Reverse Migration: Revisiting the Idea

I wrote about Reverse Migration at various times on this blog, and it is interesting to read these back posts now to see how my views have changed over time. 

First, in 2009, when Vivek Wadhwa made the case first, I was excited about India's opportunity and wrote Reverse Migration: India's Chance. My point was that the relatively unaffected Indian Economy would benefit from the phenomena of global Indian talent returning home because of the Great recession.

However, India's economy stalled thereafter. But even before that, returning Indians would stumble onto my blog post and wrote about their experiences, mostly of disappointment. I also realised that I misread how open India would be to the phenomena - I was subject to resident Indians' ire for assuming that these returners would be, should be, given a red carpet return, because they did not stick around to make India's prosperity happen. The arguments, strangely enough, were the usual arguments one made against economic migrant, and my correspondents were insistent that the returners should be treated as economic migrants and nothing more.

It is interesting for me now to re-read a subsequent post I made on the subject, Reverse Migration: Is India Ready Yet? where the mood was far more circumspect. The conversations, as well as my own intense experiences with India (I spent a considerable amount of time traveling in India on work between 2008 and 2010), made me aware of the challenges one faced as a Returner. 

My approach on the subject has very much been shaped by these conversations. Recently, when I was drafted in to be in a committee overseeing a philanthropic project to fund returning experts to Africa, I was careful to raise the point of selecting the appropriate host communities (See this, Reverse Migration: Good or Bad?) In my research, I gathered information about the different approaches to diaspora the Indians and the Chinese usually takes, and this further emphasised my thinking that returning to India was unusually hard.

The contrast between the Chinese and the Indians is particularly interesting. Kishore Mahbubani of  National University of Singapore hit the nail on the head when he said that China might be a closed society but it had an open mind, but India, despite being an open society, had a closed mind. The context of this comment was how Deng Xiao Ping made it a deliberate policy to learn from the successful overseas Chinese, whereas the Indians would rather keep their diaspora out of the way. And, I suspected that this closed mind phenomena actually makes returning to India unusually hard, because one is faced with an usual litany of 'it doesn't work here' arguments rather than engaging into any conversation if there could be a better way of doing things.

It is undeniable that I have a personal angle to this debate. I remain one of those migrants who lives with a never-ending quest of return. Most of my projects and work since 2007 were one way or the other focused on India. My conversations, on this blog and elsewhere, often centers around Indian education and economy. And, besides, living within a community of migrant Indians, this discussion surfaces all too often. And, from this perspective, I understand the limitations of the economic migrant thesis: Most people who wish to return may not be economic migrants desperate for a job, but emotional ones, returning to their families, and by doing so, they are indeed reaffirming their Indianness by making economic sacrifice for this very Indian way of life, caring for one's parents. Also, most people who make that return journey often become entrepreneurs, in the quest of changing the place around them in the model of their own experiences. In either case, India has very little to fear from these returners, I tend to think; their enthusiasm about change may be a bit unsettling, but they are, as experiences of last few years have proved, often the catalyst of positive change (India's IT industry will not happen without them).

After 2014, when India's polity changed completely and economic development, based on infrastructure and urban development, was firmly put on the agenda, it is time to revisit India's approach to reverse migration. There is a global flight of the creative class, as Richard Florida rightly argues, from inhospitable places to worldwide creative hubs; and indeed, the post-recession development patterns may not be shaped by pre-recession ones of cheap production in emerging economies for developed world consumption, but rather the development concentrated around the creative hubs of London, New York, Shenzhen and others, with the rest of the world turning into hinterland. If India's economic development has to restart, it has to attract some of the global Indian talent back into its fold (and indeed, global talent), and this will hardly happen without an opening of Indian mind. 

This is paradoxical for India's new government, which has promised economic development. However, at the same time, the ruling party has a social agenda for closed society, one that is about returning to ancient values and based on the rejection of western ideas. This is hardly the base on which creative economies could be built. The tycoon-driven economic development models that so many other developing countries have followed are usually socially unsustainable: One should see this from the experiences of Thailand, Mexico and now Brazil. A new model based on creative entrepreneurialism, in my view, remains the best prescription for India's development: Reviewing the idea of Reverse Migration may be extremely timely from that perspective.



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