Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

“Dias-porous” or “Dias-prowess”? Pronouncing Them as Pride or Prejudice of the Motherland is Not Enough

Binod Khadria
October 10, 2011

Of “Traitors” and “Angels” Abroad
Lately over the last decade since the Report of the High-Level Committee on Indian Diaspora (ICWA 2001), as with some of the recent landmark transitions in Indian policy perspectives, the Indian government has been outreaching the highly skilled Indian Diasporas – comprising both non-resident Indians (NRIs) and the persons of Indian origin (PIOs) – around the world. In its bid to break from the past indifference of the Nehru-Indira era, it has been trying to pronounce them, allegorically speaking, no longer as “traitors” but the newfound “angels” to the motherland.  This relates to the negatives of their exodus or brain drain (the “porous” effects) being overtaken by the positive returns or “brain gain” (the “prowess” due to them) in the 21st century. Particularly in a futuristic context, when India, as a member of a club called the “Rising Southern Economies” (RSEs) a la India Migration Report 2010-2011, is projected to steer the 21st century into an “Asian Century,” what role beyond a mere Diaspora engagement in the field of global migration governance needs to be acquired for this prospect of India to really come true?

Turning Points in Indian Migration
In the 21st century, as today’s trend shows, it has been speculated that until 2020, global migration flows will be driven by the global demand for human capital; an excess demand for fifty-four million workers in the developed countries, met largely by the estimated surplus supply of forty-seven million workers in India, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, BCG 2002-2003. The euphoria behind these expectations are fired by the Indian Diaspora abroad remitting increasing volumes of money to India and/or returning home themselves with enhanced skills and huge investible savings that would help India’s stride towards becoming a “superpower.” However, there are at least two unseen caveats that make this linearity less predictable in the future.

First, what is often neglected is the fact that the remittance potential of the future Indian migrants abroad is pre-empted by a more recent trend of the “silent backwash of remittances” to developed countries in the form of overseas Indian students’ study funds. Latest Associated Chamber of Commerce (Assocham) of India figures put these outflows at $7.5 billion to $10 billion per annum, averaging one-sixth of the global remittances into India.

Second, it is perhaps still fresh in our memory that at the turn of the century, when the IT bubble had burst in the wake of the earlier American recession, the emergence of business process outsourcing (BPO) triggered a wave of return migration of Indians. What is less known here is that the majority of the returnees were not among the best – the degree holder IT professionals, but rather the second rung IT diploma holders – and not all of them were coming back to India voluntarily but because of the compulsion of the non-renewal of their job contracts in a recession-hit U.S. economy.

Invisible Conflict of Interest in Return of the Diaspora
The return of Diaspora to their homes has its own implications. Although the size of a Diaspora in the labor market of a destination country can keep rising with some of them returning home, because the individual human faces that comprise it keep changing, the element of racial conflict in the destination society could be expected to remain low. An explicitly stated policy of return migration (or “circular migration” as it is being promoted now), involving only temporary stay rights for foreigners thus allays the fears, in the minds of many native citizens, of being economically competed out by them. It thus naturally becomes a welcome preference for the strife-prone destination countries to promote return and circulation of immigrants.

On the other hand, the social implications of temporary migration, which is inherent in a policy propagating return or “circular migration,” on the migrants and their family members in the origin countries could become welfare-reducing or “porous” for the benefits of the Diaspora resources to leak out. For example, a natural corollary of any individual migrant’s decision to return home, when inherent in the decision of emigration itself, would be the question of the spouse and the children joining or not joining abroad in the first place: Whether to resign when leave of absence from jobs would not be commensurate with the emigrating spouses’ engagement abroad? Whether to withdraw children from school when admission/readmission is going to be difficult in the country of origin? Overwhelmingly, the largest barrier to migrants accepting an international post is family consideration (62 percent), followed by language (13 percent), difficulties in returning to country of origin (8 percent), security (5 percent), cost (5 percent) and living standards (4 percent).

Future Drivers of Migration and Diasporas
Apparently, neither being “porous” nor the “prowess” of the Diaspora for the origin country would be the true drivers of emigration or return in India at the macro level. Instead, there are long term strategic factors on the destination side of the transnational labor market that would determine them. These generic strategies can be grouped into three easy-to-remember rhyming categories: Age, Wage, and Vintage.

Age deals with the neutralization of the adverse effects of “age-structural change” that can be brought about through the younger cohorts of the returnees that re-migrate a second or third time, the older cohorts of returnees tending to stay on in the country of origin and adding to the stocks of older workers. The second, Wage, refers to the comparative cost advantage lost by the country of origin in global trade when the younger returnee re-migrants take away with them to the destination countries the societal benefits of their lower wages, perks and pensions, and the older returnees add to the cost of production and therefore to prices of goods and services they produce. In addition, this also indirectly adds to the silent backwash flow of remittances out of India by lowering the wages, perks and pensions which determine the remittance-capability of the migrants. The third strategic determinant, Vintage, implies the state-of-the-art know-how and skills embodied in the younger generations of student migrants having access to the latest of curricula. This pre-empts the return of workers even before they complete their studies and become professionals – leading to a phenomenon that may be called “pre-migration” of the “semi-finished” human capital.

A New Indian Perspective to Lead the World
The instability of immigration policy changes and the arbitrariness of informal deviations in consular practices in handling immigrants are two important but neglected domains of migration governance which characterize the policy trends and which need bilateral and multilateral intervention. Unfortunately, this has been an area that the countries have considered as “non-negotiable sovereign territory” when it comes to opening it up for such multilateral negotiations where both the policymakers and the intelligentsia could come together and influence the other countries’ decisions, whether by lobbying or moral suasion. Under the circumstances, a question arises regarding whether India, with the world looking at it as a RSE, having the potential to transition from being a developing source country of migrants to a potential superpower destination, would make a beginning in showing the developed countries how both immigration policies and practices could be made migrant-centric. One clue towards taking this kind of a global leadership lies with India, having broken from its own past attitude of indifference towards its Diaspora and now acquiring an overtly positive attitude towards them, taking another first big step towards practicing all that it has been preaching in support of the liberalization of immigration policies in a world going the other way in the name of security: migrant-centric policies and practices empathetic towards the prospective immigrants who compulsorily visit the Indian consulates abroad for acquiring Indian visas, and then user-friendly welcomes from the Indian immigration check posts within India where they first enter the country. This could be the true sign of a superpower India going global, stretching beyond the limited “prowess” of the Indian Diaspora and opening itself to the citizens of the world, and in the process, proving itself as the leading light unto the majorities busying themselves in shutting out the world. Unfortunately, the latest trend of visa policy in India has seen it sailing with the crowd.

Binod Khadria is a Professor of Economics and Education, and Chairperson, Zakir Husain Centre for Educationial Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His publications include The Migration of Knowledge Workers (Sage, 1999) for which he had undertaken extensive field work across India and in the US in 1995. He launched the inaugural India Migration Report 2009: Past, Present and the Future Outlook; and its sequel, India Migration Report 2010-2011: The Americas is in press (CUP). He is a CASI Fall 2011 Visiting Scholar. Email: bkhadria@gmail.com


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania and funded by the Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI and the Khemka Foundation.

© 2011 Center for the Advanced Study of India and the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. All rights reserved.