Professor speaks on role of class in Indian emigration policy

Monday, January 20, 2020 - 5:04pm

Rina Agarwala, Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University, gives a lecture titled "Managing Migrants: Class and Emigration from India" in Weiser Hall Friday afternoon.

Rina Agarwala, Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University, gives a lecture titled "Managing Migrants: Class and Emigration from India" in Weiser Hall Friday afternoon. Buy this photo
Danyel Tharakan/Daily

Rina Agarwala, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University discussed the history of Indian emigration at Weiser Hall on Friday afternoon. 

The Center for South Asian Studies hosted the event as part of a series on the history of emigration and how social class has shaped India’s emigration policy since its independence in 1947.

Approximately 15 people attended the presentation titled “Managing Migrants: Class and Emigration from India,” on Monday afternoon. Agarwala centered her talk on how Indian emigrants affect the country’s economic and political development as well as how the country enacts policy to encourage emigration in particular social classes. 

Director of CSAS Leela Fernandes explained how the Center plans its events a year in advance, including Agarwala’s presentation.

“We solicit suggestions from the whole faculty, all the affiliates, and then we make a list, discuss them and then some of it depends on speaker availability,” Fernandes said. “We have a couple of very different backgrounds and we usually try to be representative of different disciplines from history to anthropology and sociology.”  

Agarwala explained her focus on the relationship between emigrants and the country they leave rather than the relationship between immigrants and the country they enter. She described the common narratives the media and academia use to depict immigration as a danger to a country and emigration as an attempt to secure a better future.

“When we talk about international migration, by far the biggest focus of scholars and media is on receiving countries,” Agarwala said. “In contrast to the picture we see in receiving countries, where it’s a point of tension and a flashpoint, in sending countries, emigration, which is sending the migrants out, is often depicted as a pathway to hope, development, prosperity and a legitimate global position.”

According to Agarwala, India is the largest emigrant-sending country in the world, with approximately 15.6 million emigrants living abroad. She explained many of these emigrants provide what she characterized as low-skilled labor in the Middle East while some are emigrants with higher education degrees who often enter Western countries. 

Though Agarwala said the country’s emigrants send a low amount of Foreign Direct Investments — business investments within a country that come from foreign residents —  she emphasized that they remain important to the country by sending about $72 billion in remittances, which are finances sent to an individual’s family or community. These remittances primarily come from Indian workers in the Middle East and reportedly account for about 4 percent of the country’s GDP.

Agarwala framed her talk around what she characterized as a puzzle in the history of Indian emigration policy. She said despite the remittances from low-skill emigrants, the country has historically restricted low-skilled emigrants while encouraging high-skilled emigrants.

“If investment into emigration is a function of national economic development, why would the Indian state be investing so much in its high-skilled migrants abroad when they are gaining so very little from them in economic terms?” Agarwala said. “And similarly, in terms of the low-skilled migrants, when (India is) gaining so much from them, why are they not investing (in) or recognizing them more as the Philippines does or Mexico has?”

Agarwala said after India’s independence, the country justified its explicit restrictions on low-skill emigration as a means of protecting them. Emigration policy shifted, according to Agarwala, when the oil boom in the Middle East began in the 1970s. The greater demand for labor caused the government to gradually allow for greater low-skilled emigration.

India began to expand social welfare and government agencies in the 1970s and early 1980s to help support low-skill emigration, Agarwala explained. However, additional restrictions remained, she said. Thegovernment claimed they were in place to protect vulnerable groups of workers, including restrictions on women emigrating from the country. 

Agarwala said ultimately, India sought to present itself as a source of workers who emigrate across the world. 

“In order to protect India’s national image in the world, government officials … have projected low-skilled immigration as a result of India’s advanced, efficient and modern political society,” Agarwala said. “India posits itself as a sending country of high quality labor at the tertiary level, but also at the low-skill level.”

LSA senior Shreya Chandra attended the event for her South Asian diaspora course and said she believed the talk was thought-provoking.

“I never really thought about, like as she was saying, the emigrant side of it, so that was really interesting to hear about,” Chandra said.

Reporter Arjun Thakkar can be reached at arjunt@umich.edu