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The kick-off for the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar is eight years away and construction work at the stadia coming up is either at various stages or very much still on the design board. Yet, the temperature between the Gulf state and some European countries that have been extremely critical of Qatar’s hosting one of the most celebrated of all sports events has begun to rise. After corruption charges and concerns about the climate, fresh controversy has erupted over the death of hundreds of migrant workers, more than 500 of them being from India, allegedly at the frenetically busy construction sites.
The FIFA World Cup of 2022 is not only a momentous and celebratory occasion for Qatar but also for rest of the Arab world, which has rallied behind the rulers in Doha and shares their excitement. No wonder, it is being touted as an attempt to “bridge the gulf between the Arab world and the West”.
But, going by the present trend, it is anything but an endeavour at bridging the gulf between the two sides. An indication of this is found in recent reports by a number of leading western media that include The Guardian, the BBC and the French news agency AFP, highlighting the deaths of over 500 Indian workers, most of whom have allegedly died since 2012 at many of the Cup construction sites. The reports, backed by western human rights and labour organisations, have uncorked outrage, and have dragged India right to the centre of it.
Surprisingly though, in India, where the death of even one Indian national on foreign soil has the potential of raking up a political storm, the news of the deaths has almost gone unnoticed, without a debate or raucous demands from political parties for an explanation from the government.
“The deaths of Indian labourers are part of the normal rate of attrition...nothing suggests they are linked to construction work.”
Indian officials admit that nearly 1,000 Indian nationals workers died in Qatar since 2010—the year the Gulf state was named host of the 2022 World Cup—but argue that only few deaths are related to construction activities. In a statement, the Indian embassy in Doha came out with a yearly break-up of the deaths of Indian workers in Qatar. According to it, 233 workers died in 2010, while in the four subsequent years the deaths were 239, 237, 241 and 37. Irrespective of the larger question of how or why so many Indian workers die each year in Qatar, officials felt this was normal, given the large size of the Indian community—about 5,50,000—of which nearly 60 per cent are involved in ‘blue-collar’ work.
“Overwhelmingly, these deaths are part of the normal rate of attrition and there is nothing to suggest that they are linked to construction activities,” MEA spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told Outlook. He added that, going by the figures of death of Indian workers even beyond this period (deaths in 2007-09 were 207, 269 and 262 respectively), there is no alarming increase in the numbers.
The ongoing controversy over the death of migrant workers is being seen in India and elsewhere as part of the brinkmanship that some European countries and Qatar seemed to have engaged in almost from the time the 2022 venue was announced. Initially, there were accusations hurled at Qatar that it had paid millions of dollars in bribes to key FIFA members to enlist their support and vote towards their bid to host the World Cup. Subsequently, questions were raised in the West about the inhospitable climate in Qatar—in the summer months, the traditional time when the tournament is played, temperatures rise till up to 50 degrees Celsius—in which players from colder climes will have to play. But despite these issues, FIFA seemed disinclined to rethink on its decision of awarding Qatar the tournament eight years down the line.
“It now seems that an attempt is being made by some of these European countries to fire their gun at Qatar from India’s shoulder,” says a senior South Block official.
In India, news of the deaths in Qatar has gone unnoticed, without debate or demands for an explanation.
Indeed, such caustic remarks come out of the Indian foreign ministry establishment because a desperate attempt seems to be afoot by some ‘interested parties’ to show Qatar in a bad light by raising issues related to human rights and poor conditions under which migrant workers are made to work in the country. India, which has friendly relations with Qatar, and has in the past been a victim of such Western propaganda, is not only reluctant but resistant to use by the West. Significantly, Qatar is also being backed by larger number of other Gulf states on this issue—a region where India has very high stakes in terms of energy requirements and job opportunities.
Interestingly, the workers’ death figures that the Indian establishment furnished were the result of an RTI application filed by the AFP, demanding the same. Indian officials point out that the process began nearly three months back, soon after The Guardian reported the deaths of around 180 Nepalese workers in Qatar—Nepalese are the second largest migrant group there after Indians—last year.
“When they found that the death of Nepalese workers failed to have the desired effect, they decided to latch on to Indian workers and highlight their plight, using the annual death figures to give a distorted picture,” a senior Indian diplomat said.
But even if one understands India’s attempt to rally behind Qatar, what explains the silence of opposition political parties, especially when parliamentary elections are due in a few months? One reason could be that, unlike in the past, when most of the migrant workers in the Gulf were from Kerala, the numbers have spread to other states of India as well. Having realised the benefits that come from the Gulf—both in terms of potential destination for workers from their states as well as the remittance they send home—few would like to find fault with a matter of solid economic expediency. However, given the febrile political climate in India, abuzz with pre-poll overtures, declamations and denunciations, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the issue is picked up and skilfully set to the tune of a party manifesto.