Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Opinion | What the draft Emigration Bill of 2019 overlooks

The contours of the new bill still appear to focus on managing blue-collar emigration, a la the 1983 Act

The draft Emigration Bill 2019, recently released by the ministry of external affairs (MEA), and currently pending parliamentary approval, proposes a new legislative framework for matters related to emigration of Indian nationals. It is set to replace the extant one under the Emigration Act of 1983. India is among a handful of countries that has explicit legislation for promoting emigration. Historically, countries which have enacted emigration laws—like the Soviet Union in the post-World War II period, restricting East-West migration in the Eastern Bloc, or North Korea today—have used such legislation to essentially prohibit international movement of their nationals. The laws of most countries today address only immigration.

The intention of replacing the old Act is consistent with the government’s effort to weed out anachronistic laws and update them in line with modern conventions. The United Nations’ “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development", for example, has for the first time recognized migration as a core element of the global development agenda, and has set several targets that relate to it. These cover student mobility, human trafficking and exploitation, labour migration and employment, migration governance, remittances and migration data. While not explicitly stated in the draft bill, one objective of the new legislation is to draw up appropriate regulations that would conform with the contemporary global agenda on these matters.

The emigration bill also assumes significance for two other aspects. First, since 1983, there has been a structural shift in the quantum, nature, pattern and direction of emigration from India. As per the latest World Migration Report published by the International Organization for Migration, India features as the largest country of origin for international migrants (about 30 million in 2017); the largest recipient of remittances (about $80 billion or 5.6 trillion in 2018); and figures in five of the top 20 migration corridors from Asian countries. The 1983 Act, enacted in the specific context of large-scale emigration to the Gulf, falls short in addressing the wide geo-economic, geo-political and geo-strategic impact that emigration has today.

Second, the government’s attitude towards international migrants has changed over time. From labelling NRIs as “non-required Indians" at the height of the “brain drain" in the 1970s and 1980s to addressing them as “India’s brand ambassadors" and “symbols of our capacities and capabilities", as the Prime Minister did at this year’s Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, India’s position on the phenomenon has come a long way. The proposed bill, with its thrust on strengthening the institutional framework for emigration management, affirms that shift in outlook.

The draft bill proposes a three-tier institutional framework, with the MEA as the nodal ministry. At the top, a central Emigration Management Authority (EMA) has been proposed for policy guidance and supervision. In the middle, a Bureau of Emigration Policy and Planning, and a Bureau of Emigration Administration shall handle day-to-day operational matters and oversee the welfare of emigrants. At the bottom, nodal authorities in states and union territories shall coordinate aspects of management related to both emigrants and returnees. This could allow vertical policy coherence on emigration matters—particularly in promoting and managing safe, orderly and regular emigration.

That said, the contours of the new bill still appear to focus on managing blue-collar emigration, a la the 1983 Act. This is evident as the draft bill lists at length the duties and functions of recruitment agencies and sub-agents, which, inter alia include skill upgradation and pre-departure orientation programmes designed to serve only such emigrants. While the need for this is clear, since blue-collared workers are more vulnerable to exploitation and migration shocks, the bill must also offer management structures and policies that better reflect the current nature and pattern of emigration—specifically, concerning the aspirations of and challenges for white-collared emigrants.

For example, as per the draft bill, the EMA shall have representation from only two other ministries: home affairs and human resource development. It notably excludes representation of the ministry of commerce and industry, the nodal ministry involved in Mode 4 negotiations (movement of natural persons) under the General Agreement on Trade in Services at the WTO. At a time when nativism has led to heightened protectionism in the labour markets of destination economies, policy formulation on migration will increasingly need integration with trade and investment agreements. This shall necessitate a cross-sectoral approach in emigration management. However, in its proposed form, such horizontal policy coherence is unlikely to be achieved.

The draft Emigration Bill 2019 does improve upon the extant legislative framework by adopting a whole-of-cycle migration approach. But, the current international paradigm relating to labour market protectionism demands a wider approach. We need to graduate from merely enacting emigration management legislation to practising more broad-based diaspora engagement policies that could provide a cushion in these turbulent times.

Views expressed are personal. 

Amarendu Nandy is assistant professor, Indian Institute of Management, Ranchi.

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