy officials to keep quiet about these deaths in order to keep the flow of labour coming."
It is unlikely that the Indian government is unaware of these lurid details. The casualty figures have after all been compiled from embassy records itself. But it isn't difficult to guess the reason for its deafening silence on the matter. These workers are a great source of remittances which the Indian economy has been hungry for recently. Moreover as the Asian Human Rights Commission observed, it is naive to expect a nation that has rarely shown much concern for its citizenry living  inside the country to be bothered about those stuck in foreign shores. In a scathing indictment it said "the body bags" piling up and returning to India "failed to evoke even an acknowledgment from the government" until Nepal took Qatar to a task for the 385 body bags it had received in the same period. "No one in the Indian government seemed too bothered, even after that". The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs lists a catalog of Billateral Labour Agreements it has entered into with countries in the Gulf including Qatar to protect Indian workers. They seem to do little good.
It is disconcerting that the Indian government should keep quiet when this issue has created such an uproar globally, being raised even in the European parliament. But much as others might use pressure tactics, it is India that has the real power to make a difference. Indians are the largest international community in Qatar, and it is by this virtue of  sheer size that the government has the opportunity to effectively bargain for better working conditions. The Qatar government's dependence on cheap Indian labour to build its flashy infrastructure is considerable if the ratio of Indians to Qataris in the country is 1:2. What's stopping India from flexing muscle?
Without a strong voice of support from the corridors of power, FIFA's biggest spectacle in Qatar could just prove to be fatal for scores of Indian citizens. It is the government's responsibility to ensure that doesn't happen
Disclaimer: These are personal views of the writer. They do not necessarily reflect the opinion of or the Business Standard newspaper

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First Published: Apr 01 2014 | 4:24 PM IST

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