Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Am I free to move for my livelihood?

This was written in August 2003

The other evening some passionate discussions took place at a friend’s (regulation snacks and drinks evening) on India’s favoured sons – international cricketers. Should Sehwag, Dravid etc have been permitted to play county cricket given that they only have a short break before the next stretch of international cricket?

It turns out that our cricketers are paid when selected for the team and when they play the game. They are not on a retainer or contract with the cricket board. The cricket board it turns out is a private entity that runs cricket like any other business. (It is not, for example, answerable in Parliament except under the common law applicable to anyone).

Cricketers are self-employed professionals. When Sachin Tendulkar hangs up his bat after what should be over two decades of international cricket, neither the cricket Board nor the cricket loving public will pay him a pension. It is another matter that Sachin probably has earned enough financially to see him and his family through this lifetime. Many other national cricketers do not have and will not have such a happy situation.

A software executive does not have to take permission from his employer to attend a training programme when he is on vacation. In fact, even the Prime Minister is quite free to keep working when he is on vacation.

But many of India’s cricket loving public believe that they should decide what Tendulkar, Ganguly and Co. should be doing with their time off. Some members of the media including several ex-cricketers also are in the fray on this debate.

Like every individual, cricketers should be free to move and seek gainful employment wherever they find it. (or indeed indulge in any law abiding activity they seek to do anywhere in the world). If it affects performance, they should be dropped and in the process lose their livelihood. They will work things out themselves.

Freedom of movement to earn a living is something that has been unrestricted, except for the past century.  A nation like America was built by people who got on board a ship and went there.  In fact, in an era of globalization, possibly the last frontier to break-down (if it ever will) will be when people are free to move and seek employment anywhere. At that point, the globe will once again be where it was for its entire life, except for the last century. It is this that has enabled ethnic Indians (they’ve been away for generations now) to become significant communities in countries as far different as Fiji, Mauritius, Zambia. Remember Idi Amin kicking out a huge ethnic Indian population from Uganda in the early seventies?

Restrictions on movement of people are generally due to economic reasons. Nations, cities, and regions prevent people from moving in to their areas of domicile to defend their economic prosperity. Other colours are given to such restrictions such as cultural fit, tradition, law and order etc. I don’t recollect any such deep discussions with native tribes in North and South America, Australia and Africa. Did European culture and values fit with those of the Sioux Indians when migrants shifted there?

Over the past century, restrictions on movement of people have taken the following steps:

Initially, a document of identification aka a passport was sufficient to let you pass. The USA and United Kingdom, popular destinations for Indian migrants, did not have any restrictions for Indian visitors till the last third of the twentieth century.

Next, came a document of identification and a visa : now you had to explain why you are travelling here. The visa now requires you to produce a plethora of documentation to evidence your bona fides and financial ability.

In general, more prosperous countries and regions have greater restrictions on inflows of people to their regions –with some exceptions.

In case you are wondering whether this is just a national phenomenon, it is not. Strong command and control regimes such as those of the former Soviet regime and in China, required “travel documents” for internal travel.
More close to home, in India, domestic help (mostly migrant labour) are being “verified” and have to carry identification of origin. Apparently, they represent a huge threat to middle class homes in a place like Delhi in terms of murder and theft.
There have been several attempts in the city of Mumbai to propose restriction on migration into the city through passport-visa equivalent documentation. These have been proposed not just by the Shiv Sena, but from time to time by other parties as well and crop up frequently as solutions to Mumbai’s woes in conversations in middle-class Mumbai homes.

The general theme is to get there, get rich and then shut the door for others who want to do the same.

At other times, national interest is cited by national governments to prevent people from moving out for employment. Hence, the Indian government has at various times attempted to make very difficult movement of Indian citizens for better employment opportunities abroad – ship staff in the late 80s, airline pilots a few years ago. Forcing them by law to work a lower than market wages was a better option than offering them higher wages. (Does this sound like rules similar to that applicable to slave labour in southern US plantations in the 19th century? Or more recently Saddam Hussein’s attempts at “locking in” (sic) scientists to help with the nuclear weapons programme?).

In India, we love to talk about the movement restrictions that affect our chances of “progress” in life. Despite good qualifications and skills we can’t take up jobs in various affluent countries around the world.  Many of this same group end up supporting regimes that restrict movement within India (the Mumbai example cited earlier). These groups will also discuss why our cricketers should not be allowed to go somewhere to earn a living or for whatever law abiding reason.

Freedom of movement of people is the fundamental grease to a global economy and united world. The economic argument is clearly that the most efficient person gets to do the job. The political argument is that it actually promotes a better world. Germany, France and Britain have successfully overcome centuries of bad blood because of wars by creating freedom of movement of people within their regions (at least of these countries!).

We have through a combination of petty politics, cultural chauvinism and “fright” mongers managed to deny this to the world’s poor over the past century. The world poor include denial of rights to Indians to move freely for work in the developed world as opposed to say an EU national or Australian. It also, unfortunately, includes the poor in our own country moving to more affluent regions and states.

Instead of curbing our cricketers rights to earn through slavery style rules, we must whole heartedly support their right to earn and their freedom to choose. If they perform inadequately representing our team, we should have the courage to drop them and not look for excuses.

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