While India is slowly globalising, Indians became global much earlier. Indians reached foreign shores in colonial times, and now have grown to 17.5 million people abroad — the largest diaspora in the world. If you include people of Indian origin as well, then that number becomes 31 million — from Hong Kong to Canada and from New Zealand to Sweden. However, the coronavirus pandemic could now bring this long dispersion of Indian people around the world to a sudden halt.
Indian migration has been driven first by economic reasons and then by family unification. More recently, students from India have flocked to universities around the world. But now the coronavirus pandemic is closing borders in country after country, and forcing large migrant populations to return to their home countries. The flow of Indians around the world is reversing with grave consequences. Lives will be disrupted, economies impacted, and remittances diminished greatly. The world, which seemed so open to us Indians, may well be shutting its doors on us.
The migration of Indians
The colonial practice of sending indentured labourers to work on plantations around the British Empire created pockets of Indians in many countries. However, the Indian overseas community really gathered pace in the last 50 years, driven by migration to the Gulf countries, doctors and professionals going to the US, and students pursuing their education outside India. The community has been studied and written about extensively. It has been the subject of countless books, movies, and TV series. Overseas Indians have excelled in every domain, becoming: prime ministers, senators, MPs, billionaires, CEOs, movie stars, writers, scientists, cricket captains, and so on.
In the 1960s, when opportunities opened up in the US and the UK, particularly for medical professionals first and then engineers, many Indians migrated. After the Y2K scare and once the Indian IT services companies mastered the use of the H-1B visa, engineers migrated to the US in vast numbers. With rising affluence in India and liberal foreign exchange rules, students also started going to the US and UK in large numbers. There are now over four million people of Indian origin in the US alone, of which over 500,000 are students. The same migration pattern has been repeated in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand as well.
The Gulf migration has been different since it has included both white collar and blue collar Indians. By some estimates, there are over eight million Indians living in the various Gulf countries. More than 2.5 million Keralites are now working in the Gulf. Unfortunately, Indians in the Gulf have found it more difficult to assimilate and become citizens.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the lives of overseas Indians massively. First, many Indians have lost their jobs or are worried about losing their jobs. There are lakhs of Indians in the US, the UK, Singapore, Australia, Canada who will have to leave their host country and return to India if they are not employed. Similarly, in the Gulf countries there are already over 300,000 people seeking to return to India since they have lost their jobs.
Second, everyday travel has been disrupted by the pandemic. Indians have been used to traveling back and forth to the mother country seamlessly. Parents visit their children in foreign lands and help in looking after their grandchildren. Most students travel home once or twice a year. All these routine trips have stopped and there is no certainty when international flights will resume.
The question of belonging
Finally, diaspora Indians are not sure where they and their children belong. Those who are still Indian citizens and do not have permanent resident status are doubtful if they can stay on in their countries if they lose their jobs. Those Indians who have switched citizenship and become overseas citizens of India, find that they can be stopped from traveling to India at any point. Most students typically expect that they will be able to find jobs after they finish their degrees in their host countries. With far fewer jobs available and universities switching to online learning, students are rethinking their long-term goals.
India is fortunate to have such a large and successful community abroad. We gain from their many contributions in terms of knowledge transfer, investments, and political support. They are India’s best ambassadors. Most importantly, they contribute more in terms of remittances (some $83 billion in 2019) than we typically get through FPI inflows ($16 billion in 2019) and FDI ($49 billion in 2019) combined. Now these remittances are at risk, which may well create additional challenges for our economy.
The coronavirus pandemic has upended many aspects of Indian society. We have taken our global migrations and our vast overseas community as being an unshakeable part of our world. Much of what we do – from education to business to movies – is built around an open, welcoming world. With that world appearing to be closing down, it seems that our diaspora too may be facing existential risks.
The author is the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Finance in Parliament and a Lok Sabha MP from Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. Views are personal.
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