Vayalar Ravi, 71, sees his current assignment as minister for overseas Indian affairs as the culmination of a five-decade career in public life that began in 1957 when he helped found the Kerala Students Union, the student wing of the Congress party in the state.
Though he also holds charge of the parliamentary affairs ministry, it is his role as the 'NRI minister' that occupies most of his time, and attention. Thus, when Rediff India Abroad's Sheela Bhatt met him on a cold December afternoon at his bungalow on Safadarjang Road in New Delhi, the minister was on the phone to a nurse in Saudi Arabia.
'What, no salary for six months?! Don't worry, sister, nothing to worry about. I will get it for you...', said Ravi, who takes his role as the guardian of the interests of overseas Indians seriously enough to give his private cell phone number to anyone who asks for it.
As the seventh edition of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas approaches on Wednesday, Ravi is full of plans to further the interaction between his ministry and the Diaspora.
You have handled the overseas affairs ministry for four years now. What has been the focus?
Mine is an infant ministry. Before me, three ministers took charge and left the ministry in quick succession. I actually took charge around three years ago. I am aware of the issues affecting Indians living aboard because I travel a lot. After assuming charge, I gave first priority to Indians workers in the Gulf countries -- they are the people who are suffering a lot, they are the ones who are exploited a lot, and my attitude has been to help them as much as I can.
I looked at the entire range of issues. I took initiatives to improve their living conditions. I want to ensure that they get their salary on time. Indians who go abroad to work should not be cheated. Also, we are taking seriously the matter of fraudulent agents who cheat poor workers of their life's savings. To stop the practice needs the threat of prosecution and all kinds of stern action.
In the last few months in particular, I have come out openly against the malpractice of recruiting agents. I have proposed amendments in our law, but because of our system I have not been able to push through the amendments thus far.
What changes have you proposed in the emigration act of 1983?
We will make changes in the act to hold recruiting agents accountable. We want certain systems in place so every Tom, Dick and Harry doesn't get into the business of sending people abroad. They need to make a sizeable deposit before they get a license to do this business.
We want recruiting agencies to be answerable for their clients, and we want to impose certain restrictions on their activities. We have made provisions to imprison agents who defraud their clients.
The Gulf was the priority sector for our ministry and today, the workers there are happy. I have signed agreements to protect Indian labour with all Gulf countries except Saudi Arabia. We have signed social security agreements. We have signed memorandums of understanding to improve the working conditions and protect the rights of Indian workers.
We have one problem with all those states -- domestic workers, who are mostly women, are not protected by the labour laws of these countries. Indian domestic workers are not getting advantage of the labour laws, though their laws are actually quite good. They are just not implemented properly because the people who employ labour are very powerful.
What has been most satisfactory aspect of your job?
When an Indian person is in jail in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, he has the freedom to call me even at midnight. I personally attend calls from our poor labourers, nurses, whoever has a problem. That shows the confidence our migrant labour has in their minister. A minister should be available at all times to the average citizen, and the fact that I have been able to do that, that I have their trust, gives me satisfaction.
To take a broader view, India has not been successful in getting increasing investment from its Diaspora.
I have been spreading awareness amongst Indians abroad. We want Indians living abroad to be friends of India, to feel they are wanted. Sometimes, they say, what is there in India, no one cares for us. I tried to change that attitude and to show the overseas Indian that he is wanted. I have toured all over the world; I have visited some 30 to 40 countries and met Indians there, and I believe I have managed to convince our Diaspora that India cares.
Image: Vayalar Ravi, minister of overseas Indian affairs | Photograph: Paresh Gandhi
Also see: Economy to dominate Pravasi Bharatiya Divas