A report released on January 15 by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimates that India has the highest number of international migrants in the world. It found that last year 18 million Indians were living abroad, followed by Mexico 11 million, Russia 11 million, China 10 million, and Syria 8 million. It estimates that 10 million or 1 crore Indians emigrated abroad in the period 2000–10.

Traces exist of the earliest human beings migrating from place to place in search of food, water and safety. When we learnt to raise livestock and crops, villages and towns whose traces we can recognise came into being. We migrated from village to village, from village to town, or from town to village in order to live. International migration too has occurred for many centuries, by people dreaming of a better life, living with family, or fleeing the deadly effects of wars, violence or ecological destruction.

There are two types of international migration from India: first, workers who are categorised as ‘unskilled’ or ‘semi-skilled’ and who migrate mostly to the Gulf countries. Second, the semi-skilled workers, professionals, students who migrate to the advanced capitalist countries.

Indian emigrants have gained and lost for themselves and their country at the same time. During the freedom struggle, they not only provided financial support but also gave birth to the Gaddar Movement, making a valuable and commendable contribution to the country’s independence from British rule. To date most emigrants to the Gulf send money home to their families. Even some first-generation emigrants to the advanced capitalist countries send money to their families, but the trend is rapidly declining now.

With remittances earned from abroad, the families of international migrants prospered, and could contribute to the development of their provinces and country. The knowledge gained by emigrants from India about the economic progress made in other parts of the world, and the social, cultural, political values of other societies, also benefited the country.

Yet the list of what international migrants from India have lost and are losing outweighs what they have gained.

Studies by Gurinder Kaur and colleagues, and other researchers show that most of the Upper Caste or General Category people in the country have migrated to the advanced capitalist countries, while most of the Scheduled Caste and Backward Class people have migrated to the Gulf.

Due to the high cost of international migration, and the lack of land and resources for most people from Scheduled Caste or Backward Class families, their participation in international migration is relatively low.

To cover the cost of migration, emigrants’ families must take loans from institutional and non-institutional sources and sell land, plots, houses, vehicles, farm machinery, jewellery, livestock and much else besides. Household savings have to be used and help or advance money taken from relatives and friends and employers.

There is a gap between the migration expenditure incurred and remittances made by international migrants, which directly brings to light the flow of capital out of the country. This is likely to increase in the near future. As a result, many families of international migrants are in debt.

The proportion of educated people among international migrants is high and steadily increasing. These individuals range from secondary school to PhD degree holders. Their emigration clearly highlights the ongoing problem of ‘brain drain’ from India. The immense power and resources of society have been used for their upbringing and education, but it is benefiting the foreign countries.

Of emigrants who leave on student visas, most have a low level of education abroad and a large number of them do physical work which they would never do in their home country. Although some religious institutions and philanthropists abroad do help those who have left the country, most NRI businessmen do not have the slightest mercy on their lives and behave with them like the leafless, rootless Amarbel vine.

Another downside of international migration from India is the emigrants’ age. The vast majority of international migrants are in the 15-45 age group. This is the age at which the energy to work is high. This age group is considered to be the country’s demographic dividend. The more people of this age live and work elsewhere, the more it will hamper the country’s progress due to a lack of efficiency and vigour.

There will also be a decline in the participation of their families in various institutions. This is clearly visible.

Among the various reasons for international migration from India, the most prominent is the absence of employment opportunities and the very low level of employment available. After independence and during the ‘planning era’ from 1951-80, public sector enterprises were established, expanded and developed, which resulted in good quality employment to many workers and reduced economic inequalities in the country.

After 1980, planning was reversed to the extent that when the second NDA government took over it established a NITI Aayog in place of the Planning Commission. The ‘New Economic Policies’ of liberalization, privatization and globalization adopted in the country since 1991 have widened the economic disparities between the richest 1% and the remaining 99%, reducing not only employment opportunities for ordinary workers but also the quality of employment.

Governments and the corporate world in many parts of the world are promoting the market as a lifeline to alleviate economic woes. The Great Depression of the 1930s and the events that followed at various times prove that the unbridled market system is causing the most economic problems.

In India for instance, about 50% of people depend on agriculture for their livelihood but get only about 16% of the national income. Due to the state’s agricultural policies, almost all farmers with small or marginal landholds, farm labourers and rural artisans are dying due to the unbearable burden of debt and extreme poverty, or starvation, or even taking their lives when all hopes for life are dashed.

For these reasons, a large number of children of farmers are migrating to foreign countries. The three laws recently pushed through Parliament by the Union government will further increase the international migration of families dependent on the agricultural sector.

Employment opportunities in the industrial sector too are steadily declining. Mechanization and the increasing use of automated machinery are the major reasons behind this decline. There are few employment opportunities in the services sector, and the quality of employment for most services workers is very low.

Given the brain drain, capital drain, loss of demographic dividend and other problems stemming from international migration from India, the need of the hour is to adopt a pro-people and pro-nature model of economic development, in place of the corporate economic model. In order to do so, it is necessary to raise taxes on the richest 1% and ensure that the income collected is used for the benefit of the people.

It is necessary also to expand and develop the public sector and ensure monitoring and control over the functioning of the private sector. All forms of employment and its quality should be enhanced in the country and the best performing units in this regard should be encouraged in various ways.

In order to raise the level of our demographic dividend, major reforms in education and health services are needed. All citizens must be provided with free quality education and health services by their governments. Governments must also expand the scope of social security measures to ensure that everyone in the country can live a happy and respectable life.

Dr Gian Singh is former Professor, Department of Economics, Punjabi University, Patiala