Recent years have witnessed a subtle shift in the demography of foreigners coming to India. While the country continues to figure on the tourist map, several foreigners now come to work here. The government’s decision to liberalize work visas for foreigners, as reported in Mint on 6 July, should be seen in this context.
It is a welcome first step. For one, it reverses some questionable policy amendments introduced recently. The old policy entailed a cap on the number of foreign employees for each company and a minimum annual salary of $25,000; both were designed as measures to discourage such recruitment. There was a mismatch between that position and India’s stated intent to go global, something that will require the country to allow transnational companies to move at least some of their employees in other parts of the world here, and Indian companies to hire foreigners. The policy shift initiated after 31 May refocuses the debate on skilled vs unskilled labour, with the government insisting that it will give work visas only for skilled workers. In principle the idea sounds good, but it leaves the door open for discretion and, hence, complaints of misuse: Unless clearly defined, the line between skilled and unskilled would blur.
India at this point desperately needs middle managers in almost all new growth sectors, particularly in services and infrastructure. At the same time, the economic meltdown in developed countries has led to redundancies; many people who have lost their jobs are willing to work in India. So there is, at least in theory, a clear demand-supply match at the mid-level.
Making this happen requires an enabling policy. But India has never been an immigrant-friendly country unlike, say, the US. Given that the situation itself is recent, it is not surprising that India’s policy is still a work in progress. However, there is an urgent need to plug gaps in the workforce; a delay could jeopardize fresh investments. It is easy to fall back to the old principle of reciprocity and deny work visas to people from countries that deny visas to Indians. But current circumstances suggest that the time has come for more radical reform—to let economics and politics influence immigration policies.
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