K.G. Kumar

WITH the appointment last week of veteran Congress leader Vayalar Ravi as Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, Kerala gets its first Cabinet Minister in the United Progressive Alliance Government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The choice of portfolio could not have been better for Kerala, since Keralites comprise perhaps the single largest group in the great Indian diaspora.

As the new minister himself said in an interview to Indo Asian News Service, "This is a newly created ministry by the Congress-led UPA Government. We have a small office but it's important as we have around 25 million Indians in 120 countries. I represent Kerala, from where millions go to different countries, mainly in the Middle East. It is clear that our government wants to take care of the problems of the working class and labourers in the Gulf countries."

These working men and women comprise a considerable force to reckon with. According to a study conducted by the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram, over 90 per cent of remittances worth Rs 18,400 crore sent by non-resident Keralites in 2003-04 were from the Middle East. An estimated 17 lakh Keralites reside outside India, of which close to 90 per cent are in West Asia.

The liberalisation of the Indian economic policies, particularly the foreign exchange rate, benefited Kerala directly, say the authors of the study. The significance of remittances can also be gauged by its relative magnitudes. By the end of the 1990s, remittances had reached such levels that they were well above the total government expenditure, value added in manufacturing and even the value added in the industrial sector as a whole.

Clearly, non-resident Keralites are an important component - some would say the crucial element - in the sustenance and sustainability of the State's economy. They ought to be thus treated more than just fairly. The State Government has realised that it needs to give its migrant workers special treatment, which is why it set up the Department of Non-resident Keralites' Affairs (Norka) in December 1996 to strengthen relations between them and the government.

And now with the appointment of Vayalar Ravi as Union Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs with exclusive jurisdiction over their affairs, non-resident Indians from Kerala can expect a better deal. Already the claims and requests are coming in fast and copiously.

For instance, the Kerala Association of Travel Agents has urged Vayalar Ravi to intervene to put pressure on Air-India Express, the supposedly low-cost, no-frills carrier launched by India's national airline, to withdraw the excess fare being collected from passengers to the Gulf sector. Additionally, it wants the airline to keep its initial promise of offering attractive fares, 25 to 50 per cent lower those charged by other airlines.

These, and several other demands, are likely to be aggressively pursued by non-resident Keralites and their organizations, now that they feel they have a particularly sympathetic ear in the form of a Union Minister of their own ilk. Vayalar Ravi thus has his work cut out for him. Thousands of Keralites struggling to eke out a living in difficult and often harsh alien climes are looking up to him for a fair and square deal.

The writer can be contacted at kgkumar@gmail.com

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 7, 2006)
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