With almost 20 million international migrants, India tops the list of the highest migrant-sending countries according to the World Migration Report 2022. Half of all Indian migrants live in six Gulf countries – United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait. The other 50 percent of Indians are found in 204 countries according to Ministry of External Affairs data.
Most Indians would like to migrate for work to English-speaking countries. Australia has 241,000 NRIs, Canada 178,410, the UK 351,000 and the US 1.28 million NRIs. Post-COVD, new migration corridors were expected to emerge. Recently a group of farmers from India have made their way to Japan.
Japan’s demand for farmers comes from its ageing population as well as its younger generation not interested in agriculture. Recent data suggests that Japan is dealing with the challenges of an ageing society with 15 percent of its population being above 75 years of age. According to World bank data, Japan is also second among countries with the highest proportion of the population above 65.
This has had a direct impact on the agriculture sector of the country which is now facing a severe shortage of labour. According to Japan’s 2015 Census data, only 2.09 million people were engaged in agriculture which was almost 60 percent less than the numbers recorded in the 1985 census. These numbers have seen a further dip post-2015. The government of Japan has introduced a five-year visa for overseas workers to meet the demand for labour in the country.
Evidently, the changing demographics around the world present new opportunities with respect to migration possibilities. Considering the challenges faced by the agriculture sector in India like underemployment, fragmentation of farmland and inequality in wealth, can farming jobs abroad help the surplus labour employed in Indian fields and also release the “demographic dividend” to reap economic benefits?
The story of Japan’s current labour shortage can be traced back to its developmental initiatives, economic expansion and population control measures the country took since its independence. Ranked as one of the most developed countries in the world, Japan is often referred to as the East Asian model. Stabilisation of the population early on ensured that gains from economic growth were not offset by an expanding population.
However, like most of the developed countries, we see in the global north that has achieved such a demographic transition, Japan also has, later on, opened up its boundaries for migrants due to a shortage of labour.
For the youth of developing countries such as India with a rising unemployment rate, an opportunity to migrate is appealing. Apart from mere employment, the prospects of living in a country far superior in terms of development and economic standing are bound to attract more youngsters to take up this option.
Although the agriculture sector employs the largest proportion of India’s workforce, output and agriculture’s contribution to GDP tells a different story. An agrarian crisis of stagnant incomes, rising input costs and farmer suicides has no easy solution. A preliminary understanding of the dire conditions faced by farmers can tell you that they are constantly in search of means to sustain themselves. In fact, most of the internal migrants moving to cities to work as construction workers, were once dependent on agriculture in the rural areas.
Punjab’s Early Start
One of the success stories of farmer migration dates back to the 1990s when a group of Indians led the revolution in Italy’s dairy industry. Punjab has always had a vibrant migration culture and three decades ago when migration to the United States was getting tighter, they looked towards European countries for easier access.
Since the 1990s, Italy has been home to one of the largest migrant Indian populations in Europe. According to the Italian Institute of Statistics (2008), 42.9 percent of Indians work in the agricultural sector in the Lombardy region of Italy. The economic boom in Italy in the post-war period and the rising aspirations of the country’s youth for a modern way of living and housing created a dearth in the availability of farmers willing to take up dairy work. It was this gap in the market that the Indians, mostly Punjabis, were able to exploit to create spaces for themselves in a foreign country.
Similarly, the demographic changes in Japan combined with its rapid economic development have presented a new gap in the market for labourers from the global south, including India.
Needed: Skilled Farmers
However, unlike the case in Italy, Japanese recruiters are seeking skilled farmers for specialised tasks within the broad spectrum of agriculture. The need for skilled labour for farming by the global north can be made into a lucrative opportunity by countries like India by ensuring necessary investments be made in upskilling Indian farmers.
Chinese and Indian immigrants buying large tracts of land in Canada for agriculture can also be explored to expand the scope for farmers in India aspiring to go abroad. Hundreds of Indians have already signed up to go to Japan and with some additional skill training for Indian farmers, we can very well boost these numbers to emerge as “Brand India farmer” just like high-skilled migrants and Kerala nurses.
The 2015 National Policy on Skill Development and Entrepreneurship records that only 4.7 per cent of India’s total workforce has undergone formal skill training. A lot of learning can be achieved from the experiences of returning farmers from developed countries to further enhance the skill development programme in India in this direction.
S Irudaya Rajan is Chair at the International Institute of Migration and Development, Kerala. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.