Monday, August 07, 2006

Lost in Lebanon

The Indian embassy in Beirut has an unusual problem on its hands, says the Hindustan Times.

While the last of the 2,000 Indian evacuees left by naval ship on July 26, there’s been a steady stream of Indians turning up at the embassy after that. The problem: most of them are illegal immigrants with no visas. Many don’t even have a passport or a photocopy of any proof of identity.

And, had the situation not been so bad in Beirut, they would never have come forward. The fact is, there are thousands of such illegal immigrants from India across Europe and America. Even as the India growth story is attracting foreign investors and talent—and India is supposed to be where the action is—the lure of going abroad at any cost remains strong.

Who are these immigrants? The poor—from Bihar and UP migrate within India to Mumbai, Delhi, Punjab. From Punjab—which is one of the richest states of India, they dream of migrating abroad. Singer Rabbi Shergill sums up the story in his song Jugni

Jugni ja varhi Punjab
Jithe parhe likhe bekaar
Vech Zameena Javan Bahar
Uthey maran jhadu
Uthey gori len viyah
Pichay tabbar take rah
Veer meriya ve Jugni kehndi aa
Ek Navin Udari Lehndi aa

(Jugni blazed into Punjab
Where the educated are unemployed
Selling off their lands and going abroad
Where they sweep floors
Where they marry a white girl
Back home the family awaits their return…)

In the land of ‘milk and honey’, the milk isn’t creamy enough and the honey not sweet enough for the average young person. Almost every family has a relative or two abroad—who bring back tales and pictorial evidence of a better life. And so, people are willing to take the risk.

Even if you end up sweeping floors… the floors there are cleaner, you see!

Passing them by
The fact is that there are more opportunities today —but only for certain kinds of people. Those who are either very entrepreneurial, or those who have earned degrees which are in demand. The former seek out opportunities, employers seek the latter out.

But the vast majority of people — the average Jais and Veerus — don’t fall in either category. The option before them is to till the land —like their forefathers or work in a chhota mota capacity somewhere. In this dictionary, the ‘MBA’ acquires a whole new meaning— ‘Mera Beta Abroad’.

There is a whole industry to cater to this aspiration. No, they don’t teach you how to crack GRE or TOEFL. Theirs is a simple DHL style delivery business: getting you to your destination. And it’s apparently a Rs 1,000-crore industry.

A report in The Tribune some years ago noted that 10-20,000 able bodied youth from Punjab pay between Rs 2.5 to 10 lakh to gain ‘safe passage’ abroad. Lebanon is apparently one of the ‘softer’ countries, where getting visas is not a big problem. And that, it seems is where the actual racket starts:

The prospective candidates, carrying only rucksacks or backpacks, endure squalid travelling conditions on their way to their destinations. At times they have to crisscross the countryside at night, through snowclad hills and hostile terrain. They even cross rivers and channels at the risk of getting swept away by strong currents. Some may get attacked by wild animals. They survive on just a few pieces of dry bread, some tea and water…

Once in a while you hear of a boat tragedy—taking with it stowaways to a watery grave. Or a sad case like the 58 Chinese illegal immigrants who suffocated in the back of a truck on their way to Britain. But more often than not, the ‘delivery’ is completed—Germany, Greece, Italy and Austria are some of the favoured countries.

The immigrant manages to find some very basic employment, pick up the local language and if lucky to be fair skinned, even pass off as a local. In France, I met one such boy in a grocery store. I thought he was Algerian or maybe Italian. Overhearing my husband and I speaking in Hindi, he sidled up to us and whispered, “Yahan se mat kharido… It’s a day-and-night shop… everything here is more expensive.”

The boy spoke fluent French, of course. But I’m sure he was being paid below minimum wage.

When governments ask what can we do to curb illegal immigration the answer is nothing—because there will always be demand for labour which is willing to be exploited. Just like Bangladeshis are flocking to India and getting employment—because they are willing to work at even lower rates than our already lowly paid labour.

So jobs may be shifting to India, but there will always be enough Indians willing to shift for jobs. Until bombs start raining from the skies and suddenly—you would do anything to get home.

(This column originally appeared on


  1. Rashmi... the lure of phoren is not just in villages of punjab, its everywhere... and this is something our top stars of IT have learnt to exploit, companies such as Infy, wipro, tcs, cogni etc...
    ask any manager, and he'll tell you that this is the most effective retention carrot(or gajar as we call it)... anybody worth his salt would have this gajar dangled in front of him... people are even willing to forego promotions for a "long term" in US or Europe

    the condition of these people is no better(other than being legal travelers that is), they travel economy, get put up in economy hotels, and finally when they settle down they live something like six people to a house, pinch pennies, eat the cheapest food, and of course are paid the lowest wages. the list goes on, I guess you get the picture.

    the only positive is that when they come back, they will have enough for a while... and then its time to go back again

    the reason for all this I would say is that we are a quantity oriented society, a greedy thrifty society, where quality of life takes a backseat. how much you have in banks matters more than how well you live... once in a while we do splurge, but generally on wrong things, just to show off or just to keep a few egos happy (that explains all these grand marriages etc)

    to top it all we have a great inferiority complex to goras(and a big superiority complex over blacks, not sure why), almost taking it to be natural that we serve them.

  2. Great piece, very sobering indeed. We do have a booming economy, but the employment creation is lop-sided. Everyone cannot live in Gurgaon doing a BPO job. Everyone cannot fake a Yankee accent to earn a living or write code. Punjab has this peculiar problem because the farm economy has stagnated for more than 2 decades. What do you do if you belong to a well to do family but were born in a village, educated in a small town? If your family has tilled land for generations, you find it difficult to go into business, or to get a decent job in areas where rural/urban job creation is low. In Punjab, the solution is simple, just try to get to the west, do any job there but make a decent pile of money.

    It is a mindset issue. For decades, there have been jokes about people who would do anything, including janitorial work, in the west to make a living, but would balk at doing any thing 'low' in their home settings. There is a lot of truth to this. But having pride is not a crime. Living in a society where you are an outsider, you can do whatever it takes to survive, but living in your community, you want to hold your head high.

    Essentially, it all boils down to economic realities. We are creating jobs but they are in pockets where everyone does not gain due to job creation. We are experiencing growth but it is happening in sectors that require specialized skills. Hence, people who do not have those skills are left out. Unless we find a way to create jobs all around, skilled and unskilled, in every state; migration will continue. And more desperate the circumstances of the people, more willing they will be to take unreasonable risks.

  3. Hi Rashmi,

    Good post :-) Would like to comment on a few things here.

    'who bring back tales and pictorial evidence of a better life'---For people who are not well educated -- the ones you were talking about in your article--what better do you think,could they get in India otherwise ? I strongly feel,that if you compare the conditions here and abroad,inspite of they being 'not so decently' paid,they afford a better life just for the simple reason,that the government really cares for the residents/citizens.

    I met a cab-driver in US and he was damn happy about being in US,he was earning something close to 250-300$ a day(others might earn as less as 100$-150$) which means around 7000$(excluding his vacations and bad days),and he was from Bihar.Now,in India ,he didn't even have a dwelling,and couldn't manage anything above 'roti' for his family.Being in US,he could afford them all the luxuries and a decent living.In US,'juice' or 'milk' are the cheapest things after a 'pizza'(which is their staple diet) so that the most average person(earning not more than 2000$ a month could afford his family atleast all the necessities as opposed to India,where if you are poor,you toil even for a meagre living.

    The other factors like getting exploited at work-place and feeling nostalgic only come into picture when you are above a certain level/class.But for India,unemployment and poverty still remain to be the biggest challenges if it plans to prevent people from migrating abroad.

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  6. Hey Rashmi,

    You are coming up with some good topics these dayz.

    I am a typical s/w engineer, who had to travel abroad due to business needs.
    Spending some time here, I noticed quite a lot abt us Indians in this foreign land.
    Though the things have been very well summed up by Shambhu, I wud like 2 add my bit.

    Indians are in droves in US. In fact, some places like Jersey City, or even New York look like Indian colonies.
    Many are s/w engineers like me, others students, and many others on some other jobs. These some other jobs have sadly been the lowly work mostly. I cud spot an Indian in most grocery stores, sweeping floors etc etc. Places like Dunkin Donuts are synonymous with Indians, u can invariably find an Indian at the counter.
    About the quality of life, mostly they live shabbily. They are here with only one motive,"Save Money".They start spending even less than wht they used to do in India. Their getup tells a story altogether.They buy the cheapest cars, the cheapest food, cheapest clothes, etc etc.
    Now, the treatment they get from these Gorra ppl is nothing sort of Apartheid.Though things are not so open, but they are mostly implicit.They dont look up upon us Indians, and their condescending attitude says it all.

    The US bug is still to get away from India. Coming to US is considered so much big in India, tht ppl put their lives on it to make it, even if it is in for worse conditions. N the best part is, u need to look at these guys when they go back to India. They are a treat to watch. They walk with an attitude, drink only mineral water, talk in English, even if u reply in hindi. Its simply outlandish.

    I get pissed off whenever i bump into such ppl both in India or abroad.
    There's a choice between getting rich and maintaining your self-esteem.The ones in US mostly forget that they are born with some self-esteem.I have no grudges with ppl with White Collar jobs,but the ones with lowly jobs can always go back and live a decent life back home. But they'll not, as India is a poor country, made so by such mentally "poor" people.


  7. Hi Rashmi

    Again a very pertinent post!

    We talk a lot about people in USA but there are lot of people outside USA also. I work & stay in thailand - for almost 3 years now. Thailand is very different from what it is projected to be - a tourist place for people with wierd habits.

    You will find so many indians here - from stinking rich punjabis to Jeweler Gujratis and Marwaris and even Bengalis too. There are lot of Indian companies also - The aditya Birla group has 10 companies here. The coming of Indian professionals to this country is a recent phenomenon and can be attributed to the rise of technology wave.

    However, you will find "very few" people going back to India although everyone kinda misses India.

    And these are the people who are not professionals - these people belong to the middle and bottom of the pyramid. The reason is that they are earning good money here and enjoying a much better quality of life than they would have in India. No one even considers them as human beings in their own country so it makes sense to come to thailand and lead a comfortable - if not affluent - life rather than starving in india and struggling for day to day survival.

    Whatever boom we are witnessing now is for a handful of people - the sons of lesser gods are still struggling to make their both ends meet. And till the time it happens, I don't think we can prevent people to search for greener pastures.

  8. I think you're being a little quick and incorrect in your judgement of the people going to the West. Your question as to 'why people still leave India' when afterall 'this is where the action is' is a contradiction of sorts. The first part is a fact so the second is worth thinking about.

    The 2 qualities you mention for wealth creation - professional expertise or entrepreneurial spirit are also the ones you find in those leaving. The professionals, consultants and bankers apart, the people who endure Sindbad like ordeals as you put it, have atleast taken a big step and displayed risk taking abilities. Whether the step is right, wrong, forward, backward etc. is not important. Some do well and some don’t.

    Its very easy to go abroad and spot the Indians that are cab drivers and grocery store owners in nyc or airport officials at heathrow etc. Maybe because they stick out in a foreign land or maybe one is looking for them. That said, have we pondered at the 'paan waalas' or rickshaw pullers ot tea stall owners in India? Or do we sub-consciously assume its all good (as its our home country).

    Anshul you say "I have no grudges with ppl with White Collar jobs, but the ones with lowly jobs can always go back and live a decent life back home". Why is that mate? Your attitude towards such people seems more condescending than the natives themselves. Could it be that they didn’t make you feel special about yourself / privileged now that you were in the US? I'm not being vicious, but I am forcing a thought process.

  9. and what's wrong in it...every country exports the goods/services which they produce the best...

    As for us...we export people!!

  10. They call it diffusion in science - a flow from regions of higher concentration to regions of lower concentration!

    What else could one expect from a country of a billion people? :)

    I am all for a borderless world.

  11. Now that's a post worth chewing upon. A few questions to be asked though..

    How come the govt is turning a blind eye to these migrations and not making vigilance even more stricter? Coz in the end, it is these poor souls who turn up at the embassies asking for visas.

    Secondly, its a huge human-resource loss that India is suffering due to (illegal) migration. Surely, there are opportunities to satisfy their requirements in India itself. I believe in this even more, when I hear quotes in the press, that certain sections of the public workforce are understaffed..why not enroll able candidates through a massive recruitment drive? is the lure of higher wages I think, that attracts momentarily. The devil as they say lies in the details and even a salary of Rs.20,000 which looks modest on Indian still a pittance for lads working there and saving enuff to send home.


    - Arcopol

  12. I NEVER wanted to leave India, I was forced the attitude of Indians. I am from Bihar, and people, even in academia, laugh, and DISCRIMINATE against you because of where you are from.

    I want to return, but can anyone assure me that I will be treated the same way I am treated outside India? Mind you, I am not even asking for the respect that ought to be given to a scientist; just an equal treatment at the workplace...

    So, then, can you blame me for not returning?

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