Expect Gulf countries to be helpful in facilitating early return of Indians to work: Jaishankar

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New Delhi, Mar 15 (PTI) External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Monday told Parliament that India is fully cognizant of the plight of Indian workers and students abroad on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has repatriated 45.82 lakh people from 98 countries under the Vande Bharat Mission till date.

He said re-employment concerns of people working abroad will be addressed by the government and that it is working to improve economic growth and create job opportunities.

The government, he further said, is also in touch with the Gulf countries for facilitating the early return of those who were compelled to quit jobs on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a statement on 'Recent Developments Pertaining to the Welfare Abroad of Indians, NRIs and PIOs' which was laid in both the Houses of Parliament, the minister said the focus of the government's efforts in the last few months has now shifted to Indians going back to their usual places of work, study and domicile. To that end, air transport bubble arrangements have been concluded with 27 countries so far.

'The government is fully cognizant of the employment concerns that our people abroad have in the context of the COVID pandemic. Especially in the Gulf, there has been tremendous economic and social disruption that has impacted them. We have softened it somewhat but real challenges are there to be addressed. Let me assure the House that we take this as a priority,' he said in Lok Sabha.

In Rajya Sabha, he said there is going to be good economic recovery which will result in job opportunities.

'In the budget the Finance Minister has presented, it is very clear that there is going to be very strong recovery and high growth will mean good employment prospects...so I think many of their prospects will come out of the economic developments at home,' the minister said.

He said that in situations where people will either not go back or will have delays in going back 'we started a skills mapping programme especially for workers coming back from the Gulf. They were giving us data so that data is available here which we have then sent out to state governments about what are the skills of people who are returning. To some extent our expectation is that state governments and employers will use the data.' He said the government has been active in urging partner governments to look sympathetically at the employment of Indian citizens as they chart their recovery pathway.

In recent months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has engaged with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Oman, while Jaishankar has travelled to the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman to discuss with the governments there the welfare of people. 'I have recently hosted the UAE Foreign Minister in India and expect to do so with that of Kuwait very soon,' the minister said.

'From our recent interactions, we have reason to expect that partner governments in the Gulf would be helpful in facilitating the early return of many who were compelled to go back because of the pandemic,' Jaishankar added.

He said the provision of medical supplies and food items from India as an exceptional gesture to the Gulf during this period clearly had powerful resonance. So did the arrival of health professionals and medical staff, especially the dedicated medical team India sent to Kuwait, he added.

The welfare of students studying abroad has also been of particular concern and embassies across the world have been given instructions to reach out to them, monitor their situation and assist their return, where required, Jaishankar stressed.

He said it would be ensured that they do not lose an academic year.

Under air transport bubbles, which are temporary reciprocal arrangements for commercial passenger services until the resumption of regular international flights, the Air India group alone has operated more than 9,500 flights, taking 10.9 lakh passengers abroad so far.

He said the government is ready to extend transport bubbles and 'our priority will be Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the West and Japan, China and Singapore in the East.' 'During the pandemic, our Prime Minister had declared that the government would take care of both lives and livelihood. This guidance has been the basis for the activities of our diplomacy abroad,' Jaishankar said.

With regard to seafarers, he said the government has been working with shipping companies to ensure their well-being and where required, return to India.

'Members would also recall the predicament of two crews who were in particular difficulty outside Chinese ports. Their situation was also eventually resolved through great perseverance. We continue to interact with many governments to devise more friendly SOPs for crew change requirements,' Jaishankar noted.

He said serious problems were faced by fishermen who were working out of Iran. Some Gulf nations also witnessed this, perhaps to a lesser degree. The repatriation phase is over and the re-employment one has just started, Jaishankar added.

'I wish to assure...as our quest for normalcy progresses, as the global market place and work place resume activities, as centres of study reopen the doors, we will be there to encourage, facilitate, secure and support,' Jaishankar said. PTI JD NAM SMN