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Do Indians Want to Leave Home?
Business Journal

Do Indians Want to Leave Home?

An expert on India untangles the complexities of the country's migration

A Q&A with Rajesh Srinivasan, Ph.D., Gallup Regional Director, Asia

Rajesh Srinivasan, Ph.D., is one of Gallup's regional directors for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Asia Pacific. He's also a native of India, one of many smart, ambitious Indians who left home to work overseas. For those reasons, Dr. Srinivasan has a unique perspective on Indian migration patterns: He's in charge of collecting and analyzing the world's most comprehensive and up-to-date assembly of data points that reflect current trends in a tremendously dynamic country -- and he is a migrant himself.

Starting a business in general -- and more so in a country like India -- involves a tremendous amount of risk.

What Dr. Srinivasan sees from his perspective does not match what many people assume about Indian migration. For one thing, 5% of Indian adults would like to leave India permanently if they could, according to Gallup data from 2010. If the past Indian census data are any indication, as many Indians are likely to migrate within the country's borders than to leave the country permanently -- if not more.

There's a lot those data points leave unsaid, which is why Srinivasan's insights -- such as the characteristics of people who migrate, the challenges they face, and the help they get along the way -- are so valuable. In the following conversation, Dr. Srinivasan talks about what he sees when he goes back to India, what he's found in the Gallup data, and what most people don't know about Indian migration.

GMJ: Before we get into why people migrate in and out of India, can you tell me what causes people to even consider it?

Rajesh Srinivasan, Ph.D.: I've always thought the notion of migrating is laden with risk, and the objective for anyone who's a potential migrant is to try to minimize that risk. Having family or friends elsewhere will definitely increase a potential migrant's sense of security, but nevertheless, it's a risky proposition. So I was looking for signs that would provide any indication that the people who want to leave are people who are willing to accept higher levels of risk.

GMJ: Did you find anything?

Dr. Srinivasan: When looking at the India data from 2010, the strongest correlate I found was that the desire to leave the country is higher among people who say they want to start a business. Among those planning to start a business, 18% say they would like to leave the country, while 4% among those who don't want to start a business say they would like to leave. Starting a business in general -- and more so in a country like India -- involves a tremendous amount of risk. So it's almost as if people who have high risk tolerance have the potential to be migrants because they want to be in a new environment, learn new things, figure out how things work, and succeed.

GMJ: Does the business climate in India have anything to do with that impulse?

Dr. Srinivasan: Traditionally, people have argued that to be the case. However, our data doesn't support that hypothesis. At the overall level, those desiring to leave the country still rate business conditions in India -- such as the availability of a trusted business partner, whether paperwork is accessible, and whether it is easy to obtain a loan to start a business -- better than those planning to stay in the country. Fundamentally, it appears that those who want to leave the country are a different breed; they are more optimistic, they expect to accomplish greater things, and they are very determined and hardworking with clear goals. These are many of the same things you would also expect in anyone interested in starting a business.

Among the more educated, some may feel that they have a great idea, but the conditions in India are not conducive for them to actually succeed in business. So they may want to leave and explore those options elsewhere, maybe in Singapore or in North America, where there's already a trail that has been blazed by others. Among those who don't have as much education, some may feel quite desperate that they can't find a job, or the right job, so they want to start a business. They recognize it's going to be tough starting a business in India, but by seeking opportunities to create an export or trading business with partners in countries like Malaysia or Singapore, they are opening up doors to travel overseas and maybe move permanently eventually.

GMJ: But how do potential migrants get information about opportunities in other countries?

Dr. Srinivasan: Usually from their social networks. Migrants get much of their information from someone in their community who has already left -- somebody from their household or neighborhood, or maybe somebody they know who knows someone who migrated. I'll give you an interesting example: The last time I lived in India, I had the privilege of being able to hire a driver. I say privilege because typically it's pretty expensive to have a personal car and even more expensive to have someone driving you around.

Migrants get much of their information from social networks -- from someone in their community who has already left.

GMJ: So why did you do it?

Dr. Srinivasan: Because I was scared to drive in India. I didn't want to get killed or injure somebody else. My driver was a really nice guy and stayed with me the full five years I was there. When I was getting ready to leave, he was desperate to leave too, so he asked me if I could write a recommendation letter for him to find job as a driver in Singapore. I was happy to write a recommendation letter for him, but I couldn't see why he'd want to leave.

So I asked him why he needed to go to Singapore, because he could easily find a job in India. He said, "I hear that my window of opportunity for going to Singapore is closing very quickly. They have quotas, but they need drivers, and they pay much better; they take good care of you. And if I send money back as remittance, it amounts to a lot more than what I can earn working here, even for a nice boss." So I asked him how he knew it wasn't a scam, and he said, "Two of my friends went there, and they're still working there -- that's how I got my information."

In other words, there was a network of people passing information about cab driving opportunities around the world. These guys have good networks, and the information flows back about what works and what doesn't. If someone comes back because they were abused, that information is shared. They use these networks to support each other and gain more information, and these networks keep expanding. If you are an unskilled or semi-skilled worker, you will be relying heavily on information and social networks like these to decide about those opportunities.

GMJ: That seems awfully risky. Is it possible to find a job and a house and to know who the bad guys are just from a friend of a friend in Malaysia?

Dr. Srinivasan: Typically, yes. It does involve a fair amount of risk assessment. And in many of these countries, including India, there is a significant presence of middlemen. Many of them are registered, legitimate entities, though they're perhaps more organized in countries such as the Philippines, where there's an excellent information bureau that provides information about where to go, where not to go, the record of human rights abuses, availability of job opportunities, salaries, those kinds of things.

Still, migrants know that they are taking a chance; it won't be perfect, it won't be 100% guaranteed that the experience will be pleasant or even worth it. Sometimes they have to rationalize, saying, "I'll be gone just two years and make some money, and that will be good enough for me to come back. Or maybe I'll get lucky and have an excellent experience and I won't come back." But I don't think the decision to emigrate is based on a long-term perspective, particularly when you're talking about a semi-skilled or unskilled worker.

Now, if you're talking about more educated people applying for a job with a foreign company, they may have a very different perspective. They know why they're going and that they have a unique skill set. In that case, the company isn't hiring cheap labor; it's acquiring intellectual capital. From that perspective, such migrants have greater leverage, better information, and more security because they know the decision to continue or quit is entirely up to them.

GMJ: But 5% of Indians say they'd like to migrate from India if they could, right?

Dr. Srinivasan: Yes, but I think the percentages belie the fact that India has a very large population -- about 1.2 billion as of last census, and that's about 10 years old. So that 5%-7% represents a lot of people in absolute numbers. But it also comes from certain pockets of the country. That 5% isn't distributed uniformly across the entire country. Certain regions, such as the western or parts of southern India, exhibit a larger proportion of people who desire to migrate. And there are historical and structural reasons for that; the presence of ports and access to other countries all have some impact in terms of a person's position and his or her exposure to other countries.

The migration pattern is typically rural to urban, which has been the flow of human beings ever since development started.

And in India, there's a lot more internal migration than external migration. According to the last census, about 30% of the total population were internal migrants. There were about twice as many women migrating, by the way, as men. And most of the men migrated in their own state, while 90% of the women moved to a different state -- but that's mostly because women are more likely to move for marriage than men are.

GMJ: When Indians migrate within India, where do they go?

Dr. Srinivasan: The migration pattern is typically rural to urban, which has been the flow of human beings ever since development started. These migrants are looking for opportunities, for something that will improve their personal or their family's situation, and typically that means moving away from agriculture and toward other kinds of jobs. Those jobs are not available in rural areas, so they would have to migrate to urban areas, and they use a social and information network just as external emigrants do. Somebody from the household goes, tests the water, finds out what is working, then starts bringing the rest of the family one at a time. That's why you see large groups of families migrating.

There are also migrant workers, construction workers typically, who may not be permanently migrating, just moving from small villages to urban areas to work during seasonal periods. They'll go a thousand or two thousand kilometers just to find jobs. They keep migrating until the season ends. Then they go back home and stay for a few months. This is the typical pattern we find in China too, where the proportions are even larger in terms of internal migration.

GMJ: Is the same scenario true for those who leave the country?

Dr. Srinivasan: No, because it's very expensive to leave. Often, it requires so much money that most people, even if they want to leave, give up on the idea. And the documentation required makes it far more difficult for the outward migration flow to be as large as the internal. For example, when I left India, I had to show a copy of my master's degree before a stamp was applied to my passport saying I was free to leave. India has imposed these kinds of conditions to protect people from getting into trouble. Presumably, their desire to move is based on their ability to find another job, to do something productive rather than get into trouble.

GMJ: Do people leave India for financial reasons?

Dr. Srinivasan: I think a large part is the perception that life outside will be better than life inside. Whether the motivation is financial, material, or otherwise, it's safe enough to assume that most people are leaving for a better life, however they define that better life. I say this because many may think that a better life cannot be possible if it means being separated from their family. But some Indians would say it's fine. I could be gone for four years, give my children a better education, and earn enough money to come back and then be with my family. However, if I were to continue working a menial job or a government job in India, I would never be able to earn enough money to provide for them.

And it's easier now to migrate -- or at least, it's less painful -- than it used to be. Technology has made communication a lot easier, so people can stay in touch. But it's also easier to move. If people didn't know much about what was happening in a foreign country, fear may have kept them from wanting to move. But now, they can pick up the phone or get on Skype and communicate everything that's going on in their lives, which reduces the fear of those left at home. Technology is really creating a borderless world.

GMJ: You'd think exposure to "Jersey Shore" would kill all desire to leave India and migrate to America.

Dr. Srinivasan: We haven't seen that yet -- at least, it hasn't happened in India. If anything, Western media exposure, pop culture, all of those things have only strengthened the desire to want to migrate. When migrants return, they say that life in America isn't like it is on TV, but no one believes it.

-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison

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