Why small-town India is checking out

(This column was published in DNA edition dated June 24, 2009.)

Venky Vembu

Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who could always be counted on to call a spade a spade (and hit you on the head with it!), once characterised Australians as destined to become “the poor white trash of Asia”. Lee’s acerbic remarks were made years ago in the context of ‘White Australia’s’ immigration policies until the 1970s, which were tailored to favour Anglo-Saxons and keep out Asians. That enterprise, of course, was rendered rather difficult by Australia’s peculiar identity as a colony of white settlers in a distinctly Asian part of the world.

In any case, if Lee were to walk the streets of Australian cities today, he will have reason to review his characterisation of that society. Much of the “trash” work (his words) today is done not by “poor white Australians”, but by “brown” Indian immigrants, many of whom are on a student visa and to whom the grunge work has been ‘outsourced’. They work as store-front clerks, as cooks, as garbage collectors, as taxi drivers, as hair-dressers, and in countless other blue-collar jobs, at less than the minimum wage going. Most of these ‘students’ are from small-town India, have a rudimentary proficiency in English, and have enrolled in vocational-stream courses that feed a list of “occupations in demand” in Australia. Their real reason for being in Australia, as they candidly admit in their faux Aussie drawl, is not to gain an ‘education’, but to take a shot at ‘permanent residence’ in Australia.  

These are, in the main, not your city-slickers who enrol at Monash or Melbourne University, who constitute a tiny proportion of genuine Indian students securing tertiary education in Australia. These are predominantly unskilled or semi-skilled young migrants who are leveraging – and, in some cases, abusing – a window of immigration opportunity provided by a greying Australia, a country that’s twice the size of India, but which has the population of Greater Mumbai, and so needs  young hands to work the levers of its economic engine.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with labour mobility in a globalised world, and if people relocate from Mohali to Melbourne (or from Sangrur to Sydney) in search of fortune and after observing the due process, more (visa) power to them! But there’s something intensely sobering about the economic reality of India when entire villages of young Indians vote with their feet, and seek out jobs as cooks and cleaners in foreign shores where their dollar-denominated dreams are devalued to an extent by their desperate bending of immigration laws and their own lived experiences of sub-par citizenship.

For instance, a survey conducted by Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship last year established that Indian ‘students’ in Australia were three times more likely than other foreign students to violate their visa regulations. In terms of risk category for visa violations, Indian ‘students’ in Australia are in the same elite club as Bangladeshis and Cambodians.

This is disquieting at several levels: it shows up an India where, beyond its big cities, economic opportunities for young Indians are so lacking that they are stampeding for an escapist exit door, faking documents and breaking rules along the way. Additionally, conditions of social discrimination and disempowerment in our Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities and towns are perhaps so extreme that even the occasional experience of racial bigotry overseas and a general sense of alienation appear more tolerable, particularly because they come with higher dollar wages for rendering the same wretched service.

This mass exodus of the small-town Young Indian is also problematic at another level. These semi-skilled migrants form a critical mass of “visible Indians” overseas. An ill-informed observer might well conclude – with the same unnuanced alacrity with which we Indians jumped onto the ‘All-Aussies-are-racists’ meme – that all Indians are “visa-violating brown trash of Asia”. That’s not an identity calculated to burnish the image of Brand India.


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About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
This entry was posted in Columns, Economy, India and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Why small-town India is checking out

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