The overseas Indian is usually a much-loved figure, praised for his drive and ambition that took him overseas, while the domestic Indian migrant is often a much-derided figure, seen as someone who steals jobs and burdens the local economy. Data on migration does show some differences in the patterns of national and international migration but it also highlights one common pattern: the tendency to move to more affluent geographies (within and without the country) in search of a better life.

One big difference in national and international migration relates to the pull of the immediate neighbourhood. Domestic migration in India remains a story largely of proximity. Internal migrants seek a better life, but as close to home as possible. The most common migrant has moved out of her village but remains within her district. Inter-district but within-state migration is the next most common flow, followed by inter-state migration. This is changing with time. The most recent migrants are most likely to move out of their state. However even now, Delhi gets the most migrants from the northern states surrounding it while Mumbai sees most migration from Maharashtra, and substantial migration from neighbouring Gujarat and Karnataka.

India’s immediate neighbourhood - south Asia - on the other hand, holds little attraction for its outbound immigrants. The large numbers of Indians in south Asian countries is largely a historical artefact, brought about by the partitions of India and later Pakistan. The industrial magnet of West Asia has dominated international migration from India for decades now, with North America following some distance behind.

The top five countries with Indian immigrants are: the United Arab Emirates, the United States of America, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Oman. However, the Indian-origin population in Pakistan is dying out. In terms of more recent migration flows between 2010 and 2019, the largest outflows of Indians were to the US, followed by the Gulf States, which have attracted a higher share of Indian migrants than before.

How does this compare with domestic migration? The top destination states of all time for Indian domestic migrants are: Maharashtra, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Haryana. In most recent years (between the last two census years of 2001 and 2011), Maharashtra and Delhi remained the top two destinations. But after Gujarat and Haryana, Karnataka came in at fifth and UP slid to the sixth spot. As with international migration, the states that migrants prefer tend to be among the richer ones.

One significant difference between domestic and international migration is the gender skew. International migration is overwhelmingly male. Just half as many Indian international migrants are female as are male. This is largely driven by migration to the Gulf states. The immigrant population in the US is more gender equal. In Canada, female Indian immigrants outnumber males. Domestic migration, on the other hand, is driven by marriage; the practice of marrying within one’s caste but outside one’s village has ensured that migration within India is heavily feminized.

Migration is occurring at both ends of the skill spectrum, it would appear. The rate of illiteracy is higher among migrants than non-migrants, but migrants are also more likely to be graduates and post-graduates than non-migrants. There is also little to differentiate migrants from non-migrants when it comes to employment. At first glance it would appear that migrants are more likely to be employed for the majority of the year than non-migrants. However, this is actually on account of the large share of women among migrants, and women are less likely to be employed. Among men aged 20 and above, the share of those who worked for most of the year was the same among migrants and non-migrants.

At the international level, data on the education levels of Indian immigrants is hard to come by. At one end are holders of “Emigration Check Required" (ECR) passports, who have typically not passed class X. In 2018, there were more than three hundred thousand such workers who travelled to the 18 ECR countries in the Gulf and South East Asia. At the other end are Indians in countries such as the US. 78% of Indian immigrants to the US have at least a bachelor’s degree as compared to just 31.6 percent for the native born population.

Foreign-born people have the same rate of unemployment as native-born across the European Union, data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows. Indians in the US have lower unemployment rates than the native-born population, Pew data shows.

Contrary to popular belief, migrants are not the poorest Indians. Data from a National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) survey of more than a hundred thousand households conducted in 2007-08 show that migration is least common among the poorest. Better off than those they leave behind, fairly educated, likely to find work and send money home - both domestic and international migrants are helping strengthen the local and home economy.

Close