14 September 2016


11 September 2016

India got relatively little play in the international media during the G-20 summit held in Hangzhou, China, earlier this week. This is hardly surprising. With a miffed China and an equally irascible Russia trying to assert their clout against a perceived gang-up by the western democracies, it was hardly likely that the mundane issues confronting a relatively stable India would get much play. Even from the tabloid point of view, the absence of a red carpet for United States President Obama and the war of words between overbearing American officials and their prickly Chinese hosts warranted more attention.

However, the G-20 summit received a fair measure of attention in Europe for all the wrong reasons. It coincided with results of an election in the German province of Mecklenberg-Vorpommern, the home state of Chancellor Angela Merkel. The outcome was a grave personal setback to the Chancellor who has earned a reputation as a safe pair of hands. Her Christian Democratic Union was pushed from second to third place. The big gainer was the relatively new Alternative for Deutschland, a pro-national sovereignty and anti-immigration party that won 20.8 per cent of the popular vote. It was widely agreed that the vote was directly linked to the backlash against Germany’s magnanimous but highly controversial decision to admit nearly one million refugees from Iraq and Syria. A decision lauded in liberal circles last year received a resounding thumbs down from German voters.

The second issue was the statement by the new British Prime Minister Theresa May that she wasn’t terribly enthused by the suggestion, mooted by the likes of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and other pro-Brexit stalwarts, to introduce an Australian-style points based immigration policy for the United Kingdom. Instead, suggested May, even after the UK left the European Union, it would continue to give preferential rights to potential immigrants from the EU.

Prime Minister May’s attempt to allay the fears of many workers from Eastern Europe who are now part of the contemporary British landscape may have been large hearted. However, it immediately invited a torrent of criticism from Conservative MPs fearful that, under the guise of “Brexit means Brexit”, the new Prime Minister may be trying to cut a deal with the EU that will leave the contentious issue of immigration into the UK unaddressed. It was felt that May was trying to blunt the referendum verdict earlier this year.

Apart from the UK and Germany, the cultural upheavals resulting from non-European immigration has unsettled France and contributed to the ridiculous Burkhini controversy. Politicians fighting on anti-immigration platforms have also made headway in Austria, Hungary, Holland and even the Scandinavian countries.

Finally, in the United States, it is acknowledged that the rise of Donald Trump can be directly linked to the white fear that Hispanic and Muslim immigration is changing the social character of the country unrecognisably.

It is in the context of a rising interest in tight immigration controls that a report in The Times (London) on September 6 caught my attention. Talking about the apparent unpopularity of Brexit among world leaders, but particularly US, Japanese and Chinese investors, the report suggested that May must have received a frosty reception from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India, it was suggested — without any corroborative evidence — was apprehensive that tighter immigration controls would affect Indians.

I don’t think there is any hard information to suggest that India has officially reacted to the rising tide of anti-immigration sentiment in the West. Brexit too has not unnerved Indian investors and there is a sense that bilateral trade negotiations with the UK will be more rewarding than the interminably inconclusive trade negotiations with the EU. However, there is a template belief, often encouraged by India itself, that all economic negotiations involving India has to factor in the demand for greater access to Indian workers and professionals.

That the Indian economy has been over-dependent on the earnings of its citizens overseas, but particularly in West Asia, US and UK, is not in any doubt. The remittances to India from an estimated 2.5 crore Indian citizens and peoples of Indian origin amount to a staggering US$70 billion. In the early days the inflow into India was mainly the contribution of blue-collar workers. Today there is an impressive contribution from high-earning Indian professionals. In international trade talks India has often taken the position that the free movement of capital must be complemented by the free movement of labour.

As an intellectual exercise, this equation of capital and labour may have its charms but given the mood in the West, it is unlikely that there will be too many takers for the linkage. The West is moving towards greater free trade but more restrictive immigration.

On its part, India too is pushing its Make in India initiative aimed primarily at generating employment at home and providing international exposure to domestic entrepreneurs. In this bid to add value to domestic economic activity, the export of highly skilled Indian professionals to foreign shores ends up adding to the country’s skill deficit. It is one thing to export unskilled labour but there is little justification in facilitating a brain drain at this juncture.

Till 1991, India had no choice but to also enhance its status as a money order economy. But today every professional leaving India is a net loss whose value cannot be measured by the $70 billion inward remittances.

It is time that India appreciated the compulsions of the anti-immigrant mood in the West and turned it to its own advantage. An intellectual shift in India’s position on global labour mobility is overdue.

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