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Why did 17 million Indians leave India last year?

Last updated on: November 13, 2018 09:10 IST

When 17 million Indians seek their fortune abroad it only means people are losing faith in the government's ability to honour its promises, says Sunanda K Datta-Ray.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

There could be no more devastating indictment of the National Democratic Alliance government than the revelation that Indians headed the list of people worldwide who fled their country last year.

Scandals about the Central Bureau of Investigation might recall Nirad C Chaudhuri's grim prediction that lofty institutions are doomed to extinction as 'universal darkness buries all'.

A frenzied religious diet justifies the 'Lynchistan' sobriquet. But when 17 million Indians shake India's dust off their feet to seek their fortune abroad, according to the Asian Development Bank, it only means people are losing faith in the ability of the most stridently nationalistic government we have had to honour its promises and meet public aspirations.

 

As the Human Rights Watch organisation says, 'People generally don't want to leave their homes if they can live normal, safe lives there.' Obviously, that doesn't apply to the Lalit Modis and Vijay Mallyas, Nirav Modis or Mehul Choksis. They know nothing of distress and discrimination.

But a global tycoon like Arcelor Mittal's CEO is as much an economic refugee as the Telugu peasant who mortgages his parched strip of land to pay the broker who arranges passage to Singapore and a work permit there.

The same urge drove European migrants to North America. The same motivation is evident on the Mediterranean's south-western coast where thousands of destitutes play dice with death in leaky tubs that brave wind and wave for a better life.

That impetus also drives millions of Arabs into Europe's Greek gateway, endangering the continent's identity and provoking a fierce populist backlash.

Italy wouldn't allow a ship carrying 629 migrants to dock; Hungary jailed human rights lawyers who assisted asylum-seekers; and placid Sweden's recent election witnessed a surge in emotional xenophobia. France hopes to quell native fears of economic competition and cultural takeover by banning burqas.

The Human Rights Watch comment was made in the context of the latest twist in this saga of man on the move with thousands of South Americans chanting, 'Si, se pudo!' or 'Yes, we can!' as they march towards the US border.

The threat is moving nearer home by the minute for Donald Trump who was convinced the caravan was a Democratic Party ploy to unseat his Republicans in the November 6 mid-term elections for the House of Representatives.

With little sympathy for the human condition and dedicated only to the pursuit and retention of power, Trump is not concerned that the marchers are driven by poverty to a land they believe is flowing with milk and honey.

It must be 60 years since I had a taste of what must await those among the thousands of Guatemalans and Hondurans who are lucky enough to reach Mexico's US border.

Walking from El Paso in Texas to the small Mexican town of Ciudad Juarez to see a bullfight, I took my passport, but was careful to leave behind the white card US Immigration had given me on arrival, saying it would be needed when I left the US. I had locked it up in my room at the YMCA.

No one asked for it. The American guards waved me through. The bullfight over, I had a drink of tequila in a small local bar and was baffled to be asked if I was "Chihuahua" which I thought was a tiny dog but turned out also to be the name of the Mexican state we were in.

It was loosely applied to local "Indians". Explaining I was "East Indian", not "Indian", I was returning to my YMCA room when the American border police stopped me.

Passport? Produced easily enough. "There should be a card in this?" the guard asked. I explained where it was, adding that he hadn't mentioned it when I went through in the morning.

"In the morning you were going there", the man retorted, contemptuously jerking a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of Mexico. "Who cares who goes there?"

A country that exports economic refugees will always incur the world's derision.

Basking in the glory of parliamentary pride, we can sneer that the 10 million Chinese who emigrated last year (according to the same ADB report) were escaping totalitarianism.

The 7.5 million Bangladeshis who also migrated had to, not being blessed enough to live in a Hindu-majority nominally secular republic.

But 17 million Indians voted with their feet because if anything conditions have worsened since Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

India's roti, kapada aur makaan still doesn't live up to public expectations.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray
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