April 18, 2018The Printgeopoliticseconomics

NRIs will not move back merely due to US visa controls

When the world’s skilled decide which country to move to, India isn’t one that comes to mind.

The Print This is an unedited cut of my weekly column in The Print (2018-2021)

The Trump administration continues to tighten the United States’ immigration policies. In recent weeks, it has emerged that the administration is considering retracting the provision that allows H4 visa holders (who entered the United States as dependents of H-1B visa holders) to work. This affects around 72,000 spouses (mostly wives), nearly 66,000 of whom are Indians.

In another move, students graduating from US universities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) will now face tighter controls on employment under Optional Practical Training (OPT). This means around 40,000 Indian students will face diminishing employment prospects in the US every year. Not unsurprisingly, Indian enrolment in US universities has fallen by 27 per cent this year.

In response to the Trump administration’s posture, Indian companies have reduced their H-1B applications by as much as 50 per cent, according to some immigration consultants.

All this means that tens of thousands of skilled Indians will find it hard to remain employed in the US, and a lot more will be unable to even go there to work.

Clearly, this is a self-defeating policy for the US. But what does it mean for India?

A few years ago, as the Obama administration was reviewing its immigration policies, a couple of US delegations visited the Takshashila Institution in Bangalore. Since the city shares a nearly umbilical link with the US technology industry and houses companies that depend on being able to send engineers to work on site in the United States, they were interested in getting our opinion on visa policy.

They were taken aback when I told them that India would gain if the US were to tighten visa policy. All else being equal, the same Indian IT companies would serve the same US-based customers, using perhaps the same employees working out of Bangalore. They would stay back in India, pay taxes in India, and raise the standards of the domestic workforce. Some of them would become entrepreneurs and US venture capitalists would fund their start-ups, while they enriched the Indian economy.

That’s an oversimplification and does not factor in the interests and the business models of the large IT service companies that have a large dependency on having people working on site. Yet, the broader picture leaves India potentially better off on a net basis.

The crucial question is this: Is India an attractive place for NRIs to come back to? There is a developing consensus within the government establishment of the need for policies to encourage talented Indians to return to the country. Yet, the contemporary thinking has a fatal weakness: Making India attractive for NRIs alone is not enough.

Even if pay scales were equivalent (say in terms of purchasing power parity), few NRIs would trade the comfort, security and quality of life in a developed country and come back and face the challenges of daily life in India. Despite sentimental links, patriotic feelings and family connections, most NRIs prefer to live abroad. It won’t change because of government schemes, no matter how attractive they are on paper.

So, what’s the trick we are missing? For India to be attractive enough for a significant number of skilled NRIs to come back, it must also be attractive to skilled people in general, regardless of nationality.

That needs a lot of things to change. For one, it needs us to take a hard look in the mirror. I won’t burden you with international indices and rankings relating to quality of life, for we are so low down that it doesn’t matter.

India is not among the countries that comes to mind when one of the world’s skilled persons decides which country to move to. That’s why we shouldn’t expect a significant number of skilled NRIs to come back on their own. (Semi-skilled and unskilled NRIs are even less likely to return if they have a choice, given the vast differences in wage levels and the reasons they emigrated in the first place.)

If the Indian government — and Indian society in general —  begins to think of how to make the country attractive to the world’s skilled people, we’ll find out how to make life easy for our own resident population. Are there good jobs available? Is it a good place to bring up children? Is it safe for women? Do we treat people who don’t look like us’ well? Are basic things like roads, footpaths, electricity, public transport and law enforcement of adequate quality? Is the water safe to drink, the air to breathe? Is it easy to deal with government? This is basic stuff.

As residents we’ve gotten so used to a shabby quality of life that we’ve given up on these, and instead, waste more time discussing and fighting culture wars. If we decide to think about how we could attract foreigners to move to India, we will focus on the most important basic things that really matter to us. So, we won’t be doing favours to the foreigners we want to attract. We’ll be doing favours to ourselves.

Unless foreign governments and international developments push NRIs out, and if there are few other options for them to move to, they are unlikely to want to move back to India in significant numbers. The internet has reduced the emotional distance between NRIs and their homes in India to nearly zero. Indian movies, music, food and community are easily available in foreign countries. Long distance patriotism is possible, as is long distance nationalism. The Modi government is even toying with the idea of long-distance voting. It’ll be even easier to physically live in the comforts of a First World country while being constantly connected to India.

The rest of my The Print columns are here

As I explained to the visiting Americans, India benefits when talented people move back to India. Political developments in the United States and other Western countries against immigration present India with opportunities to reduce the acute shortage of skilled workers in our own economy. To grab them, we have to first open our minds and then open our country to the world’s talented.

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