India’s emigration policy has surely improved over recent years. We have moved from needing Emigration Check Not Required (ECNR) stamps on passports to Emigration Check Required (ECR) stamps that are now an exception. However, India is still a country where an emigration officer has to authorise you before you can leave its shores. It would be so much better if these officers were relieved from their current duties and sent to educate young Indians on how to successfully emigrate from India. They could hand out fliers promising great life beyond the borders and counsel people on the best places Indian talent can be put to best use.
In the past we had taboos about “becoming polluted” and “losing caste” when travelling overseas. In more recent years the government frowned upon and discouraged emigration. Popular discourse would lament brain drain and how subsidies spent on educating Indians were lost when they exited the country. But that was before India connected to the global economy. Now this very diaspora has become a critical asset for the country. This year, the total remittances from Indians abroad equal software exports from India – nearly $70 billion.
Indians abroad also provide vital trade linkages, helping entrepreneurs here find customers there. For most small Indian software companies, there is an Indian techie in the US acting as the customers’ representative and bridging the gap in cultures.
With material living conditions in India catching up fast with the rest of the world, recent emigration has not been as permanent as in the 70s and 80s. Of late, the number of Indians returning has increased. Government initiatives like Person of Indian Origin (PIO) and Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) cards have been a big boost in this regard. When people return, they bring fresh ideas and competencies into the economy. Returning Indians have also helped foreign companies successfully establish offices here, thus improving investment.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has finally fixed its passport issuance process. Getting a passport used to be an ordeal that took months, and passport offices were tout havens. The new passport seva kendras have changed this for the better. The total number of Indian passport holders was just 5 crore until not so long ago, whereas just last year, 5 lakh passports were being issued every month with the new process in place.
The government of India woke up to its diaspora 10 years ago and now celebrates an annual Pravasi Bhartiya Divas (Non-Resident Indian Day) on January 9th, the date India’s most famous NRI, M.K. Gandhi, returned to his country. But reaching out to the diaspora isn’t the same as creating more of it. If the diaspora is indeed so useful, why shouldn’t we actively increase its tribe?
The total Indian diaspora, according to the MEA, is just about 2 crore. With the Indian population trending towards 150 crore by 2030, shouldn’t we aim to have at least 5 crore more Indians in the rest of the world by that time? And how do we encourage and enable 5 crore people to settle abroad in the next 17 years when just 2 crore have done so in the last hundred years.
First, just the logistics for this problem require a scale we haven’t seen before. Job networks, relocation support, airports, and financial networks will all need to be increased manifold. The MEA will need a lot more resources to manage this new number.
Second, such a huge peaceful exodus would be unprecedented in this timescale. The European exodus into the Americas was violent and quickly closed doors to later immigrants, especially if they were non-whites. The Chinese were famously forced out of the US by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 after their utility in constructing the railroads ended. Indians were allowed US citizenship only from 1946 onwards, with a quota of just 100 each year to begin with.
This brings us to the other side of the equation: Indians emigrating out of India would be immigrating into other countries. And which country would want its demographic altered with such an inflow? In today’s times, India is not going to make it happen through violent means. This should be the new challenge for Indian diplomacy and a foreign policy objective in every treaty we sign. Within India, we must promote new destinations like South America, East Asia, Russia and Africa apart from North America, Australia and Europe.
The European diaspora changed the geopolitics of the world in the last 500 years. Indians can do the same in the next hundred. The trick is to do it without firing a gunshot.
Saurabh Chandra is a Bangalore based tech entrepreneur with an interest in public policy. You can follow his tweets on @saurabhchandra