The Diaspora Story
The Competence Cauldron

The Diaspora Story

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Is a massive diaspora a strength or weakness of the source Nation? Like most strategic queries, the answer could be, “It depends.” The causes and outcomes of outbound migration have serious implications for economic development and social dynamics of nations.

What exactly is understood by the term ‘diaspora’? In simple terms, it refers to well-defined group of migrants and their offspring with a shared cultural identity, though nebulous and tentative in many cases. A broad socio-cultural identification with the country or culture of origin underpins the diaspora. They are often heterogeneous and complex populations. Diaspora has a significant influence on the upward social and economic mobility of the source country population.

Due to a variety of reasons such as demographics, economic compulsions and the search for social and financial security, migration has been a compelling choice for Indians. There is a long and chequered history of outbound migration from India dating back to long before independence. In fact, the diaspora played a major role in catalysing the freedom movement. Business communities from Gujarat and Rajasthan were among the initial migrators in search of commercial opportunities in Africa and the Far East. Traditionally, indented labour from regions as far apart as Bihar and Tamil Nadu used to be drawn to migrate to far-flung locations like Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Fiji.

The lure of offshore employment has been more pronounced in certain regions of the country than others. Access to universal education, history of migration in the society, a tradition of peer-to-peer support, opportunities for vocational training and apprenticeship are key factors making migration a serious option in some sub-cultures in India, in comparison to the other regions. Kerala, Punjab and Tamil Nadu are contemporary migration hubs mainly for the Gulf job markets.

The Indian Diaspora is the largest in the world according to World Migration Report-2020, just released by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an arm of the United Nations specialising in the study of global migration. The report presents the global migration trends during 2019 and discusses various policy implications.

India heads the table of source countries for migration in 2019 with approx. 19 million people who can trace their origin to the country living outside. In the overall global migration stock of 272 million, India holds a share of 6.5%. Mexico and China are home to the second and third largest number of international migrants.

Behaviourally, human beings by nature are most comfortable in their immediate environment. Bulk of the people, excepting those motivated by strong urge for intellectual or material pursuit, would be happy to live among familiar people, breathing the air and relishing the food that they have been used to. The tendency for most people is to align with their sub-regional or sub-cultural moorings. There is a certain clannishness in most people. Yet, it is ironic that nearly three out of four global migrants leave the shores of their parent nation in search of jobs and the consequential economic benefits.

Apart from migration motivated by economic reasons, forced migration due to religious and racial persecution, human trafficking and ‘stateless’ status of some uprooted or nomadic communities account for a sizeable chunk of the international migrants.

There is a limited pool of talented people with specialised skills and capabilities who are wooed by economies with foresight to build sustainable global human capital advantage. United States has been the pioneer in attracting global talent to help build a highly productive, cosmopolitan economy. Canada, New Zealand and Australia, to name three of the major economies, are proving to be attractive destinations for talented youngsters in pursuit of a promising future.

A look at the migrant labour in the Gulf Coordination Committee (GCC) Region of Middle East with origin from South Asia and Africa would amplify the challenges and opportunities of international migration. Economic factors lure large numbers of Indians to the Gulf countries, particularly the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is home to over three million Indians. The number of Indians living in the UAE and other countries in the GCC region like Saudi Arabia and Oman increased four-fold in the space of a decade, from 2 million in 2005 to more than 8 million in 2015.

The GCC region is one of the top destinations for workers, with migrants constituting over 95 per cent of the labour force for construction and domestic work. Among the Indians in the GCC countries, the substantial majority are low-skilled, low-paid labourers, most of them living in cramped labour camps with their dependent families back home. With the ongoing economic slump in the construction and trading sectors of most GCC countries and in the backdrop of increasing social pressures to provide employment to the burgeoning national workforce, the existing model of exporting cheap labour and tapping their remittances followed by the Governments of many South Asian and African countries are coming under increasing strain.

Massive skill development in the emerging domains of digital economy is vital to position our labour in the post-slump recovery phase which would emerge in due course. The nature of skills in demand is getting transformed. It requires proactive preparedness in terms of skill upgrade for India or any other nation with a huge stock of human capital to ride the forthcoming boom as and when that happens. The thrust on domains like ICT, alternative energy, logistics and emerging digital technologies like IoT, Block Chain, Artificial Intelligence, Smart Manufacturing etc. in their growth strategies is a pointer to the future directions of talent demands in UAE and other GCC countries. We need to make sure we offer tomorrow’s talent to meet the emerging needs. It is time to get back to the drawing board for upgrading our vocational training quality to global best-in-class level.

States like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Punjab which have benefited from the earlier wave of migration to the Gulf should take note that the world is not the same as three or four decades ago. With digitalization, there is much more networking, skill upgrade avenues and opening up of markets for talent; therefore, the next wave of global opportunities would be fiercely competed.

Further, we would see more of strategic leveraging by aggressive States like China, Japan and South Korea of their financial and strategic strengths to promote the business interests of their companies around the world; this would result in the talent from these countries gaining preferential access to the emerging global opportunities. We have seen in the past few years, increased presence of Chinese companies and employees riding on their Governmental patronage in many parts of the world, primarily in Asia and Africa.

Governmental facilitation for strengthening of our diaspora competitiveness should, in these circumstances, ideally focus on two areas:

Firstly, skill up-grade in the emerging areas of production and services through world class training, certification and industry linkages.

Secondly, pursuit of government-to-government understandings, project financing through line-of-credit as well as promoting global partnerships and alliances between Indian and Global companies for tapping third country opportunities.

There has been a phenomenal increase in India’s inward remittances from the diaspora over the past few years, from USD 23 billion in 2005 to USD 79 billion in 2018, more than 250% increase in less than 15 years. For the past decade, India has retained the top slot as the economy that receives the highest inward personal remittances. The trickle-down effect on the economy from such massive inward remittances, especially the impact on lifting sizeable population to decent levels of living, is visible in tier 2 and 3 cities and even in rural areas, especially in the South and Punjab. The contribution of Gulf economies in poverty alleviation and aiding upward migration of large number of Indian families to higher standards of living needs to be acknowledged.

The world that we live in, and more definitely the one in which our next generations would live is highly competitive. To succeed as a Nation, we need to have the mindset of a sports person in a power game. Focussed, aggressive and professional.

Political power, economic power and military power form the tripod on which global influence of nations is built. In two out of the three pillars, Indian diaspora does play a key role. In both the US and the UK, Indian diaspora is actively positioning itself in the political arena and enhancing its ability to influence policy directions. In the Gulf Region, Africa and the Far East, Indian business has had a traditional presence. In the digital economy hubs of the US and Europe the diaspora is a name to reckon with. But in the fast-changing global scenario, it requires a determined effort to upgrade skills and remain competitive.

Sociologists note that the diaspora tend to carry the prejudices and biases back home to their host environment. We have read about the internal contradictions and conflicts within the Indian society in South Africa even during the days of Mahatma Gandhi. Indians by and large prefer to seek comfort from the cocooned comfort of narrow ethnicity. Caste, religious and community-based associations are thriving in most diaspora. It is often said half-jokingly that only cricket and Bollywood bring out the Indians in many of us. However, forcing compliance to an imposed sense of nationalism would be counterproductive. The best role any source country Government can play is to appreciate the diversity of its own diaspora, encourage mutuality of support interests and create economic reasons for the diaspora to celebrate success.

The diaspora in the Gulf countries should focus on advancing generational migration through education and tapping global mobility opportunities. The perception of India as a source of cheap, low or unskilled workforce is neither a sustainable model nor a desirable one in the long term. There is no alternative to upskilling, reskilling and multiskilling of our diaspora and the future workforce.

Political correctness is equally important for sustaining and enhancing our strategic weight in the global arena of commerce and employment. An inclusive culture is a great plus when it comes to competing for global opportunities. Diaspora is our strength; any posturing that weakens its strategic edge is not in the National interest.

*Ravi Kumar Pillai is a practising strategy consultant, trainer, coach and mentor based in Trivandrum. He can be contacted at