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Diaspora: Freedom struggle, role in nation-building

  • Categories
    International Relations: Growth & Connectivity
  • Published
    12th Mar, 2023


  • Diasporas are the symbol of a nation’s pride and represent their country internationally.
  • They help in building the country’s value internationally through their huge success stories. The diaspora’s ability to spread Indian soft power, lobby for India’s national interests, and contribute economically to India’s rise is now well-recognized.
  • One of the greatest economic contributions of the Indian diaspora has been in terms of remittances.
  • According to a World Bank Report, India received approximately 87 billion dollars in remittances in 2021 with the USA being the biggest source.
  • To mark the contribution of the Overseas Indian community in the development of India. Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is celebrated on 9th January every year. The date, 09th January, was selected to mark the return of Mahatma Gandhi from South Africa to India in 1915.


  • Indians have a long history of migration to many parts of the world. During the mid-sixteenth century people from Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and the cities of Delhi, Allahabad and Bombay migrated to Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Russia.
  • They were referred to as "Multanis", "Shikarpuris" and "Banias". It was an "Indian Merchant Diaspora". During the British rule in India, many Indians made short trips to England and European countries. When India got her Independence Indians migrated to European countries mostly either for higher education or to learn industrial know-how.
  • They did not stay permanently. Those who stayed always kept regular contact with their families in India.
  • In Europe, they were not considered "guest-laborer" immigrants as the case was with the South European and North African countries. After World War II the European countries developed into a multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and multi-religious society.
  • Indians also became a part of the European canvas.
  • At present, Indians number more than 2 million in Europe. Unfortunately, the actual figure for Indians in European countries is not known.

Indian diaspora:

  • The Indian diaspora around the world now stands at 31.2 million, of which PIOs were 17 million and NRIs were 13 million, spread across 146 countries in the world.
  • The US, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Myanmar, the UK, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and Canada host an Indian diasporic population of at least one million each.
  • According to the Global Migration Report 2020, India continues to be the largest country of origin of international migrants with a 17.5 million-strong diaspora across the world, and it received the highest remittance of $78.6 billion (this amounts to a whopping 3.4% of India’s GDP) from Indians living abroad.

India, Diaspora, and Migration: An Overview

  • India is one of the pioneers in recognizing the importance of its overseas population and establishing an institutional framework for sustainable and mutually beneficial engagement with its Diaspora.
  • By creating an independent and effective Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, India has given mainstream attention to its estimated 25 million-strong Overseas Indian community.
  • This experience too has helped us develop appropriate and well-calibrated institutional responses, through bilateral and multilateral engagements, to meet the challenges of capacity-building for better migration management.

History of Migration

  • People of Indian origin began to migrate overseas in significant numbers only in the 19th century driven by the economic compulsions generated by colonialism. In a uniquely diverse pattern that has not been replicated by any other diaspora, except perhaps the Chinese, Indian spread initially to the countries of Africa, Southeast Asia, Fiji, and the Caribbean. This wave was mainly in response to the enormous demand for cheap labour that arose immediately after the British abolished slavery in 1833-1834.
  • It was succeeded in the second half of the 20th century, by a steady outflow of some of India’s best professionals to the developed countries of the west, and of India's skilled and semi-skilled labour in the wake of the oil boom in West Asia in the 1970s.
  • These migratory flows have resulted in diverse communities of people of Indian origin in various parts of the world: East Asia, Middle-East Asia, South, and Eastern Africa, Europe, North America, Australia, the northern part of South America, and the Caribbean Islands. These distinct communities of people of Indian origin, as well as Indian nationals living abroad, constitute the vast Indian Diaspora. There is no single homogeneous Overseas Indian community; there exist diversities within them as well as in the level and degree of their engagement with India, defined by the lapse of time, generations and distance that separate them from their country of origin.

Contemporary flows from India are of two kinds:

  • The first is the emigration of highly skilled professionals, workers, and students with tertiary and higher educational qualifications migrating to the most advanced OECD countries, particularly to the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. This flow started after Indian independence, in pursuit of better career prospects and living, and gathered momentum with the emigration of IT professionals in the 1990s.
  • The second was the flow of unskilled and semi-skilled workers going mostly to the Gulf countries and Malaysia—following the oil boom in the Gulf countries, mainly from Kerala and other south Indian states. Of late, northern states in India like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have emerged as the leading states of origin.

Indian diaspora’s contribution to the world: Indian diaspora in the world can be divided into two major categories (apart from others who are in myriad occupations and almost in every country in the world):

  • Technological graduates: They are engineering and management graduates, who are in high-value jobs majorly located in, but not limited to, western countries like the US and Europe.
  • Manual Labour: These comprise the comparatively lower-skilled population, which has been hired for manual labour, majorly in Arab or West Asian countries.

Role of Non-Resident Indians in making India Self-Reliant:

  • Financial Contribution: Indian diaspora is a strong community, which is approximately 18 million strong. They are the topmost contributors to the home economy, measured in terms of global remittances. Indians contribute 13% of global remittances. The remittance sent by Indians back to India amount to approximately 3.2% of the Indian GDP.
  • Contribution to the place of residence: Similarly, their contribution to the country of residence is also noteworthy. E.g., the Indian diaspora in the UK is almost 1.8% of the total population of the UK, but it contributes almost 6% of the total GDP of the UK.
  • Changing perceptions: After the 1991 LPG reforms, the outflow of the Indian diaspora has contributed a lot to change the perception of the world towards Indian employees. The leadership position of many Indians in the tech companies of Silicon Valley has strengthened the image of India as a technology powerhouse and a source of quality human resources. Indian executives have often been credited with being the harbingers of innovation as part of the top technology companies around the world. E.g., executives like Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella, etc. have reached the highest echelons in their respective sectors.
  • Focus on ‘Make in India’: Indians are counted amongst the most affluent communities around the world. This source of capital can be tapped by encouraging them to invest in India. Also, taking advantage of their corporate leadership positions in Silicon Valley and other technological sectors, the Indian diaspora can be facilitated to contribute to the Indian development story by investing in Greenfield and brownfield projects, as well as, portfolio investments in India.
  • Knowledge Economy: Experts indicate that in the upcoming future, it would be the Artificial intelligence-driven industry that will create high-value jobs. In such a scenario, the investment in engineering education in the country is expected to pay off. Similarly, the Indian diaspora is expected to guide the policy-makers in the required direction to extract maximum benefit out of the changing global scenario. E.g., the Vaibhav conference of Indian scientists abroad has yielded many ideas for the benefit of India.
  • India’s inherent strengths: Indians are also well integrated into the healthcare sector around the world in the form of doctors and healthcare workers. This can be combined with the inherent strength of India in the pharmaceutical sector to create an efficient partnership. E.g. Serum Institute of India is manufacturing the Oxford-Astra Zenca vaccine, which is a symbiotic relationship between the UK’s research and development industry and the Indian pharma sector. Similarly, the engine of Light Combat Aircraft Tejas will be co-developed by Rolls Royce in India, giving it much-needed strength and global visibility.

Recent steps by the Indian government:

  • Ease of Doing Business: India has consistently ranked in the top improving countries for the last three years, with the Indian rank improving from 142nd (2014) to 63rd in 2020. This creates a favourable environment for businesses to invest in India and also allows the diaspora to confidently create an outreach strategy, in their areas of influence.
  • Merger of Person of Indian Origin (PIO) and Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) status: The merger of PIO and OCI has been a long-standing demand of the Indian community, which has been accepted by the government. Along with that, the Indian government has accorded many advantages to the OCIs by including them in the definition of Indian management control, in the context of sensitive industries. This will create investment opportunities for the diaspora.
  • Launch of informative projects: Indian government is in the process of launching awareness generation portals like the Global Pravasi Rishta portal, to provide an instrument of connecting with the diaspora. It will be a dynamic communication platform to connect the diaspora with the Ministry of foreign affairs, Indian missions, and the Indian diaspora abroad.
  • Vaibhav Summit: Vaishwik Bhartiya Vaigyanik or Vaibhav summit is an event to bring together resident and overseas scientists of India at a common platform to solve the current problems facing India. It is an initiative of the Ministry of Science and Technology, and Academic organizations of India. The goal of the summit is to create a knowledge database and a culture of innovation through global outreach.

The opportunities that the Indian diaspora brings to India:

  • They serve as an important ‘bridge’ to access knowledge, expertise, resources, and markets for the development of the country of origin with the rest of the world.
  • Indian Diaspora is an important part of India’s “soft diplomacy” or “diaspora diplomacy”. For example, the Indian Diaspora played critical in the fructification of the Indo-US Nuclear deal.
  • They have also contributed to the growth and development of the country of their residence. For example, Silicon Valley represents the success of Indians.
  • The Indian Diaspora has played an important role in the field of Science & Technology.
  • Trans-national entrepreneurship: They are a significant source of trade and investment in India.
  • Source of large inflows of remittances, which has been helping balance the current account. Its further aids in socioeconomic development and poverty reduction. According to the World Bank, the Indian Diaspora is the largest earner of remittances in the world currently.
  • Diffusion of experience and exposure: They spread the Indian Culture and traditions abroad benefitting India in general. Examples: Yoga, Ayurveda, Indian Cuisine, etc.
  • NRIs also finance educational institutions or businesses, which again adds to the economy’s sectors. NRIs are often a major source of Foreign Direct Investment, Market Development (Outsourcing), and technology transfer, which boost the assets of the fiscal system.

Challenges Faced by Indian Diaspora

  • Anti-Globalization: With the rising Anti-globalization wave, there has been an increase in the incidents of suspected hate crimes against the Indian community.
  • West Asian Crisis: The volatility in West Asia, together with the fall in oil prices, has caused fears of a massive return of Indian nationals, curtailing remittances and making demands on the job market.
  • Returning Diaspora: India must also realize that the diaspora in West Asia is semi-skilled and mainly engaged in the infrastructure sector. After the infrastructure boom will get over India should be ready for the eventuality of Indian workers returning.
  • Negative Fallout: India has had problems with negative campaigning and foreign funding, coming from abroad, for separatist movements like the Khalistan movement.

Way Forward:

Ease entry of foreign funds.

  • Address the problems of our overseas blue-collar workers
  • Negotiating Standard Labour Export Agreements with the host countries
  • Monitoring and supervision of our overseas workers by our Missions
  • compulsory insurance schemes covering the risks faced by our overseas workers

Inclusive Diplomacy.

  • PIOs make frequent visits to their home state or to visit their relatives. There should be a greater focus on promoting tourism among 2nd generation PIOs.
  • The welfare of Indian Women married to NRIs/PIOs

Formalizing Rotation Program

  • VAJRA (Visiting Advanced Joint Research Faculty) scheme which seeks to formalize a rotation program wherein top NRI scientists, engineers, doctors, managers, and professionals serve Indian public sector organizations for a brief period, lending their expertise- is a step in the right direction.

Economic Development

  • Diasporic professionals working in senior positions in the manufacturing industry can help promote India as an important destination for outsourcing.
  • Government should also consider setting up Special Economic Zones, exclusively for projects to be set up by NRIs/PIOs.
  • The Government should consider issuing special infrastructure bonds for attracting NRI/PIO investments along the lines of the Israel Bonds.
  • The challenge before India lies in the way it taps its widespread Diaspora’s financial and intellectual capital.

Notable Indian Diasporas:

  • Har Gobind Khorana: Cracking the genetic code (Nobel prize in Medicine in 1968)
  • Chandrasekhar: Mathematical theory of black holes (Nobel Prize in Physics 1983)
  • Amartya Sen: Work in welfare economics (Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998)
  • Venkatraman Ramakrishnan: Structure & function of the ribosome (Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009)
  • Vinod Khosla: Co-founders of Sun Microsystems (Created the Java programming language)
  • Indra Nooyi: She has been the Chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo.
  • Sundar Pichai: CEO of Google (Padma Bhushan 2022)
  • Satya Nadella: CEO of Microsoft (Padma Bhushan 2022)
  • Kamala Harris: First Indian-origin, woman vice president of the United States
  • Kalpana Chawla: Indian-born American astronaut (NASA)
  • Shantanu Narayen: CEO of Adobe Inc (Padma shri 2019)
  • Zubin Mehta: Orchestral conductor and musical director Padma Bhushan (1966) & Padma Vibhushan (2001)


  • In recent times, the government has laid a strong foundation by making diplomacy people-centric with the government’s constant interaction with the Indian diaspora. The Indian diaspora is the bridge between their nation and India where they can grow simultaneously for the betterment of their citizens. The diaspora can provide the requisite strategic impulse, which makes it all the more important to unlock their potential. To ensure that Diaspora members feel welcomed upon their arrival in India, easier procedures for immigration and customs clearances that are marked by courteous service are essential.

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