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HELPING HAND: Indian employees protested against exploitative policies of the Delta Steel Company in Warri, Nigeria. The Commission helped them return home and got their payments released

Punjab's new NRI Commission shows the way in helping immigrants with problems.

Many Punjabis nurse an abiding obsession of crossing over to foreign lands and beginning life anew. But for every 'phoren' dream that comes true, there are scores that turn into nightmares. So last year in October, the Punjab government finally set up the Punjab NRI Commission where such victims could plead for their rights.

Concerned over rising cases of human rights violations and the scores of personal and legal issues that many migrants face, often without access to any means of redressal, the body is tasked by the government to help NRIs. It is estimated that over three crore Punjabis live abroad.

A quasi-judicial authority, which enjoys the powers of a civil court, the NRI Commission has a retired judge from the Punjab and Haryana High Court as its chairman. It is the first of its kind and states like Gujarat and Kerala, which have high NRI populations of their own, are heading to Punjab to take cues on setting up similar commissions. "We had delegations from Gujarat and Kerala. They have studied our model, " confirmed M L Sharma, secretary of the commission.

For 14 Punjabis employed with Delta Steel Company in Nigeria, the commission has been a lifesaver. S Rajvanshi, who returned to India on the commission's intervention, after a nightmarish stint in Nigeria, recounts his horror story. "There were at least 117 people from different countries who joined the company in 2005. All were denied monthly salaries after two years. Our passports were kept, we were denied money and forced to work virtually like bonded labour. Fourteen of us were from India and we wrote about our plight to all the agencies. No one helped, " he says, sitting with his family in his Ludhiana home.

No one, that is, until a letter found its way to the Punjab NRI Commission. The commission then sent a notice to the company through the ministry of external affairs and the ministry of overseas Indian affairs.
Government pressure was applied on the company, which released payments for the 14 Indians within a month, and they headed home soon after. "There are over a hundred people from other countries who are still caught in that horror, " says Rajvanshi.

In another case, a hapless father of a young boy from Jallandhar complained to the commission that his son, Vicky, was sold by a travel agent to some men in Iraq who were using the boy as bonded labour. The boy, who had migrated illegally, had disappeared from the family's radar for several months.

With the commission's intervention, the Embassy of India in Baghdad swung into action and soon traced the boy. Not only were his documents restored, along with an exit visa, but monetary aid was made available with an assurance for his safe passage if he chose to return to India. As for the travel agent, he was apprehended back home and charged with human trafficking.

NRIs who invest in property back home are also heading to the commission for help, while couples with messy matrimonial problems, rather common in Punjab, also now look to the body to solve crises.
Just six months after its founding, the commission has a string of letters to show from governments abroad appreciating the positive impact it appears to have made. "The House of Commons in UK sent us a letter of thanks for resolving one case while the government of Nigeria has appreciated our efforts too, " says Arvind Kumar, the commission's first chairman.

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