Reverse Migration: India's Chance

Recession, uncertainties and difficulties in the immigration process and emerging opportunities in India combined, have created a flow of reverse migration from the United States to India. There is a trickle added to this from the UK, and the dam has burst in Dubai. So, suddenly, Indian cities are full of returnees, with a bit of cash, trying to start a new life all over again.

Though I may soon join them, I knew about the trend reading an essay in Businessweek. The obvious conclusion was that America is no longer the only land of opportunity. Also, the same research, done at Duke University, shows that the people who are returning home to China and India are highly educated, about 35, economically successful and many of them actually are Permanent Residents or Citizens; implying that while immigration difficulties may play a part, this is not the only reason people want to go back.

As this study point out, the better 'quality of life' is the most cited reason for this reverse migration. The charm of staying near one's own family is undeniable. In my own experience, which I have written about previously, the comfort of staying home offers a perfect foil to the stresses and tensions of modern work life, and become particularly appealing when the future looks hazy and the work environment becomes uncertain.

Besides, 'opportunity' is another reason. Vivek Wadhwa, in the essay cited above, points out that while the returnees may be earning less in absolute terms in India and China, that money can buy them more - leading to a better life than back in the United States. This is the concept of Purchasing Power Parity in action. Though prices have risen in India, because labour is still cheap and plentiful, the PPP multiplier hangs on at the figure of 5.5, which essentially means that $1 can buy $5.5 worth in India. This implies that if someone earns $1,000 a month, his lifestyle could be comparable to someone earning $5,500 in America, though this is not necessarily true, as some of the things in his consumption basket, at that level of salary, would be as dear - like the housing or the fuel for the car etc. However, adjusting for those, it will still feel like $4,000 a month or so - a pretty neat lifestyle for someone starting a career.

Considering that most of these returnees are around 35 years of age, the big charm of India is being close to the family particularly when one has one or two young children. Child care is prohibitively expensive in the West, and being close to families will allow most returnees an alternative to full day child care or staying at home. While creches are prospering in India, the grandma, with a driver, often drops the kids off and picks them up again. That makes life a whole lot better for the returning couple.

Besides, I also think schools are better in India than in UK and USA. I am leaving out elite schools - this comparison is between mid-tier schools in these countries and really good schools in India. The Indian education system is improving at the school level, though it remains a disaster [barring a few world class institutions] at the tertiary level. This is actually a common trend one notices all over the world. Once a society becomes prosperous, the focus on science and technology education goes away, and pupils, more often than not, want to focus on softer things - art and music, for example. I must state I have nothing against Art and Music, and I would have loved to have an opportunity when I was at school, but I do think the rigour of education is missing in many Western schools and a good school in India can provide that to children. The ideal configuration for someone studying today is to finish school in India and come to the West for college or research, and many of these returnees will have that in mind.

There is another factor which will prompt me to go back some day. I don't feel welcome in Britain. America may be different, and since I have never visited America, I can not comment. But I know in Britain, there is this implicit xenophobia, and immigrants are all painted in the same brush and seen as terrorists, beggars and barbarians. There is racism, non-whites are not preferred and South Asian looks make a lot of people very uncomfortable. While I earn an above-average salary and therefore pay top rate of tax, it is not uncommon to see someone on tele, who is on benefits himself, complaining about parking spaces in the council parking site because of all the immigrants. There was this TV debate I have seen where representatives of major parties were complaining about the stress on the National Health Service [NHS] because of the immigrants, though they shut up when a labour minister, who happened to be the daughter of a Jamaican nurse who came to work in the NHS in 1950s, reminded them that there will be no NHS without the migrant doctors and nurses.

The benefits of immigration in a society like Britain is plain to see - it gives the residents the lifestyle they have taken for granted for so many years. The last immigrant leaving Britain may as well need to turn off the lights here. Immigration in America is slightly different though: there, immigrants take the lead in innovation and enterprise, along with some brilliant American graduates, and that makes them the most advanced country in the world. And, from whatever I gather, public mood and the populist president has suddenly turned against the immigrants.

Consider what President Obama is saying. He is proposing a significant cut in H1Bs. He is saying it makes absolutely no sense to import nurses and he will throw money at training nurses at home. All politically correct, but historically wrong statements! America is what it is today because it benefited immensely from the European migration in the first half of twentieth century. To maintain its lead, it needs to attract the talents from all over the world and encourage such migration. It actually needs a National Talent Management office. However, they want to shut the doors now and try to be more like China in the late Nineteenth century - good luck to them! For the nurses, it is foolishness, because the President can not fight all the battles together and he has to give money to the banks first if he has to get anywhere in the next three years and win the reelection; and if he delays the money for nurse education for three years and do not allow overseas nurses to come to America, he will anyway lose his reelection and jeopardise a lot of lives on the way.

However, the point of this post is not America, but India - which has once in a century opportunity of returning migrants, and must take advantage of this to become a great nation. These people, educated and entrepreneurial, can turn the economy and bring a new dynamism into it. The country, however, must facilitate this. Lots of people are talking about better roads, schools and hospitals to keep them happy; but that is not the point. These professionals are capable and enterprising enough to build their own roads, schools and hospitals soon. India has to provide them with an environment which allows entrepreneurship and innovation; not the corrupt official who would want to make a quick buck out of an American Babu, not arcane tax codes, not the same legal system where you need to fight your grandson's battles and not the indifferent, criminal political class that extract a disproportionate rent from the economy. But then, I am an optimist. Having met some of these professionals myself, I know that they have boundless energy, enterprise and a love for their country; I hope that they will take all of it in their stride and clear all of it, including politics. I think India is at its inflection point - and we shall see a truly new India, emerging in a few years time.


Unknown said…
This is a great post. I came to the US in 2006 for my MBA. Before that I was a CA in India and worked for about 7 years in India in a global professional services company.

I could not agree more with you about the situation in the US about the anti immigrant sentiment. you always feel like an outsider, in spite of watching football with them, playing golf, you still feel like an outsider. Though the anti immigrant sentiment is not in your face as your post suggests about the UK, it still exists - in universities, on roads, in offices....

In case of job opportunities, I find it so difficult to believe that this country is going away from the very philosophy of welcoming all those opportunity seekers who helped build it. All my international classmates had a very tough time finding internships and jobs while pursuing the MBA. It was mostly the Consulting companies and investment banks who were willing to sponsor visas for internationals. But that was before the recession really hit, now its getting even more difficult.

The other thing is corporations in India seem to be rewarding younger employees with faster career trajectories totally tuned to the performance. In corporate America, even white frat boys have to be closer to 40 before they can get top jobs.

Higher costs, lack of a circle of friends and family with whom you can relate in the US and better growth opportunities in India totally make reverse immigration worthwhile. Its appalling, but at least it makes the decision to move back easier.....

good post,
Thanks Adi. It is not easy to return to India though. I have noted, with some surprise, that Indians treat the non-residents quite differently, compared to, for example, the Chinese. The Chinese diaspora is actually seen as an integral part of the society and a returning non-resident is welcomed warmly. In India, however, the attitude remains quite different. This adds to the various dimensions of reverse migration, which is worth exploring in detail.
Anonymous said…
Nice article, very well written. I use to be a person TOTALLY against R2I however after 4 years of not going back to Mumbai when I went back with my daughter who was 9 months then. I fell in love with Mumbai once again. All the help and love that I was showered with was awesome. Even the regular servants know how to care, change diapers and handle a baby. I was amazed how some low payed nannies do not know all this here in the U.S. Most importantly when I walked into a super market I felt at home and when I walk in here I somehow feel on guard a feeling that was just natural to me in the past 6 years here in the US. I was truly comfortable in India. My food allergies had disapperered. of course I did not eat street food..I never did. But Not me nor my baby fell ill,of course I took the precautions. All were happy..the birds the trees my parents the dhobi the people alll look happy there ;) ..... even in traffic n polution people are HAPPY there. I call it the feeling of Belonging... I Belong there !! Hence we are R2I in Mid 2012 :)
Anonymous said…
I'm from Canada, and with years of experience in oil & gas. Canada is not a racist country per se; however there are undercurrents. Look at a city such as Toronto or Vancouver - more than 50% are non-white; however the senior management in most large organizations based in these cities tends to be white.

We are planning to R2I in 2011, and really looking forward to it.

I know India has a whole lot of issues, but as my wife said "if your parents' home is in a poor part of town, would you feel ashamed going there because it is below your status"?

Life here is very predictable - I leave home at 8.15 and I'm in office by 8.36 (+/- 2 minutes). I live weekend to weekend. Summer is good for road trips and winter is good for winter sports. Everything is very well-defined.

I want the undefined, the uncertain, the explosive variety and colour and noise that is India. Only an Indian can understand why you would give up "all this comfort" for "all that discomfort".
Pradeep said…
The trend needs to be researched and then we can arrive at conclusions, if that is the intent. Migration and reverse migration is cyclic, but the former is an ever growng trend and always surpasses reverse migration. Reverse migration has been dominantly in younger Chinese and Korean migrants and it was largely due to not getting into jobs after a western education. An acceptance issue by host countries. Re location tends to be an individual choice and reflects the level of success one can meet in a given society. Family ties usually are the main drivers to go back. One has to see this in context of the millions who want to migrate overseas. There are several reasons that have emerged as a result of researching into trends. India has followed the west, unfortunately and in several ways without gearing up for change. Yes you do see a new glitzy India and the young rising, but no one talks of the discrimination and racial attitudes within Indian society. I have met people who have gone back after seeing a poor work life culture. Salary alone doesn't make up for it all. In the west, say what you may there is less tension, better healthcare and respect for human life. It is a sad case if one meets with racism ... perhaps a case of wrong place, people and time. Many Indians do hold top posts and are regarded well. It is a personal choice and can not be justification. Good luck to all the R2Is hope they meet their desires. Home is where you pay taxes. Countries are artificial constructs, they always were. Passports are just travel documents. You can find an India anywhere in the world. The world is truly your oyster!

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