India’s IT Diaspora: No homesick Blues

There are 500,000 unfilled jobs in the IT sector in India. To fill the gap, its government wants many in diaspora in the Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the west to return home. But they aren’t.


Every now and then The Economist news magazine publishes a special report on India. In a recent addition there was a piece that dealt with how people from India have settled abroad. The diaspora remits $70 billion each year to its home country, the magazine reports, adding “up to 3.5 percent of India’s GDP.”

And not only that, according to statistical evidence, some 150,000 people from India arrive each year in the U.S., of which 90 percent stay permanently. Today, a major proportion of them are no longer the stereotypical small shop or motel owner but rather IT professionals.

The Economist correctly points out that America slurps in “highly skilled graduates as fast as India can produce them.” India's colleges produce some 800,000 graduates each year, but how many of them are properly educated, and how many of these are actually employable? Another number offers an astounding answer: in India’s IT and IT enabled services market segment, 500,000 jobs remain unfilled.

This is largely owed to India’s education system that has for a long time emphasized theoretical sciences and neglected applying knowledge and thereby developing know-how. This has started to improve in recent years. But to bear fruit at a large scale it will take possibly one generation’s time (25 years).

People from India leave their home country only to land in an Indian community elsewhere. This means that some people of Indian origin do not feel motivated to become members of the mainstream society in their new country of residence. Mingling with fellow Indians in diaspora stay mentally and emotionally connected with their “desh,” the commonly used Hindi word for nation, country and soil.

Of course, some enjoy life abroad so much they don’t want to go back to live in India. With every trip back home to visit family and friends they begin to see that they are now living in a much more comfortable place. Domestic life and your interaction with public administration in highly industrialized countries usually is far better organized and reliable than in India. And professionally you are measured more on merit than status or heritage.

It is these members of the Indian diaspora that the government of India tries to lure to return to the homeland and contribute their bit to help India industrialize. But with mixed success. The bait does not seem to meet the diaspora’s taste.

When India calls back its children, the sounding love and charm comes with a side taste of guilt and liability. You’re left clueless how to respond, not even snappishly.

This is how I’ve felt on several occasions when traveling in India. In 2007 I flew to Bhavnagar, my mother’s native small town, now a bustling city with 2.8 million inhabitants. I had not been there before as it is not on the beaten track of contemporary international business (it was an important port city at a time long gone). That December, however, I gave myself good reason to go there.

Being part of the small Indian diaspora in Switzerland myself, I felt the need to find relatives I hadn't imagined might even exist.

Someone had told me to visit the small town of Talaja and to ask around, a roadside fruit vendor advised me to call on the place’s unofficial mayor who took me to an aged lady clad in a white sari and with a fresh glow in her eyes. Sitting on a traditional swing in the courtyard of her house she revealed to me that she was my late grandparents’ matchmaker. She gave me the mobile phone number of someone in Bhavnagar and said: “You’ll enjoy this.”

So I drove three hours from Talaja to Bhavnagar, called that number and was guided to a dire alley in a picturesque old residential quarter. I entered the house that had been described to me, climbed up the creaking stairs and suddenly stood in the living room. There, on a day bed, sat a smiling elderly couple.

The gentleman, apparently my long-lost granduncle, welcomed me laconically: “Where’ve you been so long?”

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