New Delhi: A viral video of 11 Punjabi women stranded in Muscat, Oman, crying for help and wanting to return to India after they were defrauded by travel agents has brought the spotlight back on the failed efforts of the Punjab government to rein in unscrupulous travel agencies.
अगर किसी के पास इन बहनों का संपर्क नम्बर और पासपोर्ट है तो कृपया email@example.com पर मुझसे संपर्क करें ताकि उन्हें जल्द से जल्द घर वापिस लाया जा सके …! pic.twitter.com/5EzPyIlNUd
— Bhagwant Mann (@BhagwantMann) February 8, 2020
On Saturday, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh ordered the state police to nab the agents who had cheated these women, while also requesting External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to immediately arrange to bring back the women.
At present, there are almost 6,000 travel agents in Punjab, of which only 1,500 are registered under the Punjab Travel Professional Regulation Act 2013.
The legislation makes it mandatory for travel and immigration agencies, which offer to send people abroad, to register with the government, but not many comply with the law.
Jatinder Walia, the president of the Punjab Travel Agents Association, called for a strict action against fraud travel agents.
“Their greed has led to these young women in dire straits in a foreign country. Such strict action should be taken against them that it sets an example across not just Punjab but also India,” he told The Print.
Walia had earlier told The Print that the 2013 Act has not been able to make any effective contribution in stopping unscrupulous agents from operating.
“I have been saying to the government that the 2013 law has failed because it has not taken a practical view of the situation. Instead of registering only the big travel agents from whom they demand a huge fee for licences, the government should take a nominal fee and register more agents, bringing them under the ambit of this law,” he said.
Walia added that since majority of the travel agents are still not registered under the Act, when they are booked for fraud, the strict provisions of fine and punishment under this law cannot not be applied to them.
Their passports confiscated
The 11 women in the video are seen asking for help from the Indian Embassy to help them return to India.
They claimed they were made to do extremely strenuous work in the house of their “sponsors” who had even confiscated their passports and other documents.
The video was tweeted last week by Bhagwant Mann, the Aam Aadmi Party MP from Sangrur, wanting to know about the whereabouts of the stranded girls.
Later, he tweeted to say that they had been traced to Muscat and he was getting in touch with the Indian embassy for their safe return to India.
The Indian embassy in Oman also responded, saying the women are safe and had been provided accommodation. The embassy added that they were in touch with the Oman government for their release.
राजदूतावास उनके संपर्क में है और उन्हें भोजन और आश्रय प्रदान किया है। वे सुरक्षित हैं। हम उनके लंबित मामलों को सुलझाने के लिए ओमानी अधिकारियों के साथ निकट संपर्क में है ताकि उन्हें भारत वापस लाया जा सके।
— India in Oman (Embassy of India, Muscat) (@Indemb_Muscat) February 8, 2020
Dubai-based businessman and well-known philanthropist S.P.S. Oberoi, who heads the Sarbat Da Bhala Charitable Trust, has offered to finance the return of these girls.
“I have offered not only for their tickets but also the money required to get their papers back from their employers. It will cost almost Rs 2 crore, which I will happily bear,” Oberoi told ThePrint.
Oberoi said the situation in which these girls were in Muscat was a sad commentary on how fraud travel agents continue to dupe thousands of young boys and girls from Punjab.
“Agents here tell these women that they will get them jobs as nurses or teachers. The girls reach Dubai on a visitor visa from where they are illegally shifted in cars to Muscat. In Muscat, they are sold off by the agent’s counterpart to landlords as slaves. The landlords then get their stay legalised and in return keep their passports with them,” he said.
“In the house of the landlords, these girls work like household helps and (do) labour. They are also mistreated and not given enough food to eat. When the girls protest they are beaten up. These girls ran away from these homes and have been waiting for help for months now,” said Oberoi.
Women from Haryana, Arunachal also struck
Apart from Punjabi women, there are at least 90 women from India, including from Haryana and Andhra Pradesh, who are stranded in Muscat, said Oberoi.
He added that on 7 January, he had written about their condition to Manu Muhawar, India’s ambassador in Oman, but there was no response.
“I had offered to pay for their return. But no one bothered to get in touch with me,” he said.
“The Muscat landlords will release the passports and other papers of these girls only when they get their money back. They have bought these girls from the agent on the promise that these girls will work for them for a certain period. Since that promise has not been kept, they will extract their pound of flesh. They also paid for legalising their stay in Oman. I am ready to pay all these charges,” said Oberoi.
Oberoi had in 2017 paid “blood money” worth $2.2 million to save 17 Sikh boys from execution in Dubai.
“The situation is no better in Dubai where young men from Punjab are at the receiving end of these agents. These agents take lakhs of rupees and send these boys to do low-paying jobs,” he said.