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The Economic Times

Why Indians fleeing for greener pastures

India is a welter of unresolved basic problems that defeats its people. In no other country, not even in sub-Saharan Africa is there so much promise and so little fulfilment.
More than 300 migrants from India were recently – and unprecedentedly – deported to New Delhi by Mexico, rounded up as they were planning to illegally cross over from that country into the United States. Some of the prospective (illegal) migrants had paid upwards of $20,000 (approximately Rs 14 lakh) per head to human traffickers to make the perilous journey across oceans, jungles, and deserts; one family of four paid $50,000. The expedition itself often claims lives before they can even get a risky shot at the storied American Dream.

The Rs 14 lakh that individuals coughed up for this Mission America (or illegal admission USA) is no chump change. In any country, it would be sufficient seed capital to start a small business. If nothing else, it is enough to live in reasonable comfort for a few years in India, where cost of living remains low. Why would migrants spend so much money for a dangerous enterprise of going to America at a time when even the meanest intelligence knows immigrants, much less illegal immigrants, are unwelcome in the United States?

There are two immediate, obvious reasons. The lure of the United States, of the famed American dream, is still alive – warts and dangers and all – despite reports of its demise, imminent or otherwise, at the hands of a nativist, isolationist dispensation that has taken control of the country. The more worrisome reason for New Delhi is that India offers so little hope that some young men who are able to raise $20,000 prefer to use it to flee the country rather than deploy it at home to build a life. In other words, they have assessed that the risk-reward return from chasing the American Dream is better than investing it in what they probably consider an Indian nightmare.

This should not shock anyone who is familiar with how things work (or not work) in India, notwithstanding occasional success stories, the uptick for the country in the ease of doing business, the patriotic resilience of its people, and the modest efforts by the government to nourish enterprise. In every sphere of business activity, the dice is loaded against aspiring entrepreneurs, and indeed anyone who wants a decent quality of life in India. From regulatory hurdles to retail corruption to workaday issues of lack of clean and safe air, water and transport, India is a welter of unresolved basic problems that defeats its people. In no other country, not even in sub-Saharan Africa is there so much promise and so little fulfilment. The result is many people are fleeing, even at great risk.

Let me illustrate the purported dream vs nightmare scenario with two examples involving home construction. After a modest home expansion in the US some years ago, our contractor called in the county inspector for a final review after which one gets an occupation certificate. The inspector failed us because he found a designated “egress window” (one through which a fireman can enter or exit in case of an emergency) was HALF an inch smaller than prescribed in the building code. Half an inch. The contractor (a Chinese builder) and i exchanged knowing looks. This would have never happened “back home”. But there was no earthly chance of getting around the rule (much less bribing) and we eventually had to replace the window before passing the inspection.

Switch scene to India. The electrical contractor’s itemised bill during house construction here included a “miscellaneous” charge of Rs 35,000. His shrug upon inquiry said it all: it was required for payoff to local officials. But why should we pay when we are not violating any rule or law, particularly when we can pick up the phone and talk to the chairman of the electricity corporation or bring it up on social media? Do that at your own risk of being harassed for years for not greasing the system, he advised. We are still paying the price of our foolhardiness in “not going with the flow”, marked out as the “house that would not pay”.

It is not that the United States is incorruptible. There is monumental corruption involving big corporations and lawmakers that eventually does affect the common man even in the US. This is most evident in the drug and pharma industry. But there is very little retail corruption at the day to day level of the kind that is endemic in India – at check posts, in local bodies, at the motor vehicles department, in survey offices, and in a myriad places where there are workaday transactions. Besides, mature countries have scope for correction and redress – as is being demonstrated in the opioid crisis in the US.

The admirable Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission now needs to be expanded not just to clean our cities and towns of the physical filth but also the obscenity of corruption that is causing demoralised youth to spend impressive amounts of money to abandon the country. Owners of fractured farms and blue collar labour may be spending $20,000 to flee, but white collar work force is spending as much as $200,000 to exit, mostly through legal means. The modest improvement in the ease of doing business index shouldn’t just be addressing foreign investors; our own people need the reassurance that they can thrive in India. They should be deploying capital for a shot at the Indian Dream instead of pursuing an American nightmare.
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