Patralekha Chatterjee | Why are so many Indians going abroad to find jobs?

The Asian Age.  | Patralekha Chatterjee

Opinion, Columnists

India has the largest overseas diaspora -- over 32 million who are non-resident Indians or people with overseas citizenship

Joblessness and the craving for overseas work has led to many selling off family land, gold and other assets. (AFP Photo)

In hyper-polarised India, it comes as no surprise that there is no consensus on anything. The answers you get depend on the questions you ask, as well as the ones you skip, on the experts you choose to believe in, and the metrics they use to make their point.

What about the state of the economy and employment which concern most of us the most? Economists continue to slug it out in the opinion pages. One set of economists will tell you that India is going from strength to strength in “Amrit Kaal”; another lot paints a very different picture of rural distress, dipping wages, joblessness and precarious work.

The latest Monthly Economic Review of the Union finance ministry is cautiously optimistic. “The economy is estimated to grow at seven per cent, higher than the trend rate and the growth of the other major economies. Growing macroeconomic stability, as seen in the improved current account deficit, easing inflation pressure, and a banking system strong enough to survive the increase in policy rates, has made the growth rate further sustainable,” it notes. Then comes the caveats. “The Economic Survey 2022-23 and the RBI also project the Indian economy to register a real GDP growth rate of 6.5 per cent in 2023-24. The estimates are in line with the World Bank estimate of 6.3 per cent and ADB estimate of 6.4 per cent for 2023-24. However, we reiterate that downside risks to our official forecast of 6.5 per cent for real GDP growth in FY24 dominate upside risks. Opec’s surprise production cut has seen oil prices rise in April… Further troubles in the financial sector in advanced nations can increase risk aversion in financial markets and impede capital flows. Forecasts of El Nino, at the margin, have elevated the risks to Indian monsoon rains.”

Faced with masses of numbers and conflicting “expert” opinions, the ordinary Indian can be forgiven if he or she dwells on niggling questions around another important trend -- why are so many Indians leaving the country in search of work and opportunities amidst the buzz of India becoming a more attractive destination for multinational companies seeking to reduce their reliance on China? And is the India development story leaning more on remittances as a cushion?

Here is a telling piece of data: Indians living abroad sent home a record $100 billion last year, a 12 per cent rise over 2021. It represents the largest remittances of any country in the world.

Arguably, mobility is not unique to Indians or recent times. People have the right to move, and have been crossing borders for centuries. Indians leaving the country for a better deal is therefore not a new story. India has the largest overseas diaspora -- over 32 million who are non-resident Indians or people with overseas citizenship. Ten million Indians live in the Gulf countries alone. The largest chunk of this -- around 3.5 million -- live in the United Arab Emirates. The United States hosts the second largest Indian population, around 2.7 million.

It is not just high net worth Indians who seek a better deal abroad. Aspiration and desperation continue to drive millions of others to cross Indian shores. 

But mobility out of choice is starkly different from mobility stemming from compulsion. A rash of ground reports in the media suggest that rural youth from states like Haryana are now joining the exodus, out of despair. Interestingly, the search for jobs abroad has official support. Last Diwali, the official portal of Haryana’s directorate of information, public relations and languages, came out with this announcement: “The festival of Deepawali has come as a golden opportunity for the youth of Haryana who are seeking jobs abroad. To provide employment opportunities to the youth abroad, the state government has set up an Overseas Placement Cell.”

The cell was inaugurated by Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar. Haryana had established the Foreign Cooperation Department (HOPP) in 2020. Its official mandate includes “socio-economic welfare of the state and its people by helping them in overseas placements and upgrading their skillsets”. Haryana has reportedly assigned 22 IAS officers the task of looking for overseas jobs for the state’s youth.

Recent ground reports, however, reveal the bumps ahead. As in Punjab, many youngsters in Haryana are treading a dangerous path in pursuit of the “phoren” dream.  “Rural Haryana is now the new Punjab in its race to send its youth to the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia. Rows of IELTS coaching, visa centres and agent offices line up small-town marketplaces. A new vocabulary has gripped Haryana villages, with words like PR for permanent residency, work permits and dependents replacing popular acronyms for prestigious state universities like Maharshi Dayanand University and Kurukshetra University,” noted journalist Jyoti Yadav, reporting from Haryana’s Jind and Kurukshetra districts for the news portal The Print.  IELTS (International English Language Test System) is the English language exam required to be taken by international candidates who are planning to study or work in a country where English is the main language of communication.

Joblessness and the craving for overseas work has led to many selling off family land, gold and other assets. Predictably, a cottage industry of touts has sprung up to tap the desperation. This month, in Ritoli village in Haryana’s Jind district, a family accused four persons of duping them of Rs 50.75 lakhs. The complainant was a mother who was told that her two sons would be given jobs in Canada. The visa turned out to be fake. This is one among several police complaints linked to visa fraud.

One feels a sense of déjà vu. Neighbouring Punjab has been down this road. Now, other states are copying the template, with all-too-predictable results.

Last year, the police in Gujarat’s Mehsana district unearthed an alleged racket which helped students get high scores in English proficiency fraudulently in order to help them travel to Canada on student visas, and then try and enter the US illegally. The racket was busted when six youngsters from Gujarat were nabbed by the US border authorities while trying to enter the US from Canada. The students could not respond to questions asked by a US judge in English.

The bottomline -- looking for greener pastures within or outside the country is not a crime. Nor is it wrong for state governments to help those who wish to go abroad. But policymakers must realise that overseas jobs cannot be the quick fix to the employment crisis at home. Ground realities show the daunting challenges ahead.