Sikhs of America
Snapshot
  • It is no longer the urban middle class. The current wave of migration out of India is fuelled by peasants and rural middle class who face economic dead ends.

In January this year, as many as 129 Telugu students were arrested by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in a sting operation aimed at busting illegal immigration into America. The ICE floated a fake university called the University of Farmington and allowed desperate students from India, mostly from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, to enroll by paying up to $25,000 (Rs 17.5 lakh) as fees.

On arrival in America, they were booked for violation of American immigration laws and are currently under ‘administrative detention’ and awaiting further prosecution. The Department of Homeland Security insists that the Indian students did not fall inadvertently into the trap but were aware that they were committing a crime by choosing to enter the United States illegally. The operation highlighted the thriving illegal migration channels that Indians are increasingly resorting to in their pursuit of a better life on foreign shores.

This is hardly the first time that students from Andhra and Telangana have become victims of the lure of the ‘American Dream’. In one of the most shocking incidents known as the Tri-Valley University Scam, close to 1,800 Indian students, mostly from Andhra Pradesh were left trapped in the US in the fall of 2011, after the fake university in which they had enrolled was raided and shut down by the American ICE. To add to the students’ suffering, many of them were radio-tagged by the ICE to monitor their movements. Most were eventually deported to India, financially and emotionally wrecked before their careers had even begun. In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, immigration agencies do big business cashing in on an entire generation’s dreams of emulating the likes of local tech-heroes such as Satya Nadella, who made it big in the US.

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Meanwhile in Punjab, a similar tale of rush to foreign shores is unfolding, except those trying to make it to the West are farmers looking to enter blue-collar jobs abroad. Immigration consultancies and IELTS (International English Language Testing System) coaching centres are perhaps the most profitable businesses at the moment in a state long suffering from economic decline. These centres double up as sites for the young to meet and socialise, especially since most of them would never enroll in a college — their dreams limited to getting the all-important visa. In a predominantly agrarian state, there aren’t many opportunities for employment.

As a result, rates of higher education are abysmally low as farmers see little benefit in expending time and resources on higher education when agriculture is going to remain the family’s primary source of income. For instance, only 3.2 per cent of Punjab’s rural population are graduates. This figure is significant since Punjab remains a predominantly rural state with no big urban centres, and the bulk of migrants out of Punjab tend to be rural. Without skills, youth of the state find themselves unable to access the opportunities opening up in India’s booming tech and services sector.

The Economics Of Transnational Migration

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So why are Indians flocking to the West in droves? The answer is simple economics.

With the sorry state of agriculture remaining no secret the most viable option in such a scenario becomes exploiting the huge wage gap that exists for blue-collar jobs between India and the developed world. For instance, the average Canadian worker makes $51,000 a year as compared to $7,000 that an Indian worker makes.

Besides the huge wage gap that exists for low-skilled jobs between India and the West, countries like Canada arguably have a more equitable distribution of wealth. For instance, while India has a whopping 131 dollar billionaires, as opposed to Canada’s 39, Canada is home to 1,289,000 dollar millionaires as opposed to India’s 343,000.

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The bottomline — it is far easier to rise up to a comfortable level of income in a country like Canada starting from a blue-collar job than it is in India. Add to it factors like better quality of life, cleaner environment, better education etc, and it becomes easy to see why peasants from Punjab are making a beeline to migrate to the West, even at risk to their lives.

Why then, would one ask, is migration out of India more prominent in certain regions such as Punjab, Kerala and the Telugu states?

The answer is that in an otherwise poor country, it is only the most prosperous regions that can afford to put up the initial capital required to migrate. Just like the student from Telangana, the average Punjabi farmer is paying an average of Rs 15-20 lakh to send his son abroad, the exact cost depending on the type of visa required and the country to which emigration is sought.

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For instance, at 550 persons/square kilometre Punjab is one of the most densely populated states in India. It is also relatively prosperous, so that unlike Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, the average farmer can manage to arrange the initial capital that is needed to migrate — usually by either selling off his land or borrowing from banks.

Moreover, transnational migration rarely happens in a vacuum — people do not simply turn up in a strange country thousands of miles away one day to build a new life. Migration patterns build on previous histories of migration so that people follow their kinship or community networks into a new place. With a long history of migration to the West dating back to the colonial period, the Punjabi no longer feels out of place in Birmingham, Toronto, California or Melbourne. The creation of ethnic enclaves over nearly a century of migration means that food, culture, music, language, etc are not missed in the new country.

The demand for cheap Indian labour is a great pull factor too. For instance, North America is facing an acute shortage of long-haul truck drivers — an industry that forms the very backbone of the American and Canadian economies. Being a rough, punishing job with long hours spent away from home, not many locals are willing to take them — an opportunity that Punjabi youth are only too willing to grab. Over the last two years, no less than 30,000 Sikhs from India have entered the US trucking industry.

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Such is the demand for Sikh truck drivers that American trucking companies are disseminating recruitment videos disguised as pop music in Punjab to encourage more Punjabis to join as truckers. Such videos featuring catchy Punjabi lyrics, big cars, lots of bling and of course, the all-important truck narrate tales of the hard-working Punjabi youth making it big in the trucking life, encouraging others to follow. While this has led to a near-total Punjabi dominance of the US trucking industry, the impact of automation and the impending arrival of self-driving trucks is not a conversation most recruiters have with the newly arrived Punjabi youth.

The Cost Of Transnational Migration

As a result of all these factors, such is the rush to migrate each year that for the few thousand visas on offer annually, lakhs of people apply. And those who fail to make it through the proper channels then resort to other, dangerous ways. This means long, treacherous journeys stashed away in trucks and containers, crossing borders illegally on foot, and paying shady middlemen thousands of dollars to avoid detection by border patrols. Many such journeys end tragically — many Punjabi youth have fallen prey to the bullets of border patrolmen and lie today in unmarked graves in foreign lands.

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In January last year, more than 50 migrants from India, almost all of them from Punjab, were arrested by American authorities on the US-Mexico border while trying to cross over illegally into America. All of them had reached the border by walking through the dense jungles of Panama and Costa Rica, before attempting to climb over the border into the US. Fearing deportation, and loss of all that they put into their efforts to migrate, many such detainees claim political asylum in the US on grounds of religious persecution in India. Such claims, almost always fabricated, are nonetheless taken seriously by American authorities, though seldom verified.

The consequences this has besides painting a poor image of India in the host country is that of damaging relations with the diaspora, who unable to assess the situation first hand due to the distances, are more likely to believe the fabricated versions of the illegal migrants and worry about the conditions at home. Such fabricated stories are often picked up by poorly informed media of the host country and propagated without any confirmation of facts on the ground, generating a false image of persecuted citizenry fleeing a country in turmoil.

Transnational Migration — The Global Perspective

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While each year, millions of Indians leave for foreign shores in search of better livelihoods, millions also pour into India from poorer countries in Asia and Africa. When seen as a percentage of its billion plus population, India’s net migration rate is in fact one of the lowest in the world. At 1 per cent, India’s net migration rate (emigrants minus immigrants) is the same as that of the US. The world’s average stands at 3 per cent.

Thus it would take several million more Indians migrating to the West before India catches up with the global emigration rate of 3 per cent. However, given its population, the movement of large numbers of Indians to foreign shores will always raise eyebrows among sceptics. For instance, according to a 2015 UN report, India, along with Mexico, already has the largest numbers of native-born population living in a foreign country.

Historically speaking, droves of people from poorer countries flocking to richer countries have been in fact the bedrock upon which the modern world has been built. For instance, between 1880 and 1920, an estimated 13 million Italians migrated out of Italy to the United States, making Italy the scene of the largest voluntary emigration in world history.

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This was also the period when the US saw its greatest economic expansion, finally emerging as a global superpower after having overcome the pangs of early nationhood. Merely 15 years before the great Italian immigration, America was torn into two by the Civil War. Such luxuries of maturing with time, however, are denied to the nations of the Third World — at the slightest wobble our imminent demise and disintegration are proclaimed by pundits sitting in the developed world.

The Western world, particularly nations of the new world such as the US, Canada and Australia command unique advantages — vast landmasses, small, sometimes tiny populations with little ethnic, linguistic or religious diversity, and great natural resources. Given the particular history through which these nations were formed — an obliteration of the indigenous populations, a complete erasure of indigenous histories and usurpation of their natural resources — these nations were able to build the ideal societies with abundant resources and little diversity.

Unlike in the Third World then, ethnic or linguistic or religious rivalry is not a defining feature of public and political life. They inherited a clean slate, no burden of history, and near inexhaustible natural resources. As the former Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie once put it “if some countries have a problem of too much history, we have one of too much geography”.

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With the second largest land area on the planet, the longest coastline and the third largest oil reserves in the world, Canada is an energy superpower. And yet it is inhabited by only 36 million people, about the same as the population of Jharkhand. Australia’s population has crossed the 25 million mark in 2018, thanks to generous immigration policies, prompting a debate on whether the Island nation can afford to accommodate more people as the 25 million inhabitants are already a strain. 25 million is a little over the number of people living in Delhi-National Capital Region.

Given such great imbalances and unequal pressures, a redistribution of the world’s population is not just inevitable, but also desirable. While countries of the Third World such as India and Bangladesh are packed to the seams, those of the new world such as the US, Canada and New Zealand, are essentially just vast empty spaces.

Moreover, the looming threat of climate change will not affect all nations equally. Colder countries such as Canada and the US will see vast expanses of frozen land thaw out and became available for cultivation besides huge reserves of water and other critical resources being unlocked. The hotter countries of the global south will suffer the opposite — resources drying up, less land available for cultivation and cities becoming unlivable. In short, the advantages on which the nations of the new world came to be are only going to be buttressed by climate change. Whereas the internal conflicts of the nations of the global south could likely worsen as climate change intensifies the competition for already scarce natural resources.

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Towards A New Approach To Transnational Migration

India received more remittances from migrants than any other country in the world. As of 2015, foreign remittances from workers amounted to $69 billion or 3 per cent of India’s gross domestic product. All of this can paint a picture of a society in flux, unrest even, which does not augur well for India’s soft power.

It should also be a cause for concern that in certain regions of India, migrating abroad has remained the only viable option for a social and economic mobility. The flight of precious human capital has assumed the form of exodus in states like Telangana, Punjab and Kerala. As a rising power, this is an exodus India cannot afford. It is time to take stock of the situation and develop a national policy on migration. The fact that each year lakhs of Indian citizens are putting their lives at risk only to fulfill their dreams of building a better life abroad should prompt us to ask ourselves — can these dreams not be fulfilled here?

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The transnational migrant has so far been seen as someone who makes the choice to leave, not as someone on whom the choice is forced upon. This image held true as long as those migrating were the urban middle class. But the current wave of migration out of India is fuelled by peasants and the rural middle class, who are faced with economic dead ends. Reams have been written about India’s farm crisis. Overseas migration is one of the fallouts of the country’s over reliance on agriculture.

The Indian diaspora has always been a precious asset for India on whom the nation has relied, both economically and politically. It is time to ask whether it might not be appropriate to moderate that reliance. A great power, after all, is not one whose citizens must flock to foreign shores to earn a living.

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