by Vinay Lal

A generation ago George Lamming wrote that Indian hands had humanized the landscapes of much of the Caribbean and put the food on dinner tables. ‘Coolie’ labor, as it was once called, built Trinidad, Guyana, and Surinam – and, of course, places far beyond the Caribbean. The system of indentured labor officially came to a close in 1917, but the sordid tale of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis in the Gulf today suggests that its modern-day incarnations are very much alive; if anything, amidst the hullabaloo over globalization, human rights, and ‘India Shining’, the contract laborers of today have less visibility and fewer people advocating their rights.

The newspapers reported a few days ago that 4,000 South Asian workers in Dubai faced deportation. Dubai is the international face of the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven autonomous states. Flush with oil money over the last few decades, the United Arab Emirates have spared no expense to transform their desert kingdoms into contemporary hubs of leisure, travel, and business. Millions of Indians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis have turned Dubai into a glittering metropolis, home to the world’s tallest building, super luxury homes and hotels, and artificial islands for water sports. The Louvre, among the world’s most select museums, is set to open its only branch in this new mecca of international jet-setting. By all accounts, Dubai appears to be a city dedicated to bringing cheer to those who are desirous of nothing more lofty than giving truth to the expression: ‘shop till you drop dead’.

Models, movie stars, media moguls, and others of the high social set increasingly frequent Dubai and the Gulf states. However, the ‘native’ and foreign elites are vastly outnumbered by, and parasitic on, an immense labor force that is largely of South Asian origins. The UAE presently has about 1.5 million South Asians employed as contract laborers, the bulk of them engaged in construction work. Human Rights Watch has described their working conditions in a recent report as “less than human” and has called upon the governments of the United Arab Emirates to end abusive labor practices. The 4,000 South Asians who now face deportation have been charged with acts of vandalism, but their real offense is to have struck over poor wages and exploitative working conditions. The UAE does not recognize the right to strike and unions are illegal. Salaries in the UAE for contract laborers range from about 500 to 1000 dirhams ($136-270) a month.

There is a story to be told about Dubai as supremely symbolic of the increasing polarization of the world into so-called world cities and mega slums. If the word ‘metropolis’ stands not only for big urban clusters, but for an expansiveness of mind and enhanced possibilities for human freedom, then it is worth pondering what kind of metropolises are being built these days. For the present, however, I am animated by other considerations: the probable deportation of 4,000 Indians from Dubai, and the indubitably wretched working conditions of huge numbers of Indians (and other South Asians), bring to mind various questions about that category called the Non-resident Indian (NRI). When the English-language Indian press and middle class people speak about NRIs, they evidently do not have in mind Indians in the Gulf. Though the NRI always designated the Indians who had gone to the developed nations in the north, I suspect as well that, in truth, even among them the Indians who had winged their way to the US were seen as much more fortunate or lucky.

The term NRI purports to be neutral, and India has lately (for instance, through the device of the annual gatherings called the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas) claimed all its children overseas as its own, but the brutal truth of the matter is that the Indian government, at least, has seldom been attentive to the plight of Indians in countries where they were brought over as indentured laborers. Apologists will point to the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Government of India and the United Arab Emirates in December 2006 that obligates the two governments to ensure the welfare and protection of Indian workers. But, as far as I am able to ascertain, no political party in India has stepped forward to protest the deportation of 4,000 Indians from Dubai. They are a miniscule part of the refuse of a world that, flush with the scent of money and energized by orgies of excess, accepts that sacrifices are necessary at the altar of development.