Should I keep rowing or should I abandon ship and swim for that glittering island?

A few days back, a friend told me about his plans to head for a foreign country because he has had enough of India. He isn’t one of the ‘crazy about US’ kinds who think that all things American are cool or who only talks about English music and Hollywood. He is as connected to India as most of us. Yet he is convinced that he has to move out of India.

That discussion has got me thinking about the topic of young Indians migrating from India. This article is my attempt to put down the various factors that are at work in this matter.

I will discuss the history of Indian migrations and then look at why people migrate and why they don’t. If you are expecting a yes or no answer about migrating, I unfortunately can’t provide that.

Although I am taking an Indian perspective, I think most points would be relevant to all developing nations.

Also please note that I am trying to take an objective view on the subject and not a patriotic or emotional one.


Throughout history, the settlements that have thrived are the ones that move on to greener pastures at the right time. It’s the same even in the animal world. On the African Savana, the Gnu (wilder beast) is found in the 1000s, only because it makes a dangerous migration every year facing crocodile infested rivers and hungry lions. If we are to believe National Geographic, the animals that do not migrate are present in comparatively minuscule numbers.

Even our own ancestors migrated from the villages to the cities when they thought that the city life was better.

So migrating from your homeland to another place is a normal and routine aspect of human civilization. If we provide for the connected nature of the world today, migrating from one country to another can be put almost at par with migrating from a village to the big city in the year 1900.

Movies might make it a sentimental affair, but migration really is no big deal for mankind.

India Background

India hasn’t been a prosperous land for 100s of years, particularly since it came under the Moghul and then the British rule. Things have changed a lot since independence, but even today there are many places in India where survival is very difficult. The cause is often unemployment, droughts, malnutrition and epidemics.

As many generations of Indians have now been through this daily struggle for survival, it’s now a part of the Indian psyche to keep looking for better opportunities and a better place.

So there’s no denying that most (perhaps ‘all’) young Indians have considered moving out of India at some time or the other. Some take things further, some don’t.

What has changed?

Until the computer age, most skilled tasks were local. You couldn’t pack your bags, move to a new country and get productive right away. But with the IT revolution, a software developer now knows that he can migrate to any country on the globe, get a job and start making money in no time.

So although the earlier generation of bankers, accountants, public servants… would have thought about leaving India, they could not. But software guys can not only move but they can even make 10 times more money.

Is something wrong with India?

From what I have heard, the more common reason for migrating from India is not more money or a great career, but loss of faith in India. There are many reasons for this loss of faith. I will list the ones I feel are most important

1) Infrastructure

India is the definition of over-burdened infrastructure. Travel by any mode, visit any office, walk on any street and the thing you will realize is that India is crumbling under its own weight. There just is no room for 1 billion people to fit into a handful of cities.

2) Entrepreneur unfriendly

Try to get one government registration for your business and you would know what I am talking about. To add to it, laws which were getting better in the 90s now seem to be again getting worse. Taxes on petty things and a zillion formalities, make India one of the most entrepreneur unfriendly countries in the world.

3) Corruption

Corruption is rampant in all forms of life, and you encounter it at every step of life right from birth registration to getting a death certificate. The Indian definition of honest is very different from what it might be in the developed world. Unfortunately there are also no signs of improvement.

I believe that “Humans by nature want to be on the right side of the law” . The government doesn’t seem to believe in this and keeps working on the premise that everybody is a thief trying to rob the state. If a person does not fit into this definition and actually tries to stick to the law, the system will work hard to ensure that he/she breaks the law in some way or the other.

4) Casteism

This is the most difficult topic to touch in India. You not only run the risk of being mis-interpreted but also of being tagged an X hater or a Manuwadi or a casteist and what not.

I have never believed in castes or acted in a fashion that would degrade some caste or elevate another. If my opinion written below sounds biased, I think it’s only because you and I are perhaps looking at the same thing from very different angles, based on our backgrounds and upbringing.

Castes have been prevalent in India for 1000s of years. Jawaharlal Nehru in his book “Discovery Of India” mentions how castes were earlier flexible and not determined by birth. He even mentions that during Buddha’s time the word “Brahmin” meant a noble person and not a person born into a particular caste.

Somewhere down the line things took a very nasty turn and casteism took control of the Hindu religion.

With independence came the hope that Indian rulers will not “Divide and Rule” and all Indians will be the same. But then one day politicians realized how they could divide the nation on caste lines and grab power. So came reservations and quotas. If you are caste X you get 10% of jobs and college admissions, if you are caste Y you get 12% and so on.

This article is not about reservations and you will find 100s of articles on the topic online. My point is that while caste lines were earlier made of grass or wood that could have been broken, today they are made of solid titanium. India was perhaps never as divided as it is today.

So the minority upper castes as well as the traditionally backward classes are both insecure and unsure of their future. This insecurity keeps driving them to newer places. First they migrated in 1000s from south India where caste politics seemed to be at their worst. Now they are leaving the nation.

Some look at changing their religion as a solution to the caste system, some are changing their country.

5) Helplessness

How frequently do you hear “Is desh ka kuch nahi ho sakta” . The educated masses have lost hope of things improving. If they can’t change things for the better in their native land, it doesn’t matter if they are living in India, US, New Zealand or any other country.

6) Higher Education

This would have been an important factor for leaving India maybe 20 years back, but I don’t think it holds good anymore. There are 100s of institutions delivering world class education in India. You still have people leaving India for ‘higher education’, but in most cases the dominant reason isn’t education but a desire to get out of India.

So far this article has had a negative tone, now lets look at why you shouldn’t jump ship.

Why should you stay on?

So if things are so bad, why should anyone stay in India?

1) Family

My quick polls have revealed that family is the most important reason why people stay. It’s been less than a 100 years since the joint family system in India started to crumble. Although we no longer have the joint family system, we still carry habits from that era. Festivals and other celebrations are unthinkable if you don’t have family around. Being part of the joys and sorrows of your near and dear ones is one of the basic things taught to all children.

While some who leave India try to take their family along, I haven’t seen it really work. In most cases you can only take your parents along. The parents have a horrid time out of India and want to get back at the first opportunity. Old parents in India and all their children staying in the US is also not a great model.

2) Define Happiness

Happiness means different things to different people. Driving a Mercedes might denote happiness to some while being with your near and dear ones is happiness to others.

End of it, happiness is what all humans crave for. We might try to take different paths to it, but our goals are not that different.

So it’s critical, that you are sure about what are the things that matter most to you.

3) Define Standard Of Living

Most would agree that the standard of living in US or Europe is much better than that in India. However is it really true? If I have to do the laundry, clean the toilet, cut the lawn, cook everyday, always have to drive my car… that’s not a great standard of living as compared to India. The big plus of being in India is that you have services to help you out even with mundane things. Every middle class + family in India can afford to have cooks, maids, drivers, cleaners… services that are outright luxuries that only a handful in the US can afford.

4) India is Home

Every time I have got back to India from US or elsewhere, my first few minutes have been great. It feels like I am home. It’s difficult to say why one gets this feeling, but in an increasingly insecure world post 9/11, it’s great to be safe, sound and at home.

Fortunately I have never faced any racism in the US , UK or elsewhere. However being a “Young South Asian Male” gets me to the secondary scanners and X-ray machines at airports quite regularly.

The security staff is justified, considering that “Young South Asian Male” is a high-risk category, but the scans sure makes me feel insecure and homesick.

5) India is growing rapidly

India is today one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It’s likely that the Indian businesses that establish themselves now would be the global giants of this century. In 2050 Tata Motors might be as common across the globe as maybe Ford is today or Infosys might be as big as Microsoft.

These are exciting times for India. You might just miss the bus to fame and fortune if you abandon India at this stage.

6) When the going gets tough?

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Great visionaries and leader have always arisen from tough times. Foreign rule got us legendary leaders while independence has got us foolish sycophants. Tough times created Dhirubhai Ambani while easy times have led to the ruin of many a business empire.

Not all of us have the mettle to flow against the tide and create the India we dream of, but shouldn’t we be trying?


These are just some of the factors that you need to consider.

If you decide to stay on and keep rowing, don’t forget that the sea is rough and you will regularly have bouts of sea sickness.

If you decide to abandon the India ship and swim for that glittering island. Good Luck! But do consider your options. The island might just be a mirage or be inhabited by cannibals. Don’t forget to take that life jacket along.


From the makers of – “IT Survivors Staying Alive In A Software Job” 🙂
Harshad Oak