Quit India Movement

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A quiet, protectionist tweak of India’s visa rules is forcing hordes of foreign expats to up and leave the country

That autumn morning at Delhi’s Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO), sometimes described as the “sixth or seventh ring of hell” by those with first-hand experience, was particularly bad for Michael, a tour guide who speaks fluent Hindi and who has lived in India for ten years, mostly in Varanasi.

That day, Michael, who wants his last name to be withheld, ran into five others who met a similar fate. All of them were waiting in line to get their employment visa extended, summoning all their courage and patience to survive the eternally cranky and utterly unpredictable FRRO officers. But even they weren’t prepared for the news: the Indian Government wanted them out, ASAP. They weren’t earning the requisite $25,000 per year (a little over Rs 11 lakh) to stay on in India.

The government officer who handled Michael’s case had a dark sense of humour. “Ask Chidambaram,” is all he could offer. He then told him he had two weeks to pack up and leave the country.

As Michael and others would find out, P Chidambaram, the Union Home Minister who recently roused a minor uproar with remarks that seemed to associate crime in Delhi with “migrants” (presumably from other states), had been the driving force behind a new visa clause that mandates that only foreign nationals earning over $25,000 annually can work in India. The only exemptions: translators, cooks of foreign cuisine, teachers of languages other than English, and staff working with high commissions and embassies in India.

For a country that hardsells itself as the economic hotspot of the 21st century, obsesses over business deals with world leaders like Obama and Sarkozy, and commits obscene sums of public money to coming-out parties like the Commonwealth Games, throwing legally admitted foreigners out of the country seems counterproductive.

As it turns out, India is in the process of streamlining its visa manual. And so the tourist visa too has come under new regulations, with the Government now mandating a minimum two-month gap between successive trips to the country. Of course, Home Ministry guidelines cannot be entirely divorced from security concerns, be they financial or otherwise, internal or external. There is also the argument that the new rule will help broaden the country’s tax net, as foreign nationals will now have to declare their salaries to stay in.

But for those affected, that is no consolation. For many, the decision has been life shattering.

In Michael’s case, the FRRO officer denied him even the three-month grace period allowed by the country. Michael had no more than 14 days, when his visa expired, to wind down a life built over a decade. The Canadian citizen describes his current situation as living “in exile”. He has no idea what he will do next. “Everything is still rather fresh,” he says, from his temporary base in Thailand. “While I have no savings to speak of after all these years in India, I am happy… One of the many lessons of India is that there is always somebody in shit worse than you, and the odds are, he is happier with life than you are.”
Michael worked for a travel company, giving cultural tours to foreigners in India. “I thought I would be there for life,” says Michael, who completed his Masters in India and studied Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy before joining the tourism sector. “I was making a fraction of the salary a person with my education might make in the West. But I was happy there. I love India and the Indian people, and my life was full and complete.”

Also staring at an abrupt end to their India stint are several foreign nationals working for NGOs or in the development sector. Sophie, a pseudonym (as requested by her), is a French national employed by an energy-for-the-masses project in India. “In the world right now, if you want to work in the development sector, you start with India,” says Sophie, who has worked in India for a little over three years now. She knows at least six people in the NGO sector who’ve been affected. Unlike in the corporate sector, she says, even a highly qualified person in this sector may not be earning a big salary. “A lot of young people from the US, Canada, UK and other European countries now want to first work in India,” Sophie continues. “And they get paid Indian salaries.”

Such a loss of qualified staffers greatly worries Thomas Chandy, who heads Save the Children India. He plans to organise colleagues affected by this rule and ask the Government for a mass exemption to the NGO sector. After all, says Chandy, NGOs attract a lot of international experts who take a break to work in India for a couple of years. This also applies to smaller NGOs, who often pay much lower salaries. This exchange of ideas is bringing about innovation in the sector, which it needs badly, says Chandy. “A rule like this will hit us badly. When a new legislation is brought in, it is usually intended for some target groups. But there are always unintended consequences to it.”

Chandy, who is on the board of directors of Mussoorie’s renowned Woodstock School, is also worried by the implications of this rule for educational institutes that hire staff from overseas. International schools, which often require specialised teachers for international curriculums such as those of the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programmes, are unlikely to be paying their staff salaries that exceed Rs 11 lakh per year.

“In every other sense, we are living in a globalised world,” Chandy says. “We speak of 9 per cent growth and India no longer being a developing country, then why not expose the country to people who come and work and learn here? I think more people should come. This kind of rule does not speak well of a progressive country.”

So, even as curiosity peaks worldwide for all things Indian, is the Government sending out the wrong signals? “More and more, India is being covered by the foreign media,” says Peter Braun, managing director of Knowledge Must, a New Delhi-based company that offers career and cultural guidance and training to students, professionals and organisations from Europe, the UK and US wanting to come to India. “The image of the country is changing,” he says, “It is becoming more attractive.”

Moreover, adds Braun, “A lot of foreigners who want to work here are looking less at income and more at professional experience. Income is not always the main motivation because comparative incomes in India are pretty low.” Foreign nationals employed by multinational companies can earn as much as $5,000 per month. But Braun says that more and more people are working in India for salaries in the range of $800–$1,500 per month.

Although Braun believes “the power of India’s image is stronger than the regulations”, he says India will only gain by easing the way for foreigners keen to work here. “In many sectors, there is a shortage of skills. Industries complain that they don’t have enough qualified workers. And one solution to this is to bring them from outside. At the end of the day, India will benefit from this. It is in the interest of the Indian economy that companies grow.”

The new employment visa guidelines, issued on 30 September by the Home Ministry, took effect on 1 November. A clarification was sought on the new guidelines in Parliament, but all that Minister of State for Home Affairs Mullappally Ramachandran would say in response was that the old rules had been reviewed to ensure that only “highly skilled and/or qualified personnel” were allowed to work in India.

The officialese makes it sound like a move to reserve all mid- to low-level jobs in India for Indians. It is clearly being interpreted as such. Dave, a journalist affected by the new salary clause who also wants his last name withheld, thinks throwing out people like him is a form of protectionism that borders on paranoia. “There are a lot less people coming to India than many other Asian countries,” he says, “India has bigger problems than foreigners taking Indian jobs.”

But do Indian professionals really face serious competition from foreigners within the country? “Today, everybody is protectionist,” says a senior official at the External Affairs Ministry, which administers the Home Ministry’s visa policy. “Which country is not?” asks the official, “India is for Indians first. It is not for others. Till now, because of lack of expertise and experience, we were allowing everyone. Now we are formulating operational rules.” 

But how exactly did the Ministry arrive at this $25,000 figure? According to the senior official, “$2,200 or about Rs 85,000 gross per month is the median salary” of white-collar employees in sectors ranging from hospitality to infotech. “If you study the graph of how Indian professionals’ median salary has grown over the last seven years, you will find that the range is 15–32 per cent. Given that trend, the Government cannot fix the figure at, say, $18,000 and later increase it to $25,000. That is probably why it has been kept at $25,000.”

If the logic befuddles, consider the stats. Currently, there are about 700,000 foreign nationals on work visas in India, according to government sources. Of these, other than diplomats and the like (the figure includes staff working with embassies and so on), a sizeable number are senior executives working with multinationals and other foreign firms/organisations, and are unlikely to be affected by the new salary cutoff rule. But many others will be. “The financial sector hires the largest number of foreign nationals in India, followed by infotech-related services, consultancy, power, engineering, hospitality and entertainment. Most of the foreign nationals earning under $25,000 a year will fall in the last four sectors mentioned,” says the ministry official.

The influx in these sectors, according to the official, is from countries like Korea, Thailand, Japan, Poland, Romania, the former Soviet republics and  China, which takes the lead. The last of these may surprise some readers, but the Mumbai-based Indo-China expert Nazia Vasi, who runs the consultancy Inchin Closer, writes in an October 2010 blog post that the new rule is ‘a covert move to limit the number of Chinese engineers coming to India to assemble power and infrastructure equipment’. And, she says, this isn’t the first time: ‘India has in the past too tried various measures to stall Chinese engineers who demand a frugal salary for coming to India and taking up temporary skilled jobs believed to be for Indians. However, the Chinese contend that if India needs Chinese equipment, which it does to scale up its infrastructure rapidly, Chinese engineers should be granted employment visas to install the equipment.’ The new rule, Vasi warns, could invite retaliation. ‘The move could limit opportunities for Indians in [China], its largest trading partner and the world’s fastest growing economy.’

Other experts say it’s important to view the visa decision in the framework of larger policy trends.

This may be one move among others to come, says Binod Khadria, project director of International Migration and Diaspora Studies at the Zakir Hussain Centre for Educational Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “I will not look at it as an isolated individual step,” he says, “It may have been a package with different steps involved, one being tightening the immigration system, particularly [vis-à-vis] our neighbours. But I don’t think this is China-oriented, it is much more global.”

Interestingly, the $25,000 annual salary rule had been imposed even in the first half of 2010, only to be scrapped later. A Ukrainian denied a work visa had even challenged it in the Bombay High Court. Though the court dismissed her plea, the Home Ministry had already struck the rule down.

Now that it’s back, the move is attracting protests at Indian missions abroad, as the senior official says, conceding that some businesses in India may be hurt by this regulation. But, he adds, the guideline could be reviewed at some stage and the exemption list widened.

This might offer some hope to Michael. He still plans to move back to Varanasi some day.