Doors begin to close on India’s tech diaspora


Indian software engineers, once the reliable source of software solutions and computer code for the global tech industry, increasingly say that America First, Australia First, Kiwis First, Britain First and Singapore First means Indians Second or not at all. Dhiraj Singh / Bloomberg News

After nearly two decades of being welcomed as the geeks who could inherit the Earth — along with all its computer glitches, which they would proceed to fix — Indian techies are finding that the rich world has changed its mind.

Me-first work and visa policies by a clutch of countries are being interpreted by Indian information technology workers as an unsubtle message to go home. These workers, once the reliable source of software solutions and computer code for the global tech industry, increasingly say that America First, Australia First, Kiwis First, Britain First and Singapore First really means Indians Second or not at all.

There is some merit in this dismal conclusion. A series of recent pronouncements by disparate governments indicate the extent of Indian techies’ downgraded status.

On April 18, the US president Donald Trump signed a so-called “Buy America, Hire America” executive order to review the H-1B temporary visa programme that allows foreign workers to take high-skilled jobs in America.

Whatever happens with the 220-day review, India’s tech industry is understandably rattled to find itself in the sights of the Trump administration. To it, the United States is worth about $65 billion and Indian nationals have for years been the largest group of recipients of H-1B visas.

On the same day as the US announcement, Australia abolished its 457 visa, which allowed employers to sponsor skilled foreign workers for up to four years. Roughly a quarter of these visas are held by Indians.

A day later, Australia’s neighbour New Zealand also announced plans to tighten access to skilled work visas, setting a high threshold of at least 150 per cent of median national income for foreigners to even apply for entry. This too will affect Indian professionals. For years, India — along with Britain and China — has been among the top three sources for migrants to New Zealand.

In early April meanwhile, at least 30,000 Indian software professionals currently working in the UK found out their work permits would not be renewed as part of Britain’s attempt to reduce migration.

And roughly about the same time, an Indian trade body, the National Association of Software and Services Companies, reported that Singapore had slowed visas for Indian techies “to a trickle”. The island nation’s resistance to foreign professionals had been growing for a couple of years but it has now become particularly marked.

However, the sense of being unwanted goes beyond these Me-First policies. The murder of an Indian software engineer in Kansas in February may have been the first indication of the chilling implications of a new nationalist sentiment and growing hostility towards global supply chains of goods and people. Soon after the murder, which is being investigated as a hate crime, Mani Karthik in California created a partly jokey but dead serious DIY website for anxious fellow Indians. “Stop pretending. The accent gives it away.

“Come back. India needs you”, Mr Karthik implored on his “Return to India kit” website. He was addressing thousands of Indian expats for whom the American dream had just died. Subsequently, he decided to follow his own advice.

Mr Karthik now tells me that he will return to India next month, though his green card which grants the right to be permanently resident in the US “is in process”.

But returning to what exactly? One of the reasons Indian computer professionals have been touring the globe for years is the lack of jobs and opportunity at home. And wasn’t the itinerant Indian techie success story running out of steam any way?

New technology, not least automation and cloud computing, has been steadily reducing the demand for maintenance and software services, the traditional domain of Indian tech firms. Populist politics or not, it was always likely sooner or later that Indians would find less of a welcome abroad.

The immediate effects will be felt by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s government. He was elected in 2014 on the promise of creating jobs. But this has proved to be “a challenge with anywhere between one and 1.5 million young people entering the job market every month.

The government has admitted only 135,000 jobs were created in 2015, the lowest in seven years. The pressure can only build with leading Indian tech companies starting to lay off workers in response to restrictive visa policies and thousands of expats like Mr Karthik clamouring to return home.

India will have to quickly create a domestic environment that allows for start-ups and innovation, possibly along the lines of neighbouring China. There, a new kind of company, loosely labelled “micro-multinational”, is starting up and bypassing the somewhat stagnant home market to sell overseas.

Can India do it? Mr Modi, who is fond of coining zippy slogans couched in quasi-tech speak, told the chief ministers of Indian states just last week to work in “mission mode” as part of “Team India”.

On his watch, the commerce and industry ministry launched a Twitter hashtag #mociseva a year ago, in an attempt to provide a quick response to queries from entrepreneurs, exporters and importers. Some tax breaks are being offered for micro, small and medium companies. All of this is encouraging but hardly enough.

It does not add up to a grand vision to provide jobs to young Indians, much less the techwallas who have run out their welcome abroad.