| Men flock to an overseas recruitment office in Mumbai hiring chefs, cooks, waiters and storekeepers to work for US and British troops stationed in Kuwait and Iraq. (AFP)
Mumbai, April 16: Saddam Hussein’s fall has started a flurry of activity here.
At his spacious shop in Churchgate that sells imported glassware and crockery, K.P. Sharma cannot stay away from his phone for more than five minutes. That is because he is about to hold a crockery exhibition. That is because he is about to return to his original business — with a bang.
Sharma was, and still is, the sole agent for Iraqi Airways in the city. The airway closed shop after Gulf War I, but Sharma did not. He kept his office going with only two other persons on the payroll for more than a decade. At some point, the signboard that said “Iraqi Airways” dropped off during repair work in the building. Sharma did not bother to put it up again. When it finally seemed things would never look up, he converted his office into the crockery shop, importing his stuff from the UK.
But the war now over, Operation Rebuild Iraq seems to be a colossal employment opportunity for cheap labour from India, and Sharma can barely contain his excitement. He assures a new signboard will be put up any day. “The quotations are already here,” he says, brandishing a piece of paper that says the signboard would cost around Rs 25,000.
That is worth investing in a neon sign given the volume of business Iraqi Airways generated for him.
There were two weekly flights to Iraq, one from Delhi and the other from Mumbai — curtailed since Gulf War I — which carried a heavy load, as Iraq’s construction business was one of the biggest employers of Indians. A number of Delhi builders were very prominent in pre-war Iraq.
The country was also visited by Muslims for ziyarat (pilgrimage). “Insha allah, we hope to get our business back in a few months’ time,” says Sharma, his eyes shining.
He says he is anticipating a big rush of Indian labourers, if also of engineers and doctors, not only because of the work there, but also because the Gulf countries are saturated with Indian workers. He is waiting with bated breath for the first communication from Iraq giving him the go-ahead to resume his business.
But if Sharma is hopeful that his business will be resurrected, others are wary that after the US takeover, the spoils of Gulf War II will be pocketed solely by the Americans and their friends, leaving out India, which would have had a big chance otherwise.
For Iraq is also the buzz-word with recruitment agencies, builders, raw material suppliers — and armies of the unemployed here.
The first batch of Indians to benefit from the war is leaving shortly for Kuwait. There are about 30 of them, men of all ages, recruited by an agency in Dadar in the city, who will go to Kuwait to serve as cooks for the US army base there. They will be followed by several other batches of a total of 900 people. Each will earn about Rs 15,000 a month and they are on a three-month contract.
There may be some wait in the offing, but many more will be called there once the reconstruction begins in earnest. “We may have to wait for six months or a year,” says Kulvir Rathod, who sent a number of Indians for Iraq’s construction business. “Now the exporters of food and grain will be the beneficiaries,” says Rathod. “But later, when the reconstruction work starts, we will send a huge number of labourers,” he says. Iraq, he says, has been traditionally friendly to Indian workers, especially in the building business. “Indian Railways has helped to build their railway,” he adds.
The builders are on alert. “We have our ears to the ground,” says Satish Bhujbal of Kalpataru Construction Overseas Pvt Ltd, which has done work in Iraq. “We are waiting and watching. Not for builders alone. This could be a good opportunity for companies for telecommunication and water supply work,” he adds.
So are other businesses associated with construction. “We are in touch with American and British companies through e-mail, from whom we are expecting sub-contracts,” says a senior employee of Sejal Architectural Glass Limited. “The US and British companies are getting the contracts and then getting in touch with us,” he adds.
That is the worry. Though Indian companies hope to get their share, they are worried that the US or European companies will get the contracts initially, and then only sub-contract Indian companies. Because Bush razed Iraq for oil, and to give America business.
“We are not sure how much business there will be left for us to do in Iraq,” says Bhujbal. “We have to understand that things have now changed. There may be cheaper labour from Egypt, which is friendly with the US, where Indians may lose out also,” he says.
“We have to remember that wars are fought for business, especially by Americans. I was there while Kuwait was being ‘rebuilt’,” says another construction business employee. “Then American companies there complained not enough had been destroyed.”