When the first flight with 181 stranded Indians took off from the Abu Dhabi International Airport on Thursday evening, over 1,200km away from the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Indian social workers in Kuwait were busy distributing food packets to hundreds of starving Indian blue collar workers.
The global lockdown in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic has shut down Kuwait and other five Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain – rendering thousands of Indian migrant workers jobless and depriving them of their low but steady income.
Construction works have come to a standstill, and retail shops, restaurants, car washing centres, perfume shops, tailoring units and salons have shut because of the economic crisis that began with the global oil price slump, which later aggravated with the COVID-19 lockdown. Employers have either deferred workers' salaries for months or resorted to mass lay-offs.
The crisis has hit low-wage Indian workers, who earned a maximum monthly salary of Rs 25,000, the hardest. They do not have the wherewithal to fly home, leave alone eat two square meals. They are living at the mercy of social workers (members of registered Indian social organisations in the Gulf who help people in distress).
Information gathered from a dozen social workers across GCC shows that more than 70,000 survival food kits are being distributed every day among these jobless blue-collar workers.
"Thousands of food kits are being distributed among Indians in Oman alone. People are starving and the situation demands urgent intervention from the centre and state governments. Social workers alone cannot manage this humongous crisis," said social worker P M Jabir, who is the community welfare secretary of the Indian Social Club in Oman and director board member of Department of Non-Resident Keralites (NORKA), a state government body that works for the welfare of its migrant community.
An Indian embassy official in Oman confirmed the distribution of 15,000 food kits to Indians in distress.
India does not have official data on migrants, making it difficult to find how many Indians are affected by the current crisis.
According to unofficial estimates, around 90 lakh (9 million) Indians work in the Gulf and a majority of them are low wage-earners.
Kerala accounts for a major chunk of this – 25 lakh (2.5 million) – and the south-western Indian state is expected to bear the brunt of the crisis.
"Between 2.5 to 3 lakh Keralites may come back from GCC countries by the end of this year. COVID has brought migration issues to the forefront," said migration expert Professor S Irudaya Rajan of the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram.
Portends of the crisis had been on sight since December last year.
Prakash (name changed to protect privacy) worked as a salesperson in a cloth shop in Kuwait. The shop was shut in December because of losses, leaving Prakash jobless. He took care of his six-member family back home with his monthly earnings of Rs 20,000. "I don't know what to do now. I can stay here till my visa expires in July. I am yet to get my pending salary," he said.
Prakash, 35, said he had mulled suicide when he lost the job. "I would have taken the extreme step if my friends had not intervened at the right time. I don't have money to go back home. Luckily, I am getting food once a day. I have not even paid the rent for my accommodation. I will be thrown out of that place anytime," said Prakash, who hails from Thrissur.
Prakash is one of the thousands of low-wage workers from India who lost jobs recently.
He doesn't know how long he can continue in Kuwait, but hopes to find a job before being asked to go home.
Social workers in Kuwait ensure food and counselling for such troubled workers. "The Indian governments should take care of these jobless people immediately," said a social worker on condition of anonymity.
Last week, Jabir got a distress WhatsApp voice message from a pregnant woman Rasiya (name changed to protect privacy) in Ernakulam district.
Her husband went to Oman 10 months ago to work as a cook in a restaurant, run by Keralites, for a monthly salary of Rs 25,000. But he was not paid for the past three months.
Rasiya urgently needs money to undergo C-section later this month. "My husband is starving now. Please help him come back. Please force the restaurant owners to clear his dues," Rasiya requested.
Jabir said the number of distress calls and messages has gone up since January. "Thousands have either lost jobs or are not getting their salaries. They don't know what to do. COVID lockdown has worsened the situation," he said.
He said families who solely depend on Gulf money are starving back home. "Yes, they are starving. One person working in the Gulf will be supporting a minimum of four family members back home. So the crisis affects millions of people directly. The governments should look into this issue," he said.
Ignored in evacuation too
The Indian government's much-publicised Vande Bharat mission – an exercise to bring back stranded Indians from COVID-hit foreign countries that began on Thursday – has ignored the low-wage workers living without food in Gulf countries.
Those who wish to fly back home in the evacuation flights have to shell out between Rs 13,000 to Rs 17,000.
"I don't have money. I haven't got my salary for four months, so how can I pay tickets on high rate?" asked Anees, who worked in a restaurant in Bahrain.
Workers said the government's mission benefits only the financially sound people.
"Government should provide free travel to migrants in distress. What is happening now is a paid evacuation," said a social worker in Saudi Arabia, who wishes to remain anonymous.
'Use community welfare fund'
Social workers in GCC countries said the Centre can utilise the Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF) to ferry the low wage workers back home.
The ICWF was set up in 2009 to assist Indian expatriates during distress and emergency. According to the Ministry of External Affairs website, 'the fund has also been a critical support in emergency evacuation of Indian nationals from conflict zones, countries affected by natural disasters and other challenging situations.'
Apart from Indian government's budgetary support, the Indian missions raise the welfare funds by levying a service charge on consular services and through voluntary contributions from the Indian community.
Social workers claimed all embassies in the GCC countries have more than enough money to take workers home. "If not now, when?" asked Shafiq (name change to protect privacy), a social worker in UAE.
He said the Indian embassy in UAE has not even prepared a list of workers in distress. "I think they will continue ignoring low-wage workers," he said.
Demand for amnesty
The crisis also brought to the fore the plight of undocumented labourers who work in host countries after their visa expiry.
Rough estimates suggest that thousands of undocumented workers from India live in GCC countries.
As they are living without documents, they cannot even demand repatriation back home. "They work on daily wages. Lockdown stripped them of their income and money to buy food and water," said Jabir, who has been vocal for the amnesty scheme for many years.
He said the Indian government should convince governments in the GCC countries about the benefits of the scheme.
Kuwait had recently offered amnesty for undocumented persons.
The Times of India reported that 12,000 Indians have availed the scheme, though the Indian government had expected registration of 25,000 persons.
"This is an emergency issue. We should push for amnesty in all GCC countries. Else, the lives of thousands of Indians will be in danger," Jabir said.
Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan and MEA spokesperson did not respond to calls, text messages or mail seeking comment from Onmanorama.