A New Asian Migration Policy

It is now common to find one or two Western interns working in my newspaper’s cubicle farm in New Delhi. Another group of older workers can be found in the management floors. Just a few years ago, a fellow Indian newspaper was forced to evict a young American female because the home ministry refused to give her a work visa. The argument: why would a middle class Westerner want to work for Indian wages unless there was some ulterior motive?

A new study shows how China’s economic boom and ageing population has meant that it is becoming a magnet for foreign migrants. About half the legal ones are the professional expat population you find in any large city in the emerging economic world. The other half are Koreans, Vietnamese and whatnot looking for low-paying jobs.

“Official figures suggest that, overall, some 2.85 million of the 26.11 million foreigners who entered China in 2007 came for employment purposes. Of these, more than half a million were workers in joint ventures or wholly foreign-owned firms,” says a study by the Migration Policy Institute.

India doesn’t have an age problem, yet. But it does have a huge skills shortage. Indian firms building new airports had to import Chinese workers to erect those huge glass walls because there weren’t enough Indian workers who could do the job. Expats are being hired by Indian firms in increasing numbers for all sorts of niche professional skills– even software work.

As an article recently noted, the number of foreign work permits issued by Indian consulates in the US in 2010 was 22,262. If the embassy in Washington is included, the final figure should be close to 30,000 – almost three times the figure for 2008. Throw in the people of Indian origin card-holders who work in India and the number of Americans who came to India to work last year was at least 42,000 calculates this article. About the same number, it points out, as the number of H-1B visas the US issues to Indians.

The total number of legal foreign workers in India must run into hundreds of thousands. Remember that New Delhi expelled some 25,000 Chinese workers in 2009-10 over visa infractions. Which gives an idea of how many Chinese workers are being imported by India.

While these days it would be rarer to hear of a home ministry official refusing a work permit simply because he couldn’t believe a white person would want to work in India, New Delhi is perpetually making life difficult for foreign residents with strange and convoluted rules. This reflects the lack of any serious policy-making framework for migrants. Migration in India has been seen as being about illegal Bangladeshi and legal Nepali worker movement into the country, plus some Tibetans, Myanmarese and so on.

India needs to start putting together a more sensible migration policy. As its economy grows and its skills gaps widen, at least in the short term, the country will need to work out something more sensible than what it has today.

There is another issue it needs to be working on: a refugee, or asylum, policy. India has a haphazard one that works for the Tibetans and their ilk. But it may need to work out something better in preparation for a possible economic and political crisis in Pakistan that results in thousands of its people trying to leave. At the very least, India should have an open door to nuclear scientists and other “strategic” workers.



Copyright © 2011 Hindustan Times.

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