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The new economics of boundaries and citizenship

With no work in home countries, citizens even in developed countries such as Ireland are emigrating writes Gautam Chikermane

india Updated: Mar 08, 2010 13:46 IST
Gautam Chikermane
Gautam Chikermane
Hindustan Times

For India’s best-known painter M F Hussain, it’s the freedom to paint, the choice of living a life free from threat. Religious fundamentalism has pushed this talent that once India could claim as its own into the welcoming arms of Qatar. The freedom — and right — to life and liberty missing, Hussain has walked out of India, bare feet. To him, citizenship is secondary, artistic — and monetary — expression primary.

For my India-born, Australia-citizened and Latvia-based friend Rahul (name changed) it’s the search for a better life. He began by studying in Wollongong, settled down in Sydney as a financial planner, found the financial sector over-regulated, moved on to Eastern Europe when opportunities to rebuild the Baltic states opened up and now shuffles between Riga, Montenegro, Moscow and Nagpur. With “Latvia deep in debt and Europe crumbling one country after another”, he wants to return to India. Economic logic backed by cultural affinity drive him to full circle today.

For my Delhi-based friends, the fact that migration to Canada has opened up again has become one more tool for wealth creation, risk mitigation. “I can’t see what’s going to happen three years later, what to talk of 20 years,” he tells me over a drink beside his brimming blue swimming pool, mirroring a lazy winter sun and the makeshift bar. “It’s an option, an insurance.”

This was bound to happen. When finance turned global — money has no colour, capitalism told us — the men behind money remained shackled in an idea called “citizenship”. So while the mobility of financial capital was encouraged and used to create businesses and jobs across the world, the mobility of human capital was rejected. Citizenship had a meaning.

In the new world, new capitalism, the velocity of money — and the opportunities behind it that create it in the first place — has multiplied. In an inverted manner, the global financial crisis that led to millions of job losses and the humongous wealth destruction is a recent illustration of that reality. With no work in home countries,citizens even in developed countries such as Ireland are emigrating. And the idea of citizenship is gradually diminishing.

On the other side, geography-based identity is weakening under yet another pressure — dissolution of nations. In the past two decades, we have seen more than 30 new countries being created, 15 from the former USSR alone, five from the former Yugoslavia. As recent as a year ago, in February 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, which itself had become an entity after Montenegro split in June 2006.

In such a volatile geography, how does our nationality-based economics fit? Loosely, I’m afraid. Between the pressures of global finance that creates opportunities out of nowhere and the breakdown of political boundaries in almost every region of the world, lies a balancing act that while pursuing the former for economic survival of individual households may have to give up the notion of nationality. This is, by no means an easy task, but one we need to get used to.

And if you think it’s only the rich and famous or even the skilled and knowledgeable elite that are able to negotiate the economics of boundaries, think again. When we look beyond the concrete jungle that limits our vision, we may spot a Savita, her voter’s identity in place, cleaning and cooking in our homes. She’s really a Bangladeshi immigrant, who paid a bribe of Rs 500 to cross the border, some more to buy an Indian identity. After migrating illegally into India through West Bengal and undercutting the domestic help circuit in New Delhi, one such Savita left our house to seek an even better life in Kuwait. Estimates say that there are 20 million Savitas in India.

Where does that leave us? In an arena where our leaders attempt to strengthen borders through trade and labour mobility restrictions. An arena where all we have is our skill to walk the way to wealth. And leave us as citizens of a nowhere land, of shifting sands. A land where we negotiate nationality with knowledge, give up geography for economics and patriotism for prosperity.

First Published: Mar 07, 2010 21:30 IST