Interviews | VOL. 10, ISSUE 58, January-February 2010 |

Age, Wage and Vintage: The Wheels within Wheels

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Dr Binod Khadria talks to the editor about his pioneering India Migration Report 2009 which has brought to light new and emerging trends in international migration. This report will help young Indians unravel what involves the migration of human capital to distant shores. Dr Khadria, a professor of economics at the Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is renowned world over for his research on the issue of brain drain from India and seeks to intervene significantly at policy levels. He has been prominently associated with organisations and networks such as the ILO, IOM, OECD, World Bank, WHO, GFMD, SciDev, APMRN, and International Geographical Union (IGU) and many universities abroad.

The India Migration Report is the very first of its kind in the country. What prompted you to develop such a Report?

Simply the urge to make a beginning! Despite being the homeland of the third largest diaspora in history and source of the second largest annual outflow in contemporary mobility, the issue of international migration has for long received scanty attention in India. It is only towards the closing two decades of the 20th century that it has drawn greater attention of policy makers, academia and civil society in India. The idea of bringing out India Migration Report annually was first mooted in 2008 at the 20th Conference of the International Association of the Historians of Asia (IAHA) hosted by JNU, and subsequently reaffirmed in early 2009 at the International Conference on India-EU Partnerships in Mobility that we co-organised with the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs in New Delhi. Each annual edition of the Report is to be dedicated to a particular theme, and data sets collated to build upon year after year.

 

Did you find it difficult to select a baseline as a reference point for your Report as you have claimed that migration data is scanty in the present milieu?

After considerable deliberation our research team selected the theme of ‘Past, Present and the Future Outlook’ for the Report particularly with a view to take stock of all data we could lay our hands on, even if partially. We did not have much choice, but we did our best to gather data from domestic sources, primarily Census 2001 on immigration, and the destination country sources for emigration. The future tasks for subsequent annual editions are enormous. We have suggested that the Registrar General of India initiates a brainstorming session with us to ensure systematic and rich data in the Census 2011 through an improved questionnaire and new table formats.

 

Do you perceive any shift in the migration pattern of highly skilled Indians in the recent decades?

Highly qualified and talented people have been emigrating from India en masse since the late 1960s. However, in recent times India has drawn worldwide attention as a country of origin for migration of so-called ‘knowledge workers’, mainly the information technology (IT) professionals and nurses to developed countries, with 80 percent of them going to the US. Even this has become passé, and the emerging trend now is that younger generations of Indian students are migrating abroad to the lure of ‘study abroad opportunities’. The international education fairs regularly enrol students for foreign universities, some on fellowship grants but mostly self financed. Another noticeable trend is that more professionals have started moving to newer destinations, including the Gulf countries where the infrastructure development is complete and service sector employment is increasing.

 

Do you think older Indian migrants are opting to be back because they have developed a sense of patriotism in the recent decades?

The question of patriotism is interesting. People like Har Gobind Khorana and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekahar were considered deserters when they left India and became American citizens. It was only when they won Nobel prizes that India considered them national heroes. Whereas there is a lot of talk about the return migration of skilled people to India, most of it was triggered by the layoff when the IT bubble in the US burst at the turn of the century. The subsequent return to take up jobs or start-up ventures in the BPO or outsourcing industry in India was more the lure of high multinational salaries and low cost comfortable lifestyle here rather than patriotism. A trace of  a ‘co-efficient of patriotism’ as I called that in my book, The Migration of Knowledge Workers, a decade ago, is still reflected by the expatriate Indians when they prefer to accept a slightly lower rate of return on their investment in India than abroad! But return for patriotic reasons is still a rarity.

 

What is the present trend among immigrating population into India?

More than 95 percent of all immigrants in India have either been born in or have come from an Asian country. Bangladesh is sending maximum number of immigrants to India. Almost 60 percent of the total foreigners in India are from Bangladesh. Census 2001 results show Pakistan as the next major source country followed by Nepal. The other countries of origin with more than 20,000 immigrants in India are Sri Lanka, Myanmar, United Arab Emirates and China. These are mostly medium and low-skilled workers. There were 23,721 people with last residence in China. Increasingly highly skilled immigrants from the developed western countries are also accessing India, for study and work, especially in the IT hubs.

 

Mobility as well as hierarchy in jobs has been traditionally low among women migrants – do you see any change in mindsets in the present context?

Mobility of women is still low in the developing countries, with the exception of Latin America and the Caribbean. Except Indian nurses, migrating to developed countries, data do not substantiate any change in the mindset, although more and more women professionals now seem to be mobile. In the developed nations one could notice that labour market participation of Indian women accompanying their husbands to the US has increased. In terms of hierarchy in jobs, the glass ceiling is thicker for Indian women than men working abroad, but they earn better than women of other foreign nationalities in the US, signifying that on the average they hold high-tier jobs.

 

In what way/s can your Report assist policy initiatives?

The Report advocates for a policy tool that I call ‘equitable adversary analysis’ whereby the contribution of migrants in development of countries of origin would be assessed from the point of view of stakeholders in countries of destination and vice versa. The analysis would help a country like India press for international norms in multilateral negotiations around the issue of migration, particularly Mode 4 of General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) under the WTO negotiations. At multilateral dialogues, the vulnerability of the migrants to arbitrariness in consular practices and the instability of visa regimes underlying the ‘open-and-shut policy’ of the destination countries could be the two key aspects that India as a country of origin ought to try negotiating. To remove uncertainty of access to global labour markets and achieve stability in migration patterns, we need to ask for an ‘expiry date’ on each policy change in immigration regime.

 

What is your opinion on the recent attack on Indians in Australia? Is it racism or is it conflict of interest?

I do not think one could take an either-or view and draw a clear dividing line. Social cohesion across communities in multicultural societies could wane due to conflict of interest between different identities, and lead to xenophobia. You would recall how the German Green Card plan to attract large numbers of Indian IT professionals at the turn of the century fell flat because of the slogan mongering of ‘Kinder stat Inder’ (German children instead of Indians) associated with street violence. The heat is now on Indian students in Australia because they, as the ‘semi-finished human capital’ are the new embodiment of brain drain in place of
finished human capital that used to move as ready-made workers or professionals
often becoming targets of backlash from local unemployed population. The root of the conflict of interest must be dug out in the open and resolved with grit and determination rather than buried to score political or diplomatic mileage.

“There are newly emerging contours arising from three dynamic conflicts of strategic interests among origin and destination nations, best described in three generic terms, ‘age’, ‘wage’, and ‘vintage’. The stereotype benefits of brain drain, viz. remittances, technology, and return migration to the countries of origin can be weighed against the three benefits that accrue to destination countries. The latter derive the advantages through higher migrant turnover in temporary and circulatory immigration, to (a) bring in younger migrants to balance their ageing population, (b) keep the wage, perks and pension commitments low by replacing older migrants with younger migrants, and (c) stockpile latest vintages of knowledge embodied in younger cohorts of overseas students.  It remains to be judged what the counterpart costs are for origin countries.”

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