Book Excerpt: The Migration-Development Regime

Rina Agarwala is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University.

Introduction, pages 1-22, The Migration-Development Regime by Rina Agarwala, 2022, reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press. 

Chapter 1: Introduction

“Let me make one thing clear,” Dr. Singh began. “We are not standing with begging bowls asking for diaspora investments. Absolutely not! This is the biggest misconception among the diaspora, that we want their money. We are just as happy if they want to invest their money elsewhere.”[1] Dr. Singh’s words were crystal clear: the Indian government, whom Dr. Singh represented, did not rely on money from its “diaspora” or Indians living outside India. His tone, which was full of pride, passion, and a hint of irritation, was understandable given the Indian government’s postcolonial tradition of showcasing its self-sufficiency.

While Dr. Singh’s tone was understandable, the context was confusing. Dr. Singh said these words while sitting at his impressive office desk, where he served as secretary, or chief bureaucrat, in charge of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) in the government of India—the very ministry responsible for bridging India’s relations with its diaspora. Other sending countries, including China, the Philippines, Mexico, and Morocco, had been building similar bridges with their respective diasporas for decades. Such bridges, in turn, promised to bring foreign capital into sending countries in the form of remittances (wages that emigrants earn abroad and send to their home country), as well as foreign investments (that emigrants residing abroad make in their home country). Indeed, by 2018, officially recorded annual remittances to low- and middle-income countries had reached a record high of US$529 billion, a figure that far exceeded overseas development aid (ODA) and came close to the level of foreign direct investment (FDI) that year (Ratha 2019). And sending countries such as China had become well-known for their extraordinary success in attracting foreign investments from their overseas emigrants (Ye 2014). As a result, the World Bank and other development institutions were promoting emigration as the third leg of the globalization triad, alongside free trade and finance—a trend that some have called “the new development mantra” (Kapur 2005).

Within this context, India seemed well-positioned to be a poster child for the newfound migration-development mantra. By the early 2000s, India had joined other sending countries in establishing new awards and citizenship options that recognized and celebrated its overseas emigrants. It had also instituted a battery of new government programs designed to tap its overseas emigrants for their financial, social, and political contributions. In 2004, India became one of a handful of countries to promote diaspora issues to a cabinet level by establishing the MOIA. As a result of its efforts, India had become the world’s largest migrant exporter and largest recipient of financial remittances—a trend that is still going strong today. In 2019, India had approximately 30 million overseas residents (17.5 million of whom are Indian citizens), and it received a whopping US$76 billion (roughly 3% of India’s gross domestic product) from them in remittances (Ministry of External Affairs 2020; Reserve Bank of India 2021; United Nations 2019).[2] For decades India’s annual remittances have exceeded the combined annual amount the country receives from ODA and FDI, as well as from foreign portfolio investments (FPI) and bank deposits made by Indian emigrants abroad (Reserve Bank of India 2018).[3]

But clearly Dr. Singh was in no mood to chant new mantras. His defiance toward overseas Indians’ money reflects the complicated nature of international human migration, not just for receiving countries but also for sending countries. Despite the high financial returns emigration promises to bring to sending states, emigration also raises multiple challenges for sending countries, including labor shortages, undermined political legitimacy, geopolitical tensions, and questions around state responsibility for citizens abroad.

Dr. Singh’s words also reflect a central and more understudied claim of this book: that underlying the complicated nature of emigration is an important class story. Labor shortages resulting from emigration, for example, may involve a shortage of formally trained professionals (known as a “brain drain”) or a dearth of manual labor (known as a “brawn drain”), each of which creates very different consequences within sending countries. As well, different classes of emigrants have been found to send different financial flows and demands to sending states. An important subtext of Dr. Singh’s statement, therefore, is that the term “diaspora investments” refers to inflows received from elite emigrants. Such diaspora investments have been surprisingly low in India, especially relative to the widely celebrated exemplar of its neighbor China. In contrast, almost all Indian government officials I spoke with credited India’s poorest emigrants, not its wealthy emigrants, for sending the vast majority of the country’s extraordinarily high level of remittances. This raised for me an important question: What exactly was it that Dr. Singh was defying? Was it elite Indian emigrants (who have come to be known as “the diaspora”)? Or was it their investments in particular? And how does he feel about India’s poor emigrants and their remittances?

In other words, a key question that motivates this book is: What is the relationship between the Indian state and its different classes of emigrants? To examine this question, I conducted an archival analysis of parliamentary debates (1920s–present); analyzed the annual reports of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (2004–14), the Ministry of External Affairs (2000–2020), and the Reserve Bank of India (1970–2020); compiled an original database of over 600 transnational Indian migrant organizations; and held over 200 interviews with Indian government officials (at the national and subnational levels), poor Indian emigrant workers in the Gulf region of the Middle East, elite Indian emigrants in the United States, and private migrant recruiters in India. The next chapter provides further detail on this book’s data and methodology. Before turning to that, let me briefly summarize this book’s main findings.

The Migration State and the Management of Class Inequality

Why should class matter in migration? A look at the discussions on the flip side of emigration (i.e., immigration) provides some clues. Specifically, immigration produces benefits and challenges for receiving states; to manage this tension, receiving states have an uncontested right to differentially treat, regulate, and protect migrants according to their class, thereby exacerbating class inequalities among migrants.

In contrast to the development mantra that frames contemporary emigration as a simple boon to sending countries, contemporary immigration into wealthy receiving countries is routinely depicted in public discourse as a flash point for state leaders––“the biggest wedge in American politics,” “the greatest challenge European leaders have faced since the debt crisis,” a critical test of our “commitment to human rights,” and “a defining issue of this century” (Betts 2015; Park 2015; Thompson 2018). Although for centuries people have moved their families in search of better lives, the number of people migrating today is indeed unprecedented (Dimock 2016). In 2019, the growth rate of the world’s population of migrants was higher than that of the world population (United Nations 2019). In 2020, 3.5% of the world’s population lived outside their country of origin (International Organization for Migration 2020). That this surge in immigration levels has coincided with slumping economies and strained welfare programs in receiving countries, especially in the Global North, has stoked tensions along racial, ethnic, and cultural differences between native and foreign-born populations and catalyzed countless xenophobic and mass nationalist movements. Although migration has always involved cultural clashes, the contemporary wave is unique in also threatening populations that are economically and culturally dominant at the global level.

Threaded through the angst around contemporary immigration’s size and racial/cultural tensions in receiving countries is an equally important, albeit less often highlighted set of class-based tensions. Although immigrants are sometimes superficially depicted as a homogeneous population in class terms, they obviously represent diverse class positions with diverse interests and diverse impacts on receiving countries. For example, most of the tensions arising from migration’s size and racial diversity in the Global North focus on low-wage immigrant workers, leaving the growing mass of professional immigrant workers relatively unscathed, in some cases even celebrated by native populations. Similarly, the opposition to migration often comes from low-wage native workers who feel their livelihoods and lifestyles are threatened by low-wage immigrant workers, whereas native employers who rely on low-wage immigrant labor for their profitability support immigration. In contexts of generous state welfare, it is the native working classes who have become most anti-immigrant, claiming that poor immigrants are using up local welfare without contributing enough labor. Meanwhile, native employers argue that existing welfare programs are unsustainable irrespective of immigration and that poor immigrants without state welfare should fill growing labor demands in countries with aging populations.

Framing these class-based tensions around immigration is a general consensus that states have the right to regulate human mobility, even if they don’t always have the capacity to do so. James Hollifield (2004) famously expanded this right into a duty with his term “the migration state,” when he argued that the need for states to manage the tensions catalyzed by immigration is as important as the need for states to manage violence or trade. While overtly regulating immigration according to race or culture is no longer viewed as legitimate in the global arena, most states (whether authoritarian or liberal democratic) continue to have an uncontested right to differentially regulate human mobility according to class. State leaders in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the European Union therefore attempt to balance (or, at the very least, address) the opposing class interests of their own citizens by enacting different immigration policies for different classes of immigrants. In some cases, such as the United States, receiving countries have enabled a convenient mismatch between their anti-immigration rhetoric (to appease native workers) and lax implementation of labor and immigration laws (to appease native employers). In other cases, such as Canada and Denmark, receiving countries have enacted overtly discriminatory regulations that distinguish which migrants can and cannot enter based on their class characteristics, such as ownership of assets and human capital or “skill.” In all cases, the state’s right and duty to discriminate according to an immigrant’s class is rarely questioned.

Of course, state immigration policies (like all policies) are messy, contingent on multiple actors, and full of unintended consequences. For example, some immigration scholars have rightly noted that employers hold as much (if not more) power as states to regulate who does and does not enter a country’s borders ( Jacobs 2020; Milkman, Bhargava, and Lewis 2021). And others have astutely highlighted the power of unregulated recruiters and “human supply chains” that operate largely outside the state’s legal arm (Gordon 2017). Nevertheless, receiving states remain responsible for managing the class-based tensions that arise from immigration, and class-differentiated immigration policies (in their presence and their conspicuous absence) remain powerful vectors through which nations (and their corresponding class structures) are defined.

In short, the “migration state” in receiving countries helps structure class inequalities.

The Migration State in Sending Countries

Such trends in receiving countries raise an important question: How are sending country governments and populations managing and experiencing the multiple classes of their emigrating citizens?

Some readers may argue that sending states operate within the constraints of wealthy receiving countries’ migrant demands and do not, therefore, have any power to manage their emigrants. But, as elaborated in the next chapter, scholars have detailed how sending states, such as India, Mexico, China, Morocco, and the Philippines, have actively (and sometimes unintentionally) used emigration to fit their own economic and political interests (Iskander 2010; Kapur 2010; Portes and Fernandez-Kelly 2015; Rodriguez 2010; Ye 2020). In other words, despite the global power hierarchies within which sending countries operate, they are not mere pawns of receiving countries’ interests and thus do exert some agency in terms of emigration practices.

Some readers may also assume that sending countries will not restrict emigration, let alone regulate emigration by class. There is a practical reason to permit all emigration, since controlling who leaves and who stays inside a country is costly and requires more fine-tuned levers than controlling who enters and who does not. There are also strategic reasons to permit all emigration, since emigration enables sending-country citizens to tap higher wages abroad and relieve employment pressures and political discontent at home. Nevertheless, sending countries have long enacted different emigration regulations for different classes of their emigrants, and they continue to do so today.[4] As in receiving countries, the most common measure of class used by sending countries to manage emigration has been emigrants’ “skill level,” which has been (rather arbitrarily) defined by the emigrants’ number of years of formal education or type of formal education and/or vocational certifications. Under Indian law, for example, emigrants are explicitly divided into two groups based on their number of years of formal education. Those with less education are subjected to different regulations, restrictions, and treatment compared to those with more education.[5] In other words, despite the costs, sending countries do invoke the right and duty to serve as a “migration state” that differentiates emigrants by class. In the process, they manage and often reproduce class inequalities. As this book exposes, India has been doing so since the 1830s.

Still other readers may assume sending countries would encourage the emigration of their poor workers to relieve domestic unemployment while preventing the emigration of elite workers to retain their skills for domestic modernization. Indeed, this was what many European sending states did in the 19th century (Bartlett 2010). And at first glance, this argument could explain Dr. Singh’s stand against elite emigrants’ diaspora investments.

But, in fact, India has done the opposite. As detailed in Chapter 4, India legally prohibited the emigration of its poorest workers (defined by number of years of education received) from 1947 until the early 1980s, while simultaneously permitting elite exit. As detailed in Chapters 5 and 6, India still restricts the emigration of its poor but has recently begun to celebrate its elite emigrants abroad with partnerships and glamorous awards. Therefore, the question of exactly how sending states manage the different classes of their emigrants cannot be presumed; it must be empirically investigated for different sending-country contexts.

Importantly, sending states’ class-based emigration practices have shifted over time. Earlier, sending states’ class distinctions were overt. For example, Algeria in the 1970s, Libya in the 1950s and 1960s, and India from the 1950s to 1980s (as I elaborate in Chapter 4) forbade emigration by denying their citizens a passport stamp, monitoring documentation at points of embarkation (such as the airport or port), and employing police enforcement, surveillance technologies, and physical barriers along their national borders. But in all these cases, elite emigrants were given exceptions. In India, students and educated professionals were legally permitted to move abroad; in some cases, the state gave them settlement packages and subsidized airfare. Similarly, Libya granted exit visas to students, invested in specialized schools to improve their foreign-language skills, and granted scholarships to citizens intending to study abroad (Tsourapas 2019).

But in recent years, sending states’ class-based emigration distinctions have become subtler. As elaborated in Chapters 5 and 6, during the early 1980s India legalized emigration across classes, which created the appearance of consistency in treatment. But in practice, the state still restricts poor emigrants’ mobility by subjecting them to a dizzying array of regulations, requirements, and fees that are not applied to elite emigrants. Moreover, the Indian state still legally forbids the emigration of poor women to certain countries. To implement these restrictions, the Indian government’s Protectorate General of Emigrants has the power to prevent certain poor citizens from legally exiting India’s borders by denying them the coveted government-issued “emigration clearance” stamp in their passport (a stamp that is required only for poor workers). Meanwhile, the Indian government facilitates shiny fast-track visa services for Indian students planning to study abroad and institutes no emigration restrictions against Indians graduating from India’s high-quality, publicly financed education system. In the Philippines, the state allows home communities to shame lower-middle-class women who emigrate to work as domestic workers and entertainers (calling them “sexually immoral” or “bad mothers”), while celebrating the emigration of educated youth (Parrenas 2004). And Mexico and Morocco legitimize local emigration industries that enable their poor citizens to enter receiving countries through illicit pathways (and even engage those emigrants on local development programs), while ensuring their elite emigrants follow legal entry channels (Iskander 2010). Moreover, sending states today regularly help some emigrants return home, while encouraging others to stay abroad (Goldring 1998; Smith 1998).

These historically contingent patterns of sending countries’ class-based emigration practices call on us to ask: How and why do states enact class-based regulations (despite their costs), and how and why do states change their practices over time?

As in receiving countries, sending states’ emigration practices, like all statecraft, is contingent on multiple forces and actors. Therefore, to answer the first question, we must identify which forces and actors shape sending states’ class-differentiated emigration practices. Some emigration scholars have highlighted the forces “from above” that shape sending states’ emigration practices. These scholars argue that northern countries, and the international development institutions they control, determine the global market constraints and development ideologies within which sending countries must operate. Specifically, these scholars credit the ideology of “neoliberal globalization” for forcing sending states to encourage and celebrate emigration (Bakker 2015b; Castles and Wise 2007). Other scholars spotlight the forces “from below” that shape sending states’ emigration patterns. These scholars argue that emigrants themselves have organized to make demands on sending states (Delgado Wise and Ramírez 2001; Portes, Escobar, and Radford 2007) and that emigrants have reshaped sending-country actions through the so-called social and political remittances they send home (Kapur and McHale 2005; Levitt 1999; Pessar and Mahler 2003; Portes and Zhou 2012). The next chapter offers a more detailed discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of these studies. Here, let me simply underscore that none of them offers insights on the forces and actors shaping sending states’ class-based emigration patterns. They do not, for example, explain how, when, and why states differentially use elite versus poor emigrants within the norms of neoliberal globalization. Nor do they shed light on how different classes of emigrants differentially experience, resist, and reshape sending states’ emigration practices over time.

To answer the second question, on changing emigration practices over time, we must understand the long arc of sending states’ class-based emigration practices before and after the start of neoliberal globalization. As elaborated in the next chapter, the recent emigration literature focuses almost exclusively on the contemporary era of neoliberal globalization. This presents an ahistoric understanding of human migration, which we know began long before neoliberalism. It also cripples our ability to understand how and why we got to this present moment of neoliberal globalization in the first place. A robust literature (examined in the next chapter) on 19th-century emigration patterns from Europe and European colonies reminds us that large-scale international migration is a function of capitalism, not neoliberal globalization (Bartlett 2010; Hobsbawm 1975). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that sending-state emigration practices have changed and will continue to change alongside the shifting political and economic structures of capitalism over time.

Finally, underlying the global migration literature is an assumption that “the migration state” (in receiving and sending countries) manages international migration to further the state’s economic agenda. But can the arrow also point the other way? In other words, can sending-state emigration practices, and emigrants themselves, alter sending states’ economic development agendas at different points in time?

This book seeks to address these questions using the case of India.

The “Invisibles” of Indian Emigration

Understanding the Indian state’s relationship to its diverse classes of emigrants proved to be a more elusive task than I expected. Despite the millions of Indians who rely on emigration to survive, and the tremendous financial contribution that emigration has made to India’s coffers, the state’s emigration practices remain oddly invisible. In fact, according to India’s foremost emigration scholars, the country has never even had a formal emigration policy (Kumar and Rajan 2014). The government’s data on its different classes of emigrants is also oddly imbalanced. Although state emigration authorities collect data on poor Indian emigrants, they do not collect any on elite Indian emigrants.[6] In an unfortunate twist of words (as per global accounting custom), remittances (which are heavily influenced by India’s poor emigrants) and the export of software services (which are heavily influenced by India’s elite emigrants) are classified in India’s balance of payments as “invisibles” (referring to the trade of physically intangible items between countries). What makes this term especially ironic is that remittances and the export of software services constitute the largest foreign inflows in India’s balance-of-payment accounts. In other words, it is the net export of India’s services from emigrants, not India’s manufacturing exports, that has yielded a surplus in recent years. Yet Indian emigration rarely features as a hot-button issue in Indian domestic political campaigns, and academic studies on Indian emigration are limited in number.[7] In my own interviews with state officials, I repeatedly heard statements similar to Dr. Singh’s that underplayed statecraft in emigration. This invisibility of the Indian state’s emigration practices, and of Indian emigrants’ contributions to the country’s balance of payments, is particularly striking in the contemporary era, when a nation’s balance of payments (which in India have been unquestionably strengthened by its emigrants) signals sovereign worth in the global arena. It is also unique relative to other large emigrant-sending countries, such as Mexico, China, and the Philippines.

Equally striking is how easily Indian emigration is divorced from public and academic discussions on Indian development. Despite the heated debates around class within India, such debates are never extended to examine the state’s differential treatment of its poor versus elite emigrants. Discussions of domestic elites rarely connect to discussions about elite emigrants abroad. Similarly, Indian development scholars and labor unions focus exclusively on poor workers operating within India, while ignoring poor Indian workers abroad. Even when highlighting the vulnerabilities faced by migrant workers, an unquestioned distinction is made between domestic and international migrants. These silos were prominently displayed in the months following the 2020 outbreak of COVID-19, when countless newspaper articles, blogs, and workshops (in India and globally) critiqued the Indian government’s sudden lockdown and its disastrous effects on poor Indian migrant laborers. Yet only a handful of newspaper articles (in Indian and foreign papers) discussed how the lockdown affected poor Indian emigrant laborers, who faced equally crippling consequences as they were forced to leave their jobs abroad and return to India.[8]

Given the massive numbers of Indians who rely on emigration for their survival, the enormous influx of money the Indian state receives from its emigrants, and the state’s long history of regulating its emigrants differentially by class, the invisibility of India’s migration state is deeply problematic for any study of Indian development and class inequality. India thus provides an ideal case with which to begin an inquiry into the class politics of sending-country emigration.

First, India’s long emigration history enables us to examine its emigration practices  before and  after  the  contemporary  era  of  neoliberal  globalization. Indian emigration  was  alive  and  well  long  before  neoliberal  globalization. Evidence of ancient Indian influences has been found in present-day Malaysia and Burma from AD 110. From the 9th to the 15th century, the spice route offered a way for Indian traders and banished princes to travel, trade, spread religion, and eventually settle in Southeast Asia and the Middle East ( Jaiswal 2018). And (as detailed in Chapter 3) during the 18th and 19th centuries, under the British Empire, poor and elite Indians embarked on mass migrations across the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and even North America (Amrith 2013; Vora 2013). During the postcolonial era, from 1947 to the late 1970s (as detailed in Chapter 4), although the Indian government officially discouraged emigration, elite emigration continued during this period. This history calls on us to examine the ancestral lineage of India’s contemporary emigration patterns in order to better understand their strikingly solid foundation.

Second, unlike in many sending countries where emigration provides a ready release valve from political and social turmoil, Indian emigrants today are almost uniformly motivated by prospects for economic betterment. The 1947 partition of British India, when over 7 million Muslims moved from present-day India to present-day Pakistan, marked a dramatic moment of Indian emigration motivated by nationalizing imperatives. But since then, despite the great political and social strife that Indians bear each day, conflicts in Kashmir and the Northeast, and secession movements, India has remained a formally stable democracy, and relatively few emigrants leave as political refugees (in contrast to Cubans and Moroccans). For the most part, Indians are economic migrants, enabling us to home in on the class basis of the country’s emigration practices.[9]

Third, India’s emigrants have always been among the world’s most diverse in class terms. During the British Empire, Indian emigrants included middle-class merchants, farmers, and indentured laborers. Today the vast majority of Indian emigrants are poor workers. For reasons that deserve further study, the Indian government has never followed Mexico’s strategy of allowing poor workers to meet US employers’ labor needs by entering the United States extralegally. Instead, India’s poor emigrants in the postcolonial era have mainly flocked to the Persian Gulf region of the Middle East, constituting approximately 33% of labor migrants in those countries, reaching 50% in some countries.[10] But India is also the world’s largest exporter of tertiary-educated, professional emigrants, of which there were 2.2 million in 2011 (World Bank 2016). India’s large share of emigrants in professional occupations stems from its disproportionate public expenditure on tertiary education, which is unique among most developing countries. As well, Indian emigrants come from rural, semi-urban, and urban settings; this differs from European sending countries of the past and contemporary sending countries in Latin America and other parts of Asia. This class diversity allows us to compare a single state’s use of different classes of emigrant workers, as well as emigrants’ class-varying responses to sending-state emigration practices.

Fourth, as already indicated, India has long enacted different regulations over the different classes of its emigrants, enabling us to examine how, when, and why such state practices do and do not change over time. In general, India’s changing emigration practices have not neatly followed global patterns or common scholarly assumptions, and they, therefore, raise several important puzzles.

For example, in contrast to much of the recent literature that depicts contemporary emigration practices as “new,” Chapter 3 details how India’s current legalized class distinctions for emigrants, emigration institutions, and emigration processes stem from those the British colonial government first instituted in the early 1900s. This continuity of institutionalized class-based distinctions between emigrants calls on us to examine why and how India’s postcolonial government has legitimized and sustained them, especially given its commitment to a democratic system that purports to treat all citizens equally under the law.

The recent emigration literature is also insufficient in explaining India’s discontinuities with earlier eras. After years of legally forbidding emigration, India began to slowly liberalize some of its policies in the late 1970s and has increasingly recognized some of its emigrants abroad since then. Recent studies credit similar changes in other countries to dictates from northern-led development institutions, a herd effect among fellow developing countries, and the power of neoliberal ideologies (Bakker 2015b; Itzigsohn 2000; Turcu and Urbatsch 2015). But unlike most other sending countries, India is still resisting full liberalization of its emigration policies and has retained many of its restrictions on poor workers’ mobility. To the extent that India liberalized some of its emigration practices, it did so decades after Turkey, Morocco, Mexico, China, and the Philippines had already recognized emigration as a useful way to export surplus labor, increase foreign exchange reserves, and control political dissidence.

While we might assume India’s delayed and uneven liberalization of emigration simply reflects the similarly delayed and uneven liberalization of its broader economy, a closer look shows India’s liberalization of poor workers’ emigration and its celebration of elite emigrants came over a decade before its government officially launched its domestic liberalization reforms on finance, goods, and services in 1991. Therefore, the recent changes to the Indian government’s class-based emigration policies cannot be explained with simple nods to “neo- liberalism,” “northern powers,” or “herd effects.” Rather they call on us to also examine who (within India) pushed for these changes and who is resisting further change, who benefited and who lost from the changes, how the government has sustained consent for these changes (despite the losers), and how these changes in emigration may have shaped India’s liberalization efforts rather than the other way around.

The invisibility of the Indian government’s interactions with its different classes of emigrants also calls on us to examine why, despite the development community’s excitement over emigrants’ remittances and the flood of remittances that India receives every year, the government has remained reluctant to celebrate or even recognize these flows, especially relative to other countries, such as Mexico, Morocco, and the Philippines. Notably, the Indian government has been reluctant to overtly celebrate the financial contributions of both poor and elite emigrants. Poor emigrants and their remittances are rarely mentioned in national-level political campaigns, parliamentary discussions, or development debates. Yet, as detailed in Chapter 6, the government has managed to continue drawing poor emigrants’ financial contributions, while successfully undermining their organizing efforts for recognition, welfare, and support. These trends force us to ask exactly how the Indian state has managed to do so while still retaining its political and electoral legitimacy among poor emigrants.

Similarly, the Indian government rarely acknowledges or celebrates elite emigrants’ financial inflows—again a sharp contrast to China and sending countries in Latin America (Tsai 2010). Echoes of this could be heard in Dr. Singh’s remarks at the start of this chapter. Some have highlighted that elite Indian emigrants’ investments are low relative to other countries, such as China (Ye 2014). While elite emigrants’ cumulative bank deposits and bonds have helped India access more foreign debt, their annual contributions are indeed less than the annual remittance inflow.[11] Others have argued the Indian government undercounts elite emigrants’ financial contributions (Kapur 2018). The government’s data on FDI from elite emigrants is imperfect, and FPI from elite emigrants is not even counted. As noted, the Indian government’s migration offices do not maintain any data on elite emigrants (although they do maintain data on poor emigrants, who must receive approval to emigrate). This raises an obvious question as to why the Indian government downplays (or fails to attract) its elite emigrants’ financial contributions.

In contrast to its reluctance to acknowledge its emigrants’ financial contributions, the Indian government has recently invested heavily in celebrating its wealthy emigrants’ social, political, and ideological contributions; the same cannot be said for its poor emigrants’ social, political, and ideological contributions. In 2003, the government inaugurated an annual conference, Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, or “Overseas Indian Day,” a high-level, glossy event designed to foster state relationships with emigrants abroad. The event has also become known for marking the annual Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Awards that the president of India bestows upon emigrants in recognition of their technical, social, and political contributions to the country. It is notable that these awards are not given for financial contributions, and at first they did not include a category for poor workers.[12] In 2006, the government launched the Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) status to provide citizens of other countries who can prove Indian heritage a pathway to Indian citizenship, visas facilitating their entry to India, improved rights to property investments in India, favorable bank accounts, and a bill to enable them to vote in India. At first, the OCI applied only to emigrants living in countries of the Global North, most of whom are middle- and upper-class professionals.[13] These trends call on us to examine what the Indian government attains from such recognition and how elite emigrants are reacting.

The Argument and Structure of the Book

This book seeks to bring Indian emigration out of the shadows and into the spotlight to expose the vital role that the Indian state, as well as its poor and elite emigrants, have long played in forging and legitimizing class inequalities within the country through the management of international emigration patterns.

To unpack the dynamic story of the causes and consequences of India’s ever-shifting emigration practices over time, this book introduces a new analytical framework that I call “Migration-Development Regimes” (MDRs). MDRs capture the full set of emigration practices and policies that (among other forces) enable sending countries to ensure domestic capital accumulation and their own political legitimacy at the global and domestic levels. They expose the class inequities that this fine balance rests on.

MDRs capture the ideological, economic, and political structures that help shape sending states’ emigration practices “from above.” After all, sending countries’ actions are constrained by global employers’ labor demands and receiving states’ immigration policies—both of which hold undeniable power to shape the rules and norms of the global migration game. But MDRs also shed light on the competing interests of the domestic actors—including subnational governments, domestic elites and workers, and elite and poor emigrant citizens—who reshape statecraft “from below.” MDRs help us identify when and why emigrants consent to particular emigration practices, and when and why they resist them.

MDRs are partly rational, especially for some, and often yield unintended consequences. While they may appear coherent, they are full of contradictions and contingencies. As a result, they rise and fall and shift over time. Depending on a sending country’s size, migrant resource base, and geopolitical power, its MDRs sometimes reproduce, but other times reshape, domestic development ideologies and thus the very rules of the international migration game.

Drawing from this framework, this book divides India’s emigration practices into three MDRs, spanning nearly two centuries: the Coolie MDR (1834–1947), the Nationalist MDR (1947–77), and the CEO MDR (1977–present). The Coolie MDR covers the period under British colonial rule. The Nationalist MDR covers the first postcolonial emigration regime in India, under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The CEO MDR covers the contemporary period of neoliberal globalization, which has spanned several prime ministers and ruling political parties.

Within each MDR, I compare the Indian state’s emigration practices toward poor versus elite emigrants (at the national and subnational levels), as well as poor and elite emigrants’ differential responses to each MDR. Across MDRs, I examine the constraints and contradictions that provoke them to transform over time. Although constantly changing, MDRs remain linked to one another through this history. Understanding this ancestral lineage, this book argues, is vital to deepening our understanding of the present moment and exposing what is truly novel about it.

By taking this long view of India’s changing MDRs, this book reveals a simple fact that is too easily glossed over in contemporary studies on emigration: India’s MDRs have always sought economic growth and domestic political legitimacy at the cost of deepening class-based inequalities. Since the early 1900s and continuing to this day, Indian emigrants have been legally divided into two categories, based on a crude and arbitrary boundary defined by the number of years of formal schooling.[14] Although the boundary is arbitrary, the consequences have been very real. Those with little schooling are subjected to a battery of state regulations that restrict and control their international mobility; those with more schooling are not. In recent decades, those with little schooling have been invited to send their wages earned abroad back to India; in return they receive little welfare or recognition. Those with more schooling have been invited to send their investments, skills, and ideas back to India; in return they receive favorable financial terms, partnership opportunities among India’s domestic elite, awards, and recognition. Across time and through different economic paradigms, political parties, and globally sanctioned moral norms, India’s emigration practices have not only reflected already existing class inequalities; they have also actively accentuated such class inequities across time—all while remaining strikingly invisible within Indian debates on development.

This finding helps redefine the central problem of sending states’ emigration practices. The primary question featured in most development debates around emigration is whether sending states should deter or promote emigration. But as the following chapters illustrate, the Indian state has tried both options, and both options have hurt poor workers and favored elite workers, thereby exacerbating class inequalities. Therefore, this book argues, the key problem with Indian emi- gration is not its quantity, but rather the discriminatory regulations, restrictions, and treatment the state enacts over its emigrants based on their class. It is this unequal treatment of emigrants that the state must rectify to create a more just development agenda.

Second, this book’s long view of MDRs exposes the precise economic benefits the Indian state has long attained from its different classes of emigrants. Under the Coolie MDR, the British Raj used poor and elite emigrants to serve as racialized coolies for the empire, advancing economic accumulation in the colonies and ultimately in the United Kingdom. Under the Nationalist MDR, the state shifted tack to forbid poor Indians from emigrating so it could retain their labor for its domestic industrializing agenda. Meanwhile, it allowed elites to emigrate, but gave up the chance to use their labor to further India’s economy.

As detailed in Chapters 5 and 6, under the CEO MDR, the Indian state shifted tack once again. Unlike in earlier MDRs, the state is now attaining extraordinary financial returns from its poor emigrants. In addition, it is now tapping its elite emigrants for their social and ideological returns for the first time. To this end, elite Indian emigrants residing in the United States have helped valorize the Indian government’s current embrace of privatization, voluntarism, and self- sufficiency. Moreover, these chapters illustrate how the financial and ideological remittances that both poor and elite emigrants have brought to India under the CEO MDR offered an important pilot phase for the country’s later acceptance of globalization and liberalization in other parts of the economy. In other words, the global movement of people presaged Indians’ recent consent to the global movement of goods and services, not the other way around.

This finding reminds us that emigration’s economic impact on sending countries is both material and ideological. Emigration is more than just the pathway to foreign finances that the new development mantra celebrates. It also serves as a quiet but crucial ideological vector (similar to education and the media) that enables sending states to cement domestic consent for new economic development agendas. In the case of India, poor emigrants’ financial remittances offered an important first step in attaining consent within India for tapping foreign capital. In addition, although elite emigrants’ ideological remittances are rarely featured in policy discussions or the critical scholarship on development ideologies, this book argues they have had a much larger impact than their financial remittances on building domestic consent for India’s contemporary economic framework of liberalization, self-sufficiency, and privatization.

Third, by exposing the connection between India’s international emigration practices and its domestic class inequalities, this book forces us to examine exactly how the Indian state has balanced the contradiction inherent in furthering domestic economic growth using class-differentiated emigration, while retaining its electoral and political legitimacy in a democratic context where all classes can, and indeed do, vote.

The Indian state has consistently legitimized its practices toward poor emigrants by promising “paternalist protection” as opposed to rights-based protection. Across time, paternalist protection has increased state control over poor workers and deflected attention away from the severe exploitation they face. Under the Coolie MDR, the colonial state instituted India’s first emigration regulations to justify its export of poor Indians by certifying their consent to emigrate and thus protecting their right to be “free” laborers. Under the Nationalist MDR, the Indian state justified its restrictions over poor emigrants’ mobility by claiming to protect them against racist and exploitative foreign employers (in contrast to the prior colonial state). Under the CEO MDR, the state has justified its reliance on poor workers’ foreign earnings by underscoring workers’ demands for free mobility, maintaining restrictions over some workers (including female migrants), and offering return migrants some welfare. As well, the state has recently offered to help poor return emigrants join a newly emerging, mostly male category of “migrant entrepreneurs.” In all these cases, poor emigrants are disempowered.

In contrast, the state’s political justification for its lack of control over elite emigrants has shifted over time. Under the Coolie MDR, the colonial state tried to resist regulations over elite emigrants by (ironically) insisting on the equal treatment of Indian and British emigrants’ cross-border mobility. Under the Nationalist MDR, the state claimed independence from its elite emigrants to bolster its global image as a self-sufficient, modernizing nation.

But under the CEO MDR, the state has shifted to building “an elite pact” with its elite emigrants, joining forces with domestic business leaders and elite, mostly male emigrants for the first time, while still keeping poor emigrants at bay. Because elite Indian emigrants reside in wealthy receiving countries in the North, this finding disrupts our understanding of power hierarchies rooted only in race or simple North-South dynamics. Instead it exposes how class inequalities operate across country contexts, empowering elite emigrants (even when they come from the global South) over poor emigrants.

These findings on sending states’ need to politically justify their class-based emigration practices also remind us of MDRs’ potential weaknesses, thereby underscoring why emigration is such a complicated matter for sending states. In India, state promises to protect poor emigrants must eventually be fulfilled in order to retain any heft. And promises to partner with elite emigrants need to ward against power grabs.

This brings us to a final finding: this book’s long view exposes how, when, and why, at certain moments, Indian emigrants have resisted the state’s emigration practices and successfully pressured the state to enact new ones. Despite the Indian state’s differential use of emigrants by class, poor and elite emigrants have often joined forces to resist state practices in unexpected ways. For example, as detailed in Chapter 3, poor and elite emigrants joined to resist colonial rule in the 1930s and 1940s and fought against the use of Indian emigrants for economic accumulation at home. And, as detailed in Chapter 4, poor and elite emigrants joined to resist authoritarian rule in India in the 1970s (in the context of the Emergency) and demand the liberalization of emigration and emigrants’ capital flows. Chapters 7 and 8 detail how poor and elite emigrants in the contemporary era are organizing to make various demands on the Indian state.

This finding reveals how sending countries’ emigration and development practices are mutually constitutive. At times development agendas shape emigration practices, but at other times emigrants reshape those agendas. This provides an important corrective to common assumptions that the contemporary liberalization of emigration policies (and their capital flows) is simply a page torn from a northern-imposed development script on neoliberal globalization. India’s liberalization of emigration is, in fact, also a product of elite and poor Indian emigrants’ demands. This finding exposes the extraordinarily solid foundation of India’s current MDR despite its deleterious consequences for poor emigrants. But it also raises questions as to whether or not poor and elite emigrants might eventually join forces to resist India’s current MDR—a question I begin to address in the final chapter.

The Chapters to Follow

Before we can reflect on the demise of India’s contemporary CEO MDR, we must deepen our understanding of its strengths and weaknesses. To this end, this book is organized into three empirical sections. Chapters 3 and 4 examine the MDRs preceding the contemporary era and thus cover the Coolie MDR and Nationalist MDR. Chapters 5 and 6 examine the CEO MDR from the perspective of the Indian state. And Chapters 7 and 8 examine the CEO MDR from the perspective of poor and elite emigrants’ organizations.

Chapter 2 explains this book’s methodological approach and its analytical framework of MDRs. To do so, it draws on the global literature on emigration to identify four sets of forces and actors that shape sending-state emigration practices. These include northern-imposed development ideologies/norms, sending-state agency, emigrants’ agency and their transnational organizations, and the role of history.

Chapter 3 details the rise and fall of the Coolie MDR (1834–1947). Contrary to claims that sending-state governments have only recently started to use emigrants to meet domestic development needs, this chapter shows that emigration has been an important state subject in India since the colonial era. The Coolie MDR instituted a racialized development model, whereby the state exploited poor and nonpoor Indian emigrants to serve as “coolies” for the British Empire, advancing economic accumulation in the colonies and ultimately in the United Kingdom. The Coolie MDR also inaugurated India’s first migration state, gradually building a regulatory framework that empowered the state to not only use, but also control, the global mobility of “free” (as opposed to enslaved) commodified human workers. Underlying this framework was a class-based distinction of Indian emigrants. This regulatory framework was so successful that it continues to guide Indian emigration today. Despite the resilience of its regulatory infrastructure, however, the Coolie MDR’s racist model of accumulation eventually mobilized cross-class solidarity among Indian emigrants, who joined forces with Indian independent leaders to resist global racism, British colonialism, and, ultimately, the Coolie MDR itself.

Chapter 4 details the rise and fall of India’s first postcolonial MDR, the Nationalist MDR (1947–77). Although the Nationalist MDR retained the Coolie MDR’s class-based regulatory infrastructure, it instituted a new development model defined by the nation’s new geographic boundaries. To support its domestic image as a protector of vulnerable Indians, and its global image as a self- sufficient, modernizing nation, the new Indian state legally forbade emigration. But it only applied these restrictions to poor workers, thereby legitimizing state control over them and ensuring their availability to service India’s domestic industrialization. Meanwhile, the state permitted elites to emigrate, but distanced them (at least in public) from India’s development agenda. This approach broke the cross-class solidarity among emigrants that had arisen to resist the Coolie MDR, and it bred new resentments. The state’s promises to protect the poor, while laudable, failed to deliver and thus mobilized poor workers to demand the liberalization of their emigration. The state’s dismissive stance toward elite emigrants mobilized them to join India’s anti-Emergency movement for global democracy and against the Nationalist MDR. This chapter thus exposes how both elite and poor Indians were instrumental in fomenting India’s subsequent and contemporary MDR.

Chapters 5 and 6 detail the CEO MDR (1977–present), which is progressively liberalizing emigration and is differentially using poor and elite emigrants to fuel Indian development while widening class inequalities. While the CEO MDR echoes parts of the Coolie and Nationalist MDRs, it has instituted a new development model in India that valorizes global markets (for people and capital), privatization, and self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship for both elite and poor emigrants. By tracing the origin of the CEO MDR to the late 1970s, these chapters expose the vital but understudied role that the Indian state and emigrants themselves have played in securing consent within India for this new development model.

Chapter 5 details how the CEO MDR has used poor and elite emigrants’ financial contributions from abroad (in the form of remittances, savings ac- counts, investments, and bonds), thereby reframing emigrants as a resource for India (rather than an embarrassment, as in the Nationalist MDR) and building consent for foreign capital inflows. To cement its political legitimacy, especially among domestic resisters to globalization, the state has emphasized poor workers’ demands for mobility, maintained some restrictions (especially over female emigrants), and provided some welfare upon return. Toward elite emigrants, the state has appealed to shared racial and ethnic solidarity bonds between domestic Indians and emigrants (a practice first initiated during the Independence movement) and offered material incentives in return for their financial contributions. These attempts have yielded uneven results. While poor emigrants’ financial remittances have been astounding, elite emigrants’ financial contributions have been costly, volatile, and meager given their salary base.

Chapter 6 exposes how the CEO MDR has forged an elite class pact of “global Indians” that includes India’s state officials, domestic business leaders, and elites abroad. This celebrated group dominates Indian development and attains material wealth and status in the process. To seal this class pact, the CEO MDR has tapped elite emigrants’ social and ideological contributions to development (in the form of their ideas, ideals, tastes, networks, and technical expertise). It has invited elite emigrants to forge partnerships with Indian businesses, reshape India’s voluntary sector, invest in Indian real estate, and serve in elite policy positions within the government. And it has framed Indian Americans, in particular, as successful, hard-working, private-sector professionals and entrepreneurs whom domestic Indians should emulate. The CEO MDR has not, however, tapped poor emigrants for their social and ideological remittances. Rather, it has tried to cement their consent to elite ideals of privatization, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurship upon their return. Thus, the CEO MDR has reframed poor emigrants’ identity as members of a cross-class category of “migrant entrepreneurs,” thereby occluding their class differences with elite emigrants and deflecting attention away from wage labor and its underlying structures of exploitation.

Chapters 7 and 8 turn our analytical gaze downward to examine how poor and elite emigrants are experiencing and organizing to cement, resist, and re- shape the CEO MDR. An important unintended consequence of the CEO MDR was that it created the conditions for the growth of migrant organizations. Chapter 7 analyzes the strategies and demands of poor emigrants’ organizations and migrant recruiters. Poor Indian emigrants have drawn on their structural power as voters and “protectors of the nation’s foreign exchange” to demand the liberalization of emigration, “rights-based” (as opposed to paternalist) welfare, increased data, and recognition. But the partisan and cross-class nature of their organizations have de-radicalized them, especially compared to domestic labor organizations. The CEO MDR has ironically undermined the private recruiter, a class actor that the CEO MDR legitimized and legalized in the first place. Under the CEO MDR, small and medium-size private recruiters have become bankrupt, have shut down, or have returned to extralegal business operations, while large private recruitment businesses have prospered.

Chapter 8 analyzes the strategies and demands of elite emigrants’ trans- national organizations with a focus on the United States. Indian American transnational organizations embrace, rather than critique, the CEO MDR’s development ideals of privatization, voluntarism, and self-sufficiency. In fact, they helped cement these ideals by enthusiastically participating in the national government’s call for their ideological remittances. To channel these ideological remittances, Indian Americans have built hundreds of transnational diaspora organizations that promote private education, private philanthropy for poverty alleviation, and private business development. Almost none addresses social inequities based on class, caste, or gender. Although diverse, these organizations reflect exactly the portrait of the elite global Indian that the CEO MDR idealizes. Doing so not only empowers Indian Americans to help shape India’s future; it also valorizes their own status within the United States and India and thus affords them material and symbolic benefits in the process.

Chapter 9 explores the future prospects of the CEO MDR by underscoring its contradictions and emerging weaknesses. First, the promise of entrepreneurship has been (unsurprisingly) limited in uplifting poor emigrants. State welfare programs for emigrants have also failed to deliver. Second, given most private recruiters’ class position as small and medium-size entrepreneurs, their current discontent exposes a fallacy in the CEO MDR’s claims to promote this very line of labor. Finally, elite emigrants’ call for privatization and their underlying dis- trust of the government’s ability to deliver on development are fomenting fault lines in their relationship with Indian NGOs and the Indian state—a tension that could be heard in Dr. Singh’s remarks. If history is any guide, the CEO MDR will eventually fall. This final chapter thus explores the potential for the CEO MDR’s weaknesses to mobilize resistance.

As this book details, although sending states’ emigration practices sometimes reflect and reproduce the rules of the game that are determined by receiving countries, emigrants also sometimes reshape domestic regimes of capital accu- mulation and thus the rules of the global migration game. So the question this book leaves us with is this: How can we ensure that India’s next MDR addresses and mitigates, rather than exacerbates, class inequities? Can poor and elite emigrants be mobilized to bring forth a moral compass in India’s development trajectories—one that understands, empathizes, and even alleviates the per- sonal anguish that is always attached to human migration?

[1] Interview, January 19, 2011.

[2] The overseas Indian population figure from India’s Ministry of External Affairs is the most recent one available at the time of writing. It draws on the 2015 estimate of Indian citizens living abroad (known in India as Non-Resident Indians or NRIs) and foreign-born Indians or those with Indian heritage (known in India as Persons of Indian Origin or PIOs). The United Nations migrant population figure delineates NRIs. I have drawn on the 2019 population and remittance figures given the extraordinary circumstances of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, Mexico had 11.8 million emigrants abroad; China had 10.7 million; and Russia had 10.5 million (United Nations 2019). In 2019, migrant remittances to all developing countries totaled US$448 billion. The steady rise in global remittances since the 1990s can be attributed to the rise in international migration, improved data collection, lower transaction costs, and the depreciation of the US dollar. In 2019, the total remittances to India was followed by Mexico (US$36 billion), Philippines (US$26 billion), and China (US$4 billion) (World Bank n.d.).

[3] In 2019–2020, FDI was US$43 billion; FPI was US$1.4 billion; ODA was US$3.8 billion; and NRI deposits were US$8.6 billion (Reserve Bank of India 2018).

[4] In addition to differentially controlling who leaves a country according to class, sending states have differentially regulated emigrants by class while they are abroad and imposed class-differentiated terms of emigrant return.

[5] Although India’s education cut-off line for emigration has always been at the secondary school level (between 10th and 12th grades), it is worth noting that until the 1990s, India’s central bank, the Reserve Bank of India, forbade foreign exchange for undergraduate tertiary education abroad except to Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard.

[6] While the Indian Intelligence Bureau keeps data on all cross-border traffic, data on educated emigrants who do not require government clearance is not kept (and thus not publicly reported) by any Indian emigration office.

[7] Devesh Kapur’s work on professional Indian emigrants in the United States and Irudya Rajan’s work on poor Indian emigrants to the Gulf provide the most robust work available on Indian emigration to date.

[8] In my review of English-language news articles in this period, I found only four that featured emigrant workers.

[9] Unlike so many sending countries in Latin America, the Middle East, and North Africa, India does not border a rich, migrant-receiving country that provides an obvious (albeit risky) chance for economic betterment. Therefore, India’s economic migrants move far distances and to a range of receiving countries.

[10] Estimate is drawn from various databases on Gulf migration collected by the Gulf Labor Markets and Migration website,

[11] See Reserve Bank of India 2021.

[12] Contributions eligible for the award include support to India’s causes and concerns in a tangible way; building closer links between India, the overseas Indian community, and emigrants’ country of residence; social and humanitarian causes in India or abroad; welfare of the local Indian community; philanthropic and charitable work; eminence in one’s field or outstanding work which has enhanced India’s prestige in the country of residence/work.

[13] The OCI still omits citizens of Bangladesh and Pakistan.

[14] As I elaborate in the next chapter, these two groups are commonly referred to in Indian emigration parlance as “high-skilled” and “low-skilled.” But given the loaded and detrimental effects of these terms, I instead use “elite” and “poor” to denominate these emigrants.

Rina Agarwala
Rina Agarwala

Rina Agarwala is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. Agarwala publishes and lectures on international development, labor, migration, gender, social movements, and Indian politics. Agarwala is the author of The Migration-Development Regime: How Class Shapes Indian Emigration (Oxford University Press, 2022) and Informal Labor, Formal Politics and Dignified Discontent in India (Cambridge, 2013) and the co-editor of Whatever Happened to Class? Reflections from South Asia (Routledge, 2008). She has also worked at the United Nations Development Program in China, the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India, and Women’s World Banking in New York.