Stung by Criticism, MEA Does U-Turn on Orange-Coloured Passport for Migrant Workers

According to sources, representations had poured in from Indians and non-resident Indians, ministries and state governments.

New Delhi: In just over two weeks, the Ministry of External Affairs has done a U-turn on the controversial decision to issue passports with orange covers for Indian migrant workers – for whom an Emigration Check Required (ECR) stamp is mandatory before they are allowed to embark for a set of designated countries.

The initial announcement, made on January 12, was immediately criticised by opposition Congress and Left parties. The Kerala high court on Monday also issued a notice to the MEA on a PIL filed against the decision.

On January 29, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj chaired a meeting which took the decision to scrap the idea.

“The MEA has received several individual and collective representations requesting to reconsider these two decisions,” said a press release issued by the foreign ministry on Tuesday.

According to sources, representations had poured in from Indians and non-resident Indians, ministries and state governments.

Faced with strong criticism, the meeting on January 29, where minister of state V.K. Singh was also present, changed the earlier decision.

“After comprehensive discussions with the various stakeholders, the MEA has decided to continue with the current practice of printing of the last page of the passport and not to issue a separate passport with orange colour jacket to ECR passport holders,” said the press release.

Indian citizens who want to travel for employment in 17 countries have to obtain an ECR passport if their educational qualification is less than Class 10 and earn less than taxable income.

While Swaraj took charge of the meeting to withdraw the decision, the original proposal was based on the recommendation of a three-member joint committee of the MEA and the women and child development ministry. The panel had been formed to deal with issues related to passports of children of single parents and adopted children.

The recommendation was that the printing of the last page of the passport booklet – which has details like the name of the father, mother or legal guardian, spouse and address – should be discontinued.

Having accepted this suggestion, the ministry was then faced with the prospect of how to mark ECR passport holders, since such details are only mentioned on the last page.

The solution found by the foreign office was to issue orange-coloured passport jackets to ECR passport holders, rather than the navy blue cover for regular passports.

This led to a firestorm of protest, with most critics pointing out that this would make the passport holder more vulnerable to touts and also lead to discrimination.

The PIL filed in Kerala had noted that the new orange passport cover would make “their underprivileged status known publicly through separate colour code” and would be “a grave invasion of their fundamental right to privacy and dignity“.

An article in Saudi Gazette noted that the address in the last page of the Indian passport was crucial to establish the identity of Indian workers in accident and death cases in remote areas.

“Without approaching Indian diplomatic missions, based on the address page in the employees’ passport, the employers and community workers could reach out to families of deceased workers, also inform them about unconscious sick workers in their care. However, with the new rule the basic contact point would disappear and would leave the employers or community workers with a Herculean and extremely difficult task of reverting to the missions to ascertain the address and immediate family,” said the report dated January 18.

There were reports across newspapers in Gulf filled with criticism from Indian expats against the MEA decision.

In Gulf News, secretary of Dubai-based Kerala Muslim Cultural Committee said the discrimination of Indian citizens through the colour of their passport was a violation of the Indian constitution. “This is actually going to give more business to people running recruitment rackets. These passport holders will be more vulnerable for exploitation,” he said.

Sharjah-based K.V. Shamsudheen, who heads the Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust told Arab that this move will lead to discrimination. “Segregating citizens this way is not acceptable. There will be a different line at the airport and other countries may consider a group of our own citizens as inferior,” Shamsudheen wrote in a letter to the Indian minister.