When a planeload of Indian expatriates flew home to Kerala to vote in their state's local elections this month, many saw it as progress. To others, however, the fact that they could not do so here was seen as a deficit on the Indian national ledger sheet.
"This is ridiculous on the government's part", Sri Priyaa, director general of Sharjah's Indian Trade and Exhibition Centre said last fall, "to expect millions of [nonresident Indians] to travel back to India to cast the ballot".
Indians in the UAE have many reasons to be unhappy. As The National reported yesterday, missing passports, rude treatment and confusing instructions at a new visa processing centre in Bur Dubai are creating delays in processing critical documents.
But there are bigger issues here than voting rights or immigration delays. As Mr Priyaa suggests, India's government could take a more active role on assisting its citizens abroad.
India has over 2 million people living in the UAE alone, and many more elsewhere in the region. And that is not to mention those living and working in Southeast Asia and the West. Together, they send home money to their families that is equivalent to 3 per cent of GDP. Many, however, believe that they are not being provided enough logistical and consular support by the Indian government.
Even in areas where progress has been made, certain bureaucratic concerns remain - the Kerala voters' need to fly home for starters. Moreover, there is an attempt to place an additional burden on Indian expatriates. Under a proposed tax law, nonresident Indians would be liable for income tax if they spend more than 60 days a year back home, or 365 days in the past four years. Such a law could hit low-income labourers very hard. Blue-collar workers can't afford frequent, short trips home. Instead, they save up their holidays for extended leaves every few years, making them liable to Indian taxation under the proposed rule change.
Could not India's government to do more for its citizens abroad? In recent years, the Philippines has taken measures to address this for its own people. Ditto Nepal. India, with a diaspora spread across the globe, might want to consider how to ease the burden of those who toil abroad for the welfare of families left at home.