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  Opinion   Columnists  21 Aug 2022  Sanjaya Baru | Visa queues get longer as drain becomes a tsunami

Sanjaya Baru | Visa queues get longer as drain becomes a tsunami

The writer is an economist, a former newspaper editor, a best-selling author, and former adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Published : Aug 22, 2022, 12:34 am IST
Updated : Aug 22, 2022, 12:34 am IST

The immigration authorities in Canada and Australia have reported unprecedented numbers arriving from India this year

If hundreds of thousands of Indians are going overseas for education, tens of thousands come to India. (Representational Image)
 If hundreds of thousands of Indians are going overseas for education, tens of thousands come to India. (Representational Image)

Indians applying for a tourist visa to go to the United States this year have been informed that their application interview may come up in 2024. The waiting time varies from one consular centre to another but the average waiting time for the five consular centres across the country is around 550 days. The immigration authorities in Canada and Australia have reported unprecedented numbers arriving from India this year. People of Indian origin have overtaken people of Chinese and European origin in Australia and are close to touching the share of immigrants from the United Kingdom. In Canada, Punjabi has become the fourth most spoken language after English, French and Mandarin. In the United States, Telugu scores as the mother tongue of the largest single group of Indians.

As I reported in my book, India’s Power Elite: Class, Caste and a Cultural Revolution (2021), there has been a sharp rise in number of Indians seeking education and employment overseas and in Indians securing a non-resident status, making places like Dubai, Singapore and some places in Europe their second home. While inward remittances into India made by overseas Indians, amounting to around $87 billion last year, still far outweigh the outward remittances which last year added up to close to $20 billion, the gap is slowly but surely narrowing.

Several factors may contribute to a further narrowing of this gap. A bulk of the dollar remittances coming into India are still from the Gulf states. While more and more Indians now live and work in the Gulf, their families are increasingly moving to the region or to third countries and remittances to India from such families will decline over a period of time.

More important, domestic social policies in many of the Gulf countries require hiring of locals, and so fewer jobs are available for immigrant labour. Moreover, many Gulf countries are diversifying their sourcing, reaching out to Bangladesh, Nepal, the Philippines and other developing Asian economies for labour, reducing their dependence on India and Pakistan.

A second major source of remittances has been North America, both the United States and Canada, and here too the expected stagflationary situation in the medium term may reduce the remittance flows to India. Most analysts expect that inward dollar remittances may get moderated in the medium term, returning to the pre-pandemic levels, while outward remittances may increase sharply, given recent trends. These remittances have been an important source of foreign exchange for India and a key instrument in the management of the balance of payments, since India has consistently run a deficit on the foreign trade account.

The trend that is striking is the sharp rise in outward remittances on account of tuition fees paid by Indian students going in for paid education overseas. It is interesting to note that most consular offices in India have been prioritising student visas over tourist visas. This may be out of genuine concern for the welfare of students seeking education abroad, but it would also be because educational institutions in the developed countries are desperately seeking rich students from the developing world who can pay for their education. Many British universities are now critically dependent on fee-paying overseas students, especially wealthy Chinese and Indians, for their very survival.

China was a favourite source of high-income students willing to pay fees and boarding at Western educational institutions, but India is the flavour of the season for now. Many in India view all this as a positive development. That the developed world is opening its doors to an increasing number of Indians. However, it remains to be seen how this trend would develop and what impact it has on the availability of talented graduates in India.

In the 1970s and even into the 1980s, this out-migration of educated Indians was described as a “brain drain”. However, given the lengthening visa queues and the rising outward dollar remittances, the phenomenon can hardly be called a “drain” any longer. It is a flood, and this year it’s a tsunami. Several factors have contributed to this out-migration of students, ranging from shortage of educational opportunities at home to rising income levels of middle class and upper class Indians willing to pay their way out.

If hundreds of thousands of Indians are going overseas for education, tens of thousands come to India. At last count, in 2019 and before Covid-19, Indian educational institutions, mostly in the private sector, hosted a total of around 49,000 foreign students. They opted mostly for professional courses like medicine, nursing and engineering. More than half were men and the largest number from Nepal (28 per cent), followed by Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Till the 1970s, India was a preferred educational destination for many from Africa. No longer, with Sudan and Nigeria being the main sources, and together accounting for around six per cent of foreign students in 2019. India is less and less hospitable as a destination for young foreigners.

An important initiative taken by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to set up the South Asian University to attract students from the region to study in India. Regrettably, over the years, the number of students from India at this university has been more than the combined enrolment of students from other South Asian countries, defeating the very purpose of this institution.

India has not been as open to foreign talent, especially non-whites, as the world has been to Indian talent. Thus, India’s “brain gain” from the in-migration of talent is insignificant compared to the “brain drain” due to out-migration. Indeed, China has attracted more Western talent despite being a non-democratic country. It has often been said that China is a closed country with an open mind, while India is an open country with a closed mind! Not surprisingly, therefore, an increasing number of Chinese universities now figure in the top 100 universities of the world (as many as nine at last count), while not a single Indian university has made it.
Neither the Union government nor any state government is addressing this crisis in higher education and research. It remains to be seen if the recent growth of privately-funded teaching and research institutions will make any difference.

Tags: american visa, united states (us)