Opinions Column: One World, One Family

By Annavajhula J.C. Bose, PhD; Department of Economics, SRCC (University of Delhi)

That there are two kinds of humans, natives and migrants, and that these must struggle for supremacy is a false story line. None of us is a native of the place we call home. We are all migrants now. In fact, as Mohsin Hamid points out, right from the beginning in Africa, the mother continent to us all, humans have been a migratory species; they have always moved: “Our ancestors did, and not linearly, like an army advancing out of Africa in a series of bold thrusts, but circuitously, sometimes in one direction, then in another, borne along by currents both without and within. Our contemporaries are moving—above all from the countryside to the cities of Asia and Africa. And our descendants will move too. They will move as the climate changes, as sea levels rise, as wars are fought, as one mode of economic activity dies out and gives way to another.”

Professor Chinmay Tumbe of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad has written the first book on the history of both internal and international migration and voluntary and involuntary migration related to India. In doing so admirably, he has also done a great social service in conveying the message that “India should embrace the tide of rising mobility that would add to its diversity. The leading personalities of Indian history were almost always migrants, who spent over half of their life outside their place of birth, exposed to new and different ideas precisely because they moved. As a migrant, the least one should be able to do is respect the cultures and sensibilities of the society one enters, maybe even learn the local language. As natives, a tolerance to peaceful outsiders without violence is the best way to enrich one’s society.” In the ideological battle of the 21st century between cosmopolitanism and nativism, we should choose the former, and “by accepting this wisdom, we would only reinforce that age-old Indian belief, engraved in the entrance hall of the parliament of the world’s largest democracy: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam—the world is one family.”

Some salient pointers from Tumbe’s work are as follows.

Indian “migration has been highly circulatory and clustered in nature since long. Certain parts of India have experienced mass migration histories for centuries while other regions have been bypassed or have only recently witnessed signs of rising spatial mobility. Science and technology mattered in terms of the railways, steamboats and communications services that propelled spatial mobility in the late 19th century. Mobility in India—internal and external—also closely followed the logic of globalization, rising in the late 19th century and early 20th century and then again towards the end of the 20th century.”

“The most remarkable aspect of Indian migration concerns itself with international migration. Standard development theory would predict India to be a country of net emigration  and yet, since independence, emigration has been balanced by immigration from the relatively poorer neighbouring countries of Nepal and Bangladesh. In every decade between 1971 and 2011, India was, in fact, a country of net immigration.”

Bihar as a poorest state and Kerala among the richest states have experienced similar rates of outmigration, defying simplistic assumption that poverty is the main driver of migration, especially from rural to urban areas. The common reason actually lies in the extremely high rate of rural population density that simply cannot support enough livelihoods in the agricultural sector.

Migration, internal and external, alleviates poverty in the source regions through financial remittances. But the evidence is conflicted on the question of whether migration improves the condition of the migrants in places they move to. The average urban slum-dweller in India is better off than counterparts of the same social group in villages, though. “In short-term seasonal migration streams dominated by the poorer segments of the Indian population towards harvesting operations and construction work, remittances are scarce, savings are limited, debts are high and the economic returns to migration are low.” In contrast, semi-permanent circular migrations through social networks are instances of ‘accumulative’ migration. On balance, it seems migration has been an important route out of poverty through livelihood diversification. Inter-state inequalities have widened as international remittances are directed to the relatively more developed states, and remittances are also sent primarily by semi-permanent and permanent migrants who are drawn from the relatively richer segments of the Indian population.

The act of internal and international migration is linked with the beginning of social emancipation. In other words, migration tends to narrow down caste based inequalities. It is also an important pathway to upward mobility through entrepreneurship. The low-ranking castes of India exhibit the lowest rates of semi-permanent or permanent migration both in internal and international migration streams because of limited informational networks that restrict access to new jobs and destinations.

India has been supplying brains to other parts of the world since the 1960s. The tremendous success of highly skilled Indian emigrants has benefited India through remittances. Also, the rapid growth of India’s IT and health sector enterprises was facilitated by close contacts with the latest developments occurring in the rich world via the high-skilled Indian diaspora. And most importantly, the very same educational institutions that sent their best and brightest outside India, successfully reached out to their overseas alumni for money, ideas and inspiration. The same holds good for the lesser known ‘brain drain’ that occurs within the borders of India. Brain drain, internal or external, should not be seen as a negative phenomenon. Instead, we must address the best ways to connect with and leverage the success of the highly skilled Indian diaspora, inside and outside.

Trafficking represents one end of the spectrum of female migration in India. At the other end, women have also moved by their own volition for work and become successful.

The anti-migrant agitations or nativist and discriminatory movements within India and abroad are more often than not a convenient ruse for political gain, based on little or faulty evidence with regard to stealing native jobs. They have to be understood in terms of cultural differences, usually in terms of language, religion and race. Note that nativist movements have rarely occurred in regions which themselves have experienced outmigration, such as Gujarat or Punjab, which also received a large number of internal migrants.

In the past two decades, there has been a surge in internal and international mobility in India. Given high north-south wage differentials, and since south India will also age faster than north India, there will be a lot of southward migration. There will be greater migration from Bangladesh into India as Bangladesh is a low-lying area that is highly prone to the downside of climate change and erratic weather. In the context of India’s economic growth, more and more expatriate migrants will come from North America and Europe into Indian metropolitan centres.

As Prashant Tewari points out, India now has the largest ‘diaspora’ in the world, and these people of Indian origin constitute a crucial cog in the wheel of India’s development through not only regular remittances but also through lavish spending when they come to India, through donating to domestic charities, and bringing technical and domain expertise to domestic startups and often acting as angel investors. Diaspora Indian faculty abroad volunteer time and resources to help faculty on Indian campuses improve the quality of education. The Indian government must recover the investment made on educating migrants before they leave for greener shores by asking the rich countries that they kick back a portion of the income tax revenues they collect from the Indian diaspora. This is fair because these countries did not invest anything in creating this talent but benefit immediately when the immigrant pays taxes abroad. If negotiations fail, India should approach the WTO to argue that developing countries must be officially compensated for the human capital they export. In fact, human capital is India’s best export to the world!

To conclude, India is now witnessing considerable immigration, internal migration and emigration—all three at the same time. In this milieu, we must shun the dirty politics of native vs. migrant, and embrace cosmopolitan moorings and pluralistic traditions implied in what B.R. Ambedkar had said thus: “An ideal society should be mobile, should be full of channels for conveying a change taking place in one part to other parts.”


Chinmay Tumbe. 2018. India Moving: A History of Migration. Penguin.

Mohsin Hamid. 2019. In the 21st Century, We are All Migrants. National Geographic. August.

Prashant Tewari. 2019. Brain Drain or Gain: NRI Contributions to India. Opinion Express. 27 (2). February.

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