As on August 30, a sum of Rs 23.58 crore is in the Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF) with the Indian embassy in Saudi Arabia. In Bahrain, the amount is around Rs 6.3 crore and in Qatar it is Rs 3.37 crore.
The Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF), set up in 2009 at Indian embassies in 157 countries, is aimed at assisting overseas Indians in times of distress and emergency in the ‘most deserving cases’ on a ‘means-tested basis’.
The funds for ICWF are sourced from the fee collected for consular services, voluntary donations, and also budgetary support from the Indian government.
Other than the voluntary donations, budgetary support is from taxpayers’ money and the fee for consular services is paid by either Indians or any other foreign national who comes to the embassy for availing a service.
In simple words, the major chunk of the ICWF would be money collected from the public.
Commenting on the RTI data, an Indian social worker in Saudi Arabia told The Lede that the Indian embassy had turned down several fund assistance pleas despite having crores with them.
“During the COVID-19 outbreak, when laid-off Indian workers were desperately looking for ambulance support, isolation wards, and medicines, we had approached the Indian embassy seeking financial assistance. They had told us that they don’t have money. And now, the RTI reveals that crores are lying with them,” the social worker told The Lede on condition of anonymity, adding that the workers even struggled for food.
“Additionally, even laid-off workers were forced to pay for airfare in the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) repatriation flights. Many workers had to take a loan or the charity organisations had to pay. This happened when the Indian embassy had crores. Why are they holding this money? Isn’t it meant for assisting us?” the social worker asked.
On May 07, the Indian government initiated the VBM to bring back Indians stranded abroad. The majority of the flights were flown to Arab Gulf countries where around 90 lakh Indians are working.
Airfare from the Arab Gulf was around Rs 13,000, which posed a challenge to the majority of blue-collar workers.
Udaya Kumar, a Keralite worker who had returned on a VBM flight from Qatar, was surprised to learn that the Indian embassy had crores in the community fund.
“I was a driver. I was laid off. I was struggling even for food. I survived on charity food. And finally, when I got listed in the VBM, I had to look for money. A charity organisation came forward. They purchased the ticket for me. I begged for ticket money. And now, the RTI data says that the Indian embassy in Qatar had crores with them while workers were on the streets,” Udaya Kumar added.
In a reply to Parliament on the details of measures taken by the Indian missions in extending necessary help to the COVID-19 affected Indians abroad, V Muraleedharan said – “Indian Missions arranged for the welfare of Indian nationals, where required, including through Indian community associations.”
Meanwhile, Bheem Reddy, President Emigrants Welfare Forum, expressed his surprise over the RTI data.
“Workers were in a bad situation when the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak happened. Many struggled even daily. Additionally, when the workers were laid off, they were forced to return empty-handed giving up their unpaid wages. This was happening when Indian embassies had crores with them in the community fund. When are they going to use it? For whom are they going to use it?” Reddy asked.
The Indian embassies in Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) denied details of how much is currently present in the ICWF.
The Indian embassies in Oman and UAE have cited Section 8 (1) (a) of the RTI Act while denying information.
Section 8 (1) (a) states that “Information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state, relation with foreign states or lead to incitement of an offense.”
The Indian embassies in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain have revealed how much money is lying in the ICWF without any hesitation. The questions sent to all Indian embassies were the same.
Unfortunately, the Indian embassy in Kuwait has not responded to the RTI query within the stipulated time of 30 days.
In addition to the COVID-19 outbreak, the fall in crude prices had pushed the Arab Gulf economies into a bad situation forcing companies to lay off workers.
In June, ILO had said that six million migrant workers would lose jobs. And Kerala government data reveals that around 1.6 lakh had returned after job loss.