01 May 2006


While the killing of the Indian Engineer by Taliban is indeed highly condemnable, i think it is wrong to fault the Indian Government for being unable to secure the release of the engineer. Check out This article. In case you are unable to read it, here it is.

Price of life
Monday May 1 2006 09:03 IST

Saubhik Chakrabarti

Tragedies inevitably if unfortunately engender recycling of conventional wisdom. So, when news broke on Sunday late morning that Surayanarayan, the Indian telecom engineer, has been murdered by that group of murderous thugs, the Taliban, two questions were in the forefront. Why isn’t the government protecting Indians – 2,500 of them by MEA estimates – working in Afghanistan? Shouldn’t India’s involvement in these dangerous countries be reviewed?

Both are statist responses, from the Right and the Left. The Right wants the Indian state to flex its security muscles, to add a strong and obvious military dimension to its foreign policy. Put a division of the Indian army in Afghanistan – a strategic analyst had commented in these pages after the earlier incident of an Indian professional dying in the badlands outside Kabul. The Left wants the Indian state to rediscover its “moral code”.

Activist foreign policy in areas “sullied” by American “expansionism” is particularly amoral and, goes the argument, always carries the risk of making Indians as disliked as Americans. Left-leaning analysts presented a variation of this argument during the debate over India’s vote against a nuclear law-breaking Iran: Indians can come in the crosshairs of radical, violent Islam following the government’s “total agreement” with the US “agenda”.

These policy advocacies, like most that assume the primacy of government action, make no one better off. Sending out army divisions to protect Indian workers in hotspots raises so many political and pragmatic imponderables that, at this stage of India’s evolution as a nation-state, it is little more than a fantasy. Leftwing visions of a return to a non-aligned arcadia can be called, I suppose, a fond dream.

To get real, we must first get over our obsession with the state. Some principles and facts need to be understood. First, while it is the duty of a state to protect its citizens, there are and must be obvious limits. The Indian state is not wholly and solely responsible for Indians who have voluntarily taken private sector jobs in dangerous countries; a Bahrain telecom company employed Suryanaryan. There is a risk-reward ratio that applies in situations like these. The state must make the risks clear to its citizens, by issuing advisories, for example. But if a citizen decides the rewards outweigh the risk (white collar jobs in dangerous places always pay very well), at some level the principle of caveat emptor – buyer beware – must apply. As in private financial investments that end up badly, the state should not be expected to bear the full burden of the consequences of a free individual decision. This may sound heartless to some. But to argue the opposite is mindless.

Second, as India’s foreign policy gets more worldly-wise and as its supply of educated professionals rise – Rightwing and Leftwing fantasies/dreams not intervening, both should happen – the number of Indians working in private sector jobs in hostile environments will increase, probably sharply.

Therefore, the currently popular and politically correct notion of white collar Indians abroad as permanent protectees of the Indian state must be revised soon. Otherwise foreign policy and Indian economic activity abroad will become hostage to 24x7 televised “emotions”.

Third, the first and second points do not mean that if an Indian professional in a foreign hotspot is in serious danger there’s nothing for the Indian state to do but get the joint secretary, external publicity, MEA, read out two para statements expressing concern or grief or bromides about “we are in touch with relevant authorities”.

The state can and must help create a market for risk management for Indian professionals working in dangerous countries. The first step in this, as we have already argued, is dissemination of information. When postwar Iraq opened up the market for skilled and semi-skilled labour in that country, and some Indians who joined the rush landed in trouble, the media had discovered that the labour ministry, so ready to overregulate domestically, had practically no policy on advising citizens of the risks. There are two kinds of risk. Systemic risks are about the general state of the country where employment is offered. Specific risks are about employers, particular locations and particular jobs. Developing a credible database on these parameters will represent a managerial marvel for the Indian bureaucracy. But since it champions and in part instrumentalises larger Indian footprints in the world, this is something it is practically and morally required to do.

The state must also encourage supply of risk insurance for hotspot jobs. Such insurance is commonly available in the West, where its preponderance owes much to government-sponsored discussions of citizens’ vulnerabilities in inhospitable foreign locations. India’s insurance sector now has enough players and enough innovation to warrant the optimism that the government can nudge the industry this way. There’s no need for state subsidy. But the government can explore the idea of making such insurance cover mandatory for every employer recruiting in India and offering jobs in a designated and publicly circulated list of dangerous countries. This is in fact a market solution to finding out responsible employers – such insurance cover, as has been discovered in Iraq, can push up cost of business by 10 per cent to 30 per cent; shady employers would be unwilling to bear the burden.

The third thing the state can do is likely to attract the most controversy, but it is the most logical: it should have policy of encouraging and regulating private, domestic or foreign, supply of security. Companies like PA&E, Brown and Root, Wackenhut, Executive Outcomes are Western private security companies with strong track records. Collaboration between them and Indian outfits growing in the job are eminently possible.

The demand will be there – responsible employers will want this extra layer of security. But the government has to make clear it harbours no misplaced notions about “mercenaries”. There needs to be regulation, not moral blather.

Private security companies, mostly staffed by ex-servicemen, are there to do a job and earn money. Just as Suryanaryan wanted to do in Afghanistan.

Remembering and respecting these private profit motives is the most sensible response to his death.


Posted by Shyam Krishnaswamy at 6:21 PM


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