NEW DELHI — In India, the rich and poor inhabit vastly different worlds. Now, many fear, new government rules will deepen that divide with different-colored passports.
On Friday, India’s Foreign Ministry issued new rules saying that citizens who require emigration checks will now carry orange passports, while those who don’t will carry blue ones.
The new orange passports are supposed to protect vulnerable laborers from exploitation abroad, but critics argue that the orange and blue color coding could lead to discrimination against poor and illiterate workers and effectively render millions of Indians second-class citizens.
India is the world’s largest exporter of migrant labor; 1 in 20 migrant workers worldwide are Indian-born — a number that has rapidly risen in the past 25 years. Indian émigrés sent home $69 billion in 2015, making their country the world’s top recipient of remittances. But many of those who travel, especially those who provide cheap, unskilled labor, are very vulnerable to exploitation.
In the past few years, scandals involving the Indian diaspora in Persian Gulf countries have shaken citizens. In 2016, Reuters reported that 55-year-old Kasthuri Munirathinam, who worked as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia, became the face of migrant tragedy in the gulf after she described how her employer chopped her arm off in a fight that ended with her having to crawl out a second-floor apartment window. Saudi police at the time said that Munirathinam’s arm was amputated because of a fall and that she was mentally ill.
In Qatar, figures from the Indian Embassy in Doha showed that more than 500 Indians died between 2012 and 2014. Human rights groups said construction workers had been subjected to squalid living conditions and were working in intense heat and humidity in preparation for soccer's 2022 World Cup.
To protect workers, India requires unskilled migrants to get clearances from the Indian government before traveling to a number of countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Malaysia and Yemen.
But people who have graduated high school, or the 2 percent of Indians who pay income tax, don’t need to get clearances for travel, as skilled or educated workers are less likely to be exploited abroad. Those who need emigration checks are identified on the last page of their passport.
The new passport design, the Foreign Ministry said, would do away with the last page and instead use the colored covers to differentiate so that it will make it easier for immigration and law enforcement officers to spot travelers who require vetting before they travel to certain countries. The theory is this would also make human trafficking more difficult as border officials would immediately know which people need the extra permission to travel.
India is one of the world's most unequal societies. Oxfam's India chief executive in 2017 said that just 57 billionaires control 70 percent of the nation's wealth. Critics said the entire system of emigration clearance reinforces the divide between rich and poor.
Nitin Pai, director of a Bangalore-based public policy think tank, criticized the new rules.
“However well-intentioned the move to create different colored passports for different kinds of travelers, it is wrong and must be reconsidered. Already officials treat citizens differently based on their class … different passport colors will worsen it,” he wrote on Twitter.
Oomen Chandy, former chief minister of the southern state of Kerala, said, “If this becomes a reality, the moment an orange color passport holder lands in a foreign country, he will be treated with disdain, and it will have a telling impact on such people's character and individuality. This should not happen at all.”