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Rising Force: Indian Diaspora

Updated on November 4, 2016

It is official! According to the United Nations, the largest diaspora in the world is now of Indian origin. There are officially 16 million People of Indian Origin (PIO) living all over the world. There is a steady stream of Indians who move to other countries to study and find jobs. In the period of 2010-2015, two million Indians switched countries and has no doubt swelled the ranks of Indians abroad by 17% from 13.2 million in 2010. Of course, many of them remain rooted to India and regularly send money to their families and have life insurance to protect the financial future of their loved ones back home.

Indian Migrations through the Ages

According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Population, there are 244 million people who live in a country other than the one they originally hailed from. This represents 3.3% of the entire population of the world. Getting an education, getting a job or taking up permanent residence, these are the three reasons that people leave their home country for foreign shores these days. However things were not always this way.

In the first millennium, the Indian subcontinent (as always) was busy in trade and commerce with all those in the neighborhood and as a result, almost all of Southeast Asia felt the presence of Indians on their soil. The bigger the kingdom, the further Indians were likely to be found and the efforts of Kings Ashoka and Samudragupa, followed by the mighty Cholla kings who built a powerful navy and at one time ruled the island nations of Malay and Sumatra ensured that the great Indian footprint would first be seen in Southeast Asia.

When trade between Indian’s and Arab countries across the Arabian Sea became frequent in the 16th century, Indians were busy trading fabrics, spices and other merchandise and settled in places like Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. If it wasn’t Arab dhows that were anchored in Indian ports, it would be Chinese junks and later Portuguese sailing ships. There are even records dating back to 1610, describing Indian merchants who had settled as far as St Petersburg and Moscow in Russia.

Probably the most romantic of all Indian PIO stories that of the gypsies as documented so well in the French documentary movie Latcho Drom (Safe Journey) that tracks the movement of the ‘romani’ people in their journey from their land of origin in the deserts of Rajasthan, all the way up the European continent, through Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France and Spain. This migration of the nomadic gypsies happened back in the 11th century.

Bringing the hands of time closer to the present, the biggest modern movement of people in India was caused by colonialism. Scores of Indian laborers were indentured to work in other British colonies in Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, and Fiji, to name just a few. Towards the end of the British Raj, there were sizable populations of Indians living in gulf countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Aden and Oman. Post-independence, it was these very same gulf countries that would take in vast numbers of Indians to fuel the oil boom economies of the 1970s. This trend of finding hardy workers in Indians has been the primary reason for the popularity of Indian workers around the world. They are quick-thinking, rely on generations of merchant instincts to make the best deals and do not cause any trouble in their host countries. Given the vital role they ended up playing in the middle rungs of their host countries, it’s no wonder quite a few countries like the UAE and Kuwait were willing to accept them as naturalized citizens.

Growing in Strength

Back in 2003, the Indian Government declared January 9th as the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas or Overseas Indians' Day acknowledging the contribution and the importance of such a large and remote segment of its population. In 2005, PIO were at third place, after Russia and Mexico. Currently, the majority of the 12 million Mexicans are based in the US. Recently, there have been quite a few cases of Indian workers getting stranded in a foreign country due to their employers leaving them in the lurch or political upheaval. With savings being ingrained in their upbringing and good life insurance in place, Indians feel much more secure than people of other nationalities.

Not that the Indian diaspora is remote in terms of remittances sent to India. It was estimated in 2015 that the grand total of remittances sent back to India were in the region of $72 billion, making this one of the biggest in the world. If it was the search for work which drove Indians to all these countries in the last century with nothing but their hopes for a better future riding on a visa and maybe some life insurance as an assurance for their families left behind, these days a fresh segment has emerged since in the form of overseas students of Indian origin. Currently Indian students are the second largest to study abroad after China. According to Fortune magazine, the estimated worth of PIOs in Silicon Valley is around $250 million; a direct result of those who completed their studies in the US and have settled there for professional reasons.

Taking a look at the world map for where the Indian diaspora concentration is the highest will show that the maximum are in the UAE where the 3.5 million Indians who live and work there make up 30% of the population. While the US is actually the destination of choice for Indians looking to relocate, the United Nations report does not distinguish between those who are migrant workers and who are immigrants. According to the American Community Survey of 2010, Indians are the largest immigrant group in the US with a population of about 31.8 lakh (1.0% of the US population).

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