Historically, Kerala has had the honour of sending the maximum number of nurses to countries across the globe. Given the present war-like situation in Iraq, which was already simmering when many of the present batch of nurses who eventually got caught in Tikrit first landed there, the rationale behind their rushing off to unfriendly terrain was the never-ending hope of repaying at least a portion of the costly loans taken by their parents, mostly from the low-income bracket. Thus, it was no surprise that many preferred to stay on despite the mounting tension between the Iraqi government and the ISIS in recent weeks as the attempt was to secure salary arrears, which for most of them was too big an amount to let go lightly.
Consider the top salary the 46 nurses, 45 from Kerala, were earning at Tikrit Teaching Hospital—`40,000 a month. Many of them had been in Iraq only for four months, including a three-month, no-salary probation period. Having incurred up to `2 lakh towards visa and other costs for “bagging” the assignment, no one can fault them for holding on till the last possible day in the hope of the salary for May coming through even with June looming large as a no-salary month and the hospital coming under Sunni rebel siege after a week’s normalcy.
Unlike during the infamous Kandahar hostage crisis when the Indian government cut a sorry figure, this time the external affairs ministry led by Sushma Swaraj acted wisely and pulled off a remarkable diplomatic victory by ensuring the safe return of the nurses. Equally commendable were the efforts of Kerala government, led by chief minister Oommen Chandy who stayed put in Delhi during the last crucial days and returned only after ensuring the nurses boarded the special flight to Kochi. Once the euphoria of homecoming fades into distant memory, what the Union and state governments owe to the brave nurses is another job opportunity, preferably of the overseas kind. Otherwise, the nurses will remain in a debt trap.