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Reform hurdle

Published : Mar 12, 2010 00:00 IST

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in Singapore

Australia and India face the long-term challenge of having to seize fully the proverbial moment of truth in their interactions over a critical people-to-people issue. By mid-February, the prospects were far from bright.

The most optimistic assessment was that the two sides were beginning to acknowledge the urgency of ensuring the safety of Indian students in Australia, without getting bogged down in some relevant but arguably secondary issues. Australia, while being mindful of its prime responsibility, has started looking upon India as a partner and not just a huge source country for its robust earnings in the education sector.

The central issue in mid-February was still the same as in the middle of last year, when the crisis acquired ominous proportions. Indian students and others of Indian origin in Australia were being attacked frequently, either for racist reasons in the recognisable sense of colour-coded crime or for opportunistic reasons of money-grab through robbery.

This empirical reality was not mitigated by two significant indications to the contrary in the subtext of these crimes. The first such issue was the absence of foolproof evidence that an ideology of white-supremacist racism was indeed the driving force behind the attacks. For example, there was no available evidence that the perpetrators of these crimes were instigated by any racist political rhetoric of the kind that the anti-immigrant politician Pauline Hanson and some others propagated in Australia over a decade ago.

Secondly, in this subtext, the crescendo of an outcry in India against a wave of alleged racism in Australia was somewhat muffled by some details released by the Australian authorities. In one case of alleged racist arson, it was disclosed that the Indian victim appeared to have faked the incident in order to claim some money as fire insurance. In a different case of crime, the line of investigation revealed the trail of some Indians themselves.

Outwardly, such investigative details, not tested in a court of law as this report was being written, did cast a shadow of doubt over the moral dimension of the outcry in India.

Yet, it also became clear to the serious-minded people on both sides that there was no point in missing the dark wood for the few trees of a different kind. Indias High Commissioner to Australia, Sujatha Singh, sought to keep the big picture under a laser-like focus. Paraphrased, the basic issues as identified by her were all about the frequency of attacks on Indians, the driving logic of such crimes, and the need to address the causes without any political or nationalistic spin on either side.

The issues figured in one form or the other in the frequent interactions at the highest political level between the two countries. No agreed formula of any kind was reached during these early interactions. Nor was there any indication that a joint solution was sought although Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said, after meeting his Indian counterpart S.M. Krishna in London in late January, that they shared joint concern.

Smith said: I apprised him [Krishna] of the formation of the High Level Working Group between the Commonwealth [of Australia] and Victoria to deal with these matters; and I undertook to keep him regularly provided with information on investigations and prosecutions as they come to hand. The two leaders agreed that this was a difficult issue. Smith and Krishna did not want [this issue] to get in the way of the good and strong bilateral relationship. Australia and India had taken their ties to new levels in the last couple of years, it was emphasised.

These interactions were followed by the announcement of a significant move to reform Australias rules on the admission of foreigners for permanent residence and even citizenship. The reforms, outlined on February 8, are designed to affect some overseas students, including Indians, who might be intending to apply for permanent residence.

The issue at stake was a widely prevalent practice, especially among the Indian students in Australia. They would enter that country for employment using student visas of one kind or another as a genuine method to qualify themselves or even as a smokescreen for gaining the right of permanent residence.

While the new reforms are clearly intended to reduce the proliferation of foreign students, especially Indians, in Australia, the new policy is packaged as a measure aimed at attracting only the best and brightest foreign workers and professionals. It was, therefore, emphasised that the changes will in no way impact on international students coming to Australia to gain a legitimate qualification and then return home.

Australias Immigration and Citizenship Minister Chris Evans said his country continues to want skilled migrants, be they from India, the United Kingdom or China our three largest source countries or elsewhere. The policy bottom line was that without migrants, [Australias] workforce would begin to shrink from the second half of this decade, as the cohort of baby boomers retires from work, he said. The skilled migrants [from abroad] are also good for [Australias] budget bottom line, adding tens of millions more to tax revenue each year than they consume in government services. However, the current system of a points test used to assess the applications of would-be migrants is required to be reformed. So, the Minister said he was now instituting a review of the existing test pattern.

It was said that the potential migrants [now] gain points based on their qualifications, skills and experience, and proficiency in English. But the system, he said, had glaring deficiencies. The current points test puts an overseas student [for example, an Indian] with a short-term vocational qualification gained in Australia ahead of a Harvard-educated environmental scientist.

Australian jobs for foreigners would now be redefined and suitably classified in terms of the skills required. As a result, nearly 20,000 would-be migrants will have their applications cancelled and [will] receive a refund of their visa application charges. All offshore General Skilled Migration applications lodged before 1 September 2007 will have their applications withdrawn. These are people who applied overseas under easier standards, including lower English-language skills and a less rigorous work-experience requirement.

The intended reform of the overall migration policy, Evans said, was not specifically targeted against Indian students. However, Indians constitute a good proportion of foreigners who attend less-skilled vocational courses in order to gain points for permanent residence and also jobs in Australia. So, the impact on the influx of Indians into that country cannot be missed.

In a question-answer session on February 8, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said: We commissioned a guy called Bruce Baird, former Member of Parliament from actually the conservative side of politics, who just completed a report to us on what we do specifically about the concerns which Indian students have . My experience of Australia over many, many years is that it is a very, very, very tolerant country. I am really concerned when I hear these stories [of attacks on Indians]. My son-in-law is Chinese from Hong Kong. I hear stories from him from time to time, which make me really worried about what might be going on out there. But his overall story is that he is completely accepted and part of the Australian family.

On measures to make foreigners, including Indians, feel at home in Australia, Rudd said: There is always room in our school curriculum for young people to understand more comprehensively the different cultures of the world. One of my big passions in life has been the study of foreign languages Asian languages in particular .... Proportionally, there are more Australian kids studying foreign languages in our schools Asian languages than you will find in any Western country. This is a good thing, but its yield will not be had for a long, long time.

The well-chronicled concerns of the Indian students and other Indian-origin people in Australia are many. The Australian scholar Robin Jeffrey, who knows India well, suggested a few ways forward in a conversation with this correspondent.

The Australian government must, and the universities perhaps should, do some proper research about this new Indian-student population, Jeffrey noted. We do not know, in any systematic way, how many have been assaulted. We have had no proper surveys of what sort of conditions they were living in [or] where they come from in India [or] what their aspirations are. That kind of good sociological research needs to happen.

If racism means picking on somebody because they are of a different colour and you know they are going to be relatively easier marked than somebody else, then thats racism. We have said that. Now, let us get on and do something else. To me, racism is nastier and more elaborate and more sophisticated than that. It is organisations that promote hatred, it is a body of ideas that suggests racial superiority of one kind or another. It was there [in Australia] around Pauline Hansons time 15 years ago. It is coming now, as a result of all this publicity. You know what this publicity ping-pong is like.

About Australias new migration reforms, Jeffrey said: None of the students who came with an expectation of permanent residence should be denied that. That right should be preserved. The [previous] Howard government [in Australia] declared that some very strange occupations were going to get [the foreign students] extra points towards achieving permanent residency. But [the Howard government] made no attempt to control the colleges that one could predict would spring up to exploit a student demand from overseas. [Now] Rudd made a major corrective move in December [last year] by having the Council of Australian Governments to oversee this vocational training and to de-register some of the frivolous occupations. [It] will put some quality back into the system.

Viewing the current situation of the Indian students in Australia as a cloud [which] has a big silver lining, if the next year can be handled well, Jeffrey said: I would like to see the establishment of some sort of an Australian-Indian Foundation for the express purpose of rewarding high-achieving students [and] providing welfare mechanisms for the student population [in Australia]. And, that would have to be matched on the Indian side by the Indian educational institutions [being] prepared and able to accept Australians more regularly than is the case now. Indias soft power should also be asserted.

On a different plane, the free media of India and Australia, with their English-language skills and [with] the access that both places have [across the world], could, together, challenge ... the BBC, CNN, or Fox and create a kind of Voice of Asia, Jeffrey remarked.

Such forward-thinking can gain momentum as and when the Australian Foreign Ministers assertions of a zero tolerance for racism find a greater resonance across India.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Mar 12, 2010.)

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