From fewer than 258,000 in 1975, the migrant Indian population in the Gulf rose to 3.318 million in 2001 and is now estimated at over four million. Indian migrant workers in the GCC countries belong to all three categories of labor: 1) professionals (e.g., doctors, nurses, engineers, architects, accountants, and managers), 2) semi-skilled workers (e.g., craftsmen, drivers, artisans, and other technical workers), and 3) unskilled laborers in construction sites, farmlands, livestock ranches, shops and stores, and households.

Indian white-collar workers and professionals comprise only about 30% of the Indian workers in these countries; the rest are semi-skilled and unskilled workers. The highly skilled and technically trained professionals remain in great demand in the government departments and public sector enterprises, and they also earn high salaries and attractive emoluments. They also are allowed to bring their families. Children are allowed to stay with parents until their education is completed. However, Indians, like all other expatriates, are not allowed to acquire citizenship through naturalization. Life in general is comfortable only for the professionals and white-collar workers in the Gulf. They are able to maintain contacts with compatriots and nationals, form associations, and participate in socio-cultural activities.

After the 1990-91 Gulf War the number of low-skilled Indian workers in the Gulf declined due to Indian government restrictions (i.e., tight monitoring of the Emigration Clearance Required, or ECR, passports). However, the flow soon resumed to pre-Gulf War levels. This has facilitated the proliferation of recruitment and placement agencies, sometimes colluding with prospective employers to prey upon and dupe illiterate job seekers.[1]

Notwithstanding the recent initiative, the Indian government still does not have in place a comprehensive policy on labor migration or overseas employment, whether for skilled migration to the West or unskilled migration the Gulf.[2] Yet, the Indian policy paradigm for migrants in the Gulf nonetheless can be said to have shifted from protective/restrictive, to welfare/compensatory, to developmental/restorative.[3] The 1983 Emigration Act, which replaced the 1922 Emigration Act, has been designed mainly to ensure protection for vulnerable categories of unskilled and semi-skilled workers, and women going abroad to work as housemaids and domestic workers. The Act provides a regulatory and legal framework in respect to emigration of Indian workers for overseas employment on a contractual basis. Under the Act, all “Recruiting Agents” are obliged to register with the government before recruiting for overseas employment. Mainly comprising a large number of private sector players, this includes nine State Manpower Export Corporations established by the governments of Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, and Delhi. At present, active private sector recruiting agents are mainly located in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, and the state of Kerala. Registered agents are held responsible for worker complaints regarding non-payment or delayed payment of wages, unilateral changes in the contract, arbitrary change of jobs, denial of employment, and inhuman working and living conditions, etc. A proposed amendment to the 1983 Emigration Act[4] is aimed at curbing the activities of, and protecting migrant workers from illegal recruiting agents that operate clandestinely.[5]

The new Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, constituted in 2004, has taken the initiative to bring about a paradigm shift by amending the Emigration Act (1983) and introducing welfare measures to complement its protection objectives, such as:

  • An e-governance project to modernize the offices of the Protectorate of Emigrants (which administers the Emigration Act and the associated ECR monitoring) and make emigration of uneducated workers simple, transparent, and orderly.
  • A Universal Integrated Electronic Remittance Gateway, a partnership between the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs and Indian banks, aimed at making the transmission of remittances more convenient and less costly.
  • Pravasi Bharatiya Bima Yojana (PBBY), since 2006 a compulsory insurance policy with an enhanced cover of 500,000 rupees for all worker migrants recruited by agents. An increasing number of insurance companies are to provide cover at a reasonable premium for contingencies such as death, physical disability while in employment abroad, transportation of the body in case of death, maternity benefits for female migrants, medical benefits for families of migrants in India, etc.
  • An Overseas Indian Workers’ Welfare Fund.

The Indian government also has introduced the landmark Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) initiative, which affords partial dual citizenship benefits. (To date, mainly highly skilled migrants settled and naturalized in developed countries have taken advantage of these benefits.) Another measure, which is primarily intended for Indian workers in the Gulf — who send large remittances back home but can never hope to become naturalized citizens of the countries where they work because of restrictive regimes — grants Indian citizens abroad the right to vote in India elections.[6] The modalities for operationalizing this measure are being worked out and are expected to be in place by the next general election in 2014.

These two major policy measures aim to empower migrant workers to participate in India’s socioeconomic and political development rather than merely looking to India for protection and/or welfare. The measures are complemented by the introduction of Pravasi Bharatiya Samman awards to 15 overseas Indians each year “to recognize achievements of the Indian Diaspora and their contribution to strengthening of India’s relations with other countries, promoting the honour and prestige of India, and fostering interests of overseas Indians.”[7]


Over the years, Indian policies with respect to labor migrants in the Gulf have evolved from a narrow emphasis on protection/restriction to the implementation of welfare initiatives, and most recently to developmental/restorative measures. It is still too early to gauge the impact of the developmental measures, which are in their infancy. Maximizing their impact will, of course, depend on the extent to which migrants avail themselves of these measures. But it also will depend on a change of attitude toward Gulf migrants who, unlike many IT professionals and other talented Indians who are considered a source of pride, have been regarded merely as a burden. In addition, it will require that the interests of the stakeholders in the Gulf be examined, and that innovative programs to involve them in India’s development be implemented effectively.



[1]. Overseas Indian, Vol. 1, Nos. 1-4 (2006), a monthly publication of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi.

[2]. Binod Khadria, ed., India Migration Report 2009, International Migration and Diaspora Studies Project, Jawarhalal Nehru University, New Delhi.

[3]. Binod Khadria, “Skilled Labour Migration from Developing Countries: Study on India,” International Migration Papers, Vol. 49, International Labour Office, Geneva (2002).

[4]. The Hindustan Times, May 22, 2006.

[5]. Proceedings of the Conference of the Indian Ambassadors of Gulf Countries, Doha, Qatar, March 20-21, 2006. Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi, unpublished mimeo.

[6]. The Indian government had announced this step at the fourth Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) at Hyderabad in January 2006, and reaffirmed its commitment recently at Delhi at the eighth PBD in January 2010.

[7]. Annual Report 2008-09, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi (2009).