If the UPA2 government has a conscience, the following people ought to be lined up in New Delhi and asked to explain and atone for the sickeningly high death rate of Indians in Qatar: Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid, Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi, Indian Ambassador in Doha Sanjiv Arora, Protector General of Emigrants Ruolkhumlien Buhril and MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin.
Accountability demands that they be sacked, not just asked to explain. But first the horror story from Qatar that these people, whose salaries and perks are paid for by the taxes collected from honest and hardworking Indians, have tried to paper over.
The Guardian first reported the news that more than 500 Indians have died in Qatar since 2012. The report, on 18 February, linked the deaths to the frenetic construction activity in Qatar for the 2022 football World Cup. It said 717 Indian deaths have been recorded in Qatar since the World Cup was awarded to Qatar in December 2010.
The Indian embassy in Doha supplied the statistics to The Guardian. The embassy gave the death toll as 233 in 2010, 239 in 2011, 237 in 2012, 241 in 2013 and 24 in January 2014. In all, 974 in four years and a month.
It is bizarre that so many people should die in peace time. The loss is more like what you would hear in war. India and Qatar are not at war. Qatar is an oil-rich monarchy that became free from the British in 1971. It has the world’s third largest natural gas reserves, it is the world’s richest country per capita and it has the highest human development in the Arab world.
Many Indians look to improve their lives in Qatar because they think India will fail them. Qatar has approximately 12 lakh migrant workers of whom 2.64 lakh are Indian. You would think that the Indian embassy and their bosses in New Delhi ought to feel for these Indians. Especially as the cushy lives of Ambassadors and IFS seniors come from taxes that Indians pay.
Dreadfully, the taxpayer even pays for the maids of foreign office staff and their court disputes. But we will deal with it another day soon. The Qatar story is horrifying enough for the moment.
When I asked a few simple questions of Khurshid, Ravi, Arora and Akbaruddin, on 19 February, none of them thought the deaths of Indians in Qatar important enough to respond. The Indian embassy in Doha put out a bland and insulting statement later the same day.
The statement is cold and lacking in empathy. Most of it is irrelevant stuff aimed at pleasing Qatar. The operative part comes when the Doha embassy says: “Considering the large size of our community, the number of deaths is quite normal. Most of the deaths are by natural causes.”
Normal? Close to a thousand Indians died in four years in the world’s richest nation for no apparent reason and it is normal for UPA2. Were these Indians ill? Why were their visas cleared if so? Where did they work? Where did they live? What about their families? What does the Indian embassy do about so many bodies? Are they cremated or buried in Qatar? Are they brought back to India? Who pays for all this?
The Indian embassy in Doha speaks far more for Qatar as it expresses gratitude to Qatari authorities repeatedly. It does not say who the dead Indians are, how they died and what India has done about it. At least Qatar showed a wee bit of embarrassment and sensitivity.
Its ministry of labour and social affairs responded to The Guardian thus: “Clearly any one death in Qatar or anywhere else is one death too many – for the workers, for their families, but also for Qataris who welcome guest workers to our country to perform valuable jobs.
“We are working to understand the causes of these deaths – as these statistics could include a range of circumstances including natural causes, and road safety incidents, as well as a smaller number of workplace incidents.”
India says nothing of this sort, even if it didn’t mean it. The high death rates among migrant workers in Qatar has been attributed in part to harsh working and living conditions virtually amounting to slavery. Amnesty said in a November 2013 report that workers had 12-hour workdays in torrid conditions and lived in wretched, stuffed settlements..
The Guardian investigated the high death rates of Nepalese workers and found that close to 400 had died in a little over two years - more than two-thirds of sudden heart failure or workplace accidents. How did almost a thousand Indians die?
The Indian embassy merely says: “Indian nationals comprise the largest expatriate community in Qatar. We have a large, diverse, accomplished and highly regarded community. [The] government of India and its diplomatic missions accord utmost priority to the welfare of Indian nationals abroad.”
There is a case for FIFA and Qatar to say something to the countries whose people have died while working to build infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup. An inquiry, explanation, monetary compensation and an apology are in order here.
There is a bigger case for the sacking of Indian ministers and officers. There may be a sense in the bureaucracy that UPA2 cannot and will not do a thing now as it nears the finish line. It is possible that the gargantuan Indian network of officers in India and outside is therefore indifferent. It would seem so from the Doha embassy response.
None of this is acceptable. What would Khurshid, Ravi, Arora, Akbaruddin and Buhril do if someone they knew was among the dead? You don’t need to lose one of your own to know what it means. These people are paid for by the people of India. They report to the people of India.
Their handling of the deaths in Qatar is an indictment of the highest order. They must go.
Another thing. A minor detail from the Doha embassy statement suggests that 13 Indians have died in 19 February days. That is almost one every working day - the same rate as in the past four years. The embassy says it is inappropriate to use these figures in a distorted manner. It is actually inappropriate to underplay them.
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Vijay Simha is an independent journalist and sobriety campaigner based out of New Delhi.
His most recent journalism assignment was as executive editor with The Financial World, New Delhi, and tehelka.com.
He was a guest on Season 1 of the popular Indian TV show Satyamev Jayate, hosted by Aamir Khan.
Vijay blogs here and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.