A rather strange picture of Indian women IT professionals wearing hijab, with the occasional bindi (the dot on the forehead worn by Hindu women) eagerly clicking selfies with a visibly discomfited Indian PM visiting that bastion of conservative Islam – Saudi Arabia! Oh what shapes and flavours does the Indian diaspora take!
Indians in the old days (like their Chinese contemporaries) had a taboo against overseas travel, as crossing the ocean meant loss of caste. So it was only the acute labour shortage in the colonies after the abolition of slavery, that saw large scale migrations of indentured Indian labourers, sent forth to sweat and build in the distant outreaches of the British Empire – from the rubber plantations of Malaya, to the sugarcane farms of Mauritius and the Caribbean, to the railways of East and South Africa… Indentured labour began in 1833, at the end of slavery, and continued until 1920. Most persons of Indian origin in these countries are descendants of these indentured labourers, 25-40% of whom would be women, allowing those who decided to settle in these distant lands to remain endogamous, procreate, and retain their distinct Indian ethnicity to this day.
In East Africa, after the efforts of these pioneers had opened up the countries and their vast resources, a second wave of Indian migrants headed that way from the western State of Gujarat – not to build railways, but build economies through trade, industry and business. The East African Gujaratis were to become immensely wealthy, powerful (and some would say arrogant) throughout East Africa, when Idi Amin burst their bubble by ordering out thousands of them in 1970. Most of those expelled migrated onwards to the UK, USA and Canada and only a few chose to return home to India. It is these families who are now most prominent in the medium grade hospitality sector in North America – often referred to as the ‘motel Patels’.
The next wave of migrants came essentially from Kerala to the Gulf, after the quadrupling of oil prices, post-1973. The first arrivals may well have been blue collar workers, but following the rapid socio-economic development of the Gulf countries, the demand grew for Indian professionals like architects, engineers and doctors. Back in India, the Gulf boom was to have a tremendous impact on the families of these workers (many from minority groups) who had their first experience of some financial security, enabling them to purchase property and educate their children. Thanks to the remittances of these hard-working folk, entire families could move up the social ladder from working to middle class in a single generation.
Of course, the IT boom was to push another generation of worker-migrants further afield to Silicon Valley, and along with the Chinese, the Indian diaspora ranks among the most successful communities in the US and Canada.
Whenever we talk numbers in India, comparisons with China are inescapable. The Economist had this very interesting infographic shading in the Diasporas of both countries:
The Chinese spread in South-East Asia is phenomenal, although such a high presence in distant Peru is indeed intriguing. It is believed that the post-globalization surge that China witnessed was made possible only because of the heavy investment in the motherland by the Chinese Diaspora, already close knit, well networked, wealthy and influential. Sadly, the Indian Diaspora has not contributed even a fraction of this to India’s development.
In the CARIM report on “India´s Engagement with its Diaspora in Comparative Perspective with China”, Kathryn Lum points out that while China can claim success in attracting a significant number of “sea turtles” back to Chinese universities and research parks, and has also been very successful in attracting ethnic Chinese Foreign Direct Investment, the FDI figures from the Indian diaspora have been disappointingly low, although India is still the leading recipient of remittances worldwide. The challenge for India, according to the report, “… is to build upon its already significant diaspora infrastructure in order to attract higher levels of investment, business formation and to boost diaspora-related initiatives in Indian states that have been relatively deficient in this area to date.”
However, in my humble opinion, no amount of pop star type rallies or selfie-fests or ‘diaspora infrastructure’ are going to garner results for the most diaspora-friendly Prime Minister in Indian history, unless his government gets its act together to:
- Enhance its human development ranking and shed the eternal Indian image abroad of inequity, poverty and injustice
- Vocationalise its secondary and tertiary education to build up a highly skilled workforce
- Ensure ethical practices throughout the supply chain in the manufacturing sector with tighter controls over child labour and forced labour, so that Indian goods do not get blacklisted abroad, and
- Guarantee that the institutionalized corruption at Local and State Government level is rooted out completely – despite the election promises, the scale of graft has, if anything, gone up dramatically in scale…