New Delhi, India – For the last couple of years, Shaily Agrawal, a 25-year-old digital communication specialist based in New Delhi, has felt out of place in her own country.
She says the India she held on to has “drastically changed” with a “lot of contrast” now between her beliefs and the “direction the country is heading towards”.
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While a polarised political environment in recent years had made Agrawal think about leaving India, the devastating second wave of the coronavirus finally tipped the scales and made her seriously consider her options abroad.
“Mentally, it’s been caging. It’s been hellish. The healthcare system’s inefficiency is exposed and nothing feels reliable,” Agrawal told Al Jazeera.
“A big part of me doesn’t want to escape but work towards solutions here. But again, who am I kidding? If given an opportunity, I am leaving without thinking twice.”
Parv Kaur, an Indian researcher pursuing her studies in France, says a two-month stay in her hometown Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, was enough for her to consider settling permanently in Paris, where she has a two-year temporary resident permit.
“I came home for my brother’s marriage in late March. Because of the pandemic, I was stuck at my hometown. The condition there was terrible. It was clear to me there and then that there is no way I am going to live in India and settle there permanently,” Kaur told Al Jazeera.
“Staying here (in France) is a much better option for me. The situation is far better than India because of vaccination. Also financially and academically, I don’t think there is any comparison,” she said.
Devastating second COVID wave
India witnessed a devastating second wave of the pandemic beginning in late March, with thousands dying for lack of access to medical oxygen, medicines and hospital beds.
Crematoriums across the country were overwhelmed, pyres were seen burning in parking lots or sidewalks and dead bodies floating in rivers.
The shocking images of coronavirus patients gasping for breath outside swamped hospitals for lack of oxygen and beds led many to consider immigrating to countries with better living and healthcare facilities.
Agrawal, who comes from an upper-middle-class family in Chhattisgarh, says leaving seems to be the only option because the situation in India is “beyond redemption” even though she never faced the financial hardship that prompts many Indians to leave the country.
“At the end of the day, when it comes to survival, it’s a fight-or-flight situation,” Agrawal said, adding that she may quit her job and apply for a degree abroad “to get out”.
“There was a period of 10 days when every day I woke up to a text from some extended family member or friend, saying that a person in their family has passed away,” she said.
Significant spike in queries
Al Jazeera spoke to more than a dozen visa and immigration service providers, most of whom said there has been an “unprecedented” increase in the number of people inquiring about procedures to immigrate to other countries in the last two months.
Dharmesh Dhakan, managing director of Fly for Holidays, a visa agency in the western state of Maharashtra, said he saw a 40-percent increase in queries regarding immigration in that period.
“There is a huge spike in people wanting to move out,” Jyoti Mayal, president of the Travel Agents Association of India, told Al Jazeera.
“People want to leave the country after the mismanagement of COVID and the impact it had on the market. Many sectors are affected. They want to move to someplace where they can work and feel safe.”
The providers also said, unlike in the past when most of the enquiries used to be from lower-income people seeking work abroad, a large number of inquiries are now being made by middle-class and upper-middle-class Indians.
According to the Global Wealth Migration Review report, nearly 5,000 Indian millionaires, or 2 percent of high net-worth individuals, left the country in 2020.
Amjad CA, owner of Nature Holidays, a visa and immigration service provider in Wayanad, Kerala, says people are “desperately” looking to move abroad but visa and travel restrictions bring more anxiety and confusion.
“We are receiving over 100 enquiries every day,” Amjad told Al Jazeera. “People come to us enquiring about job opportunities in Thailand, Malaysia, Qatar, United States and Canada. They mostly ask which countries are allowing Indians to stay and do jobs.”
“A lot of people came to me for enquiring about moving to countries like Saudi Arabia. But since right now there is no direct travel between India and Saudi Arabia, they first went to Bahrain and later completed quarantine to go to Saudi Arabia. They are willing to spend as much as 1,20,000 rupees ($1,650) for the travel,” he added.
Immigration queries from Indian citizens living abroad who have their family members in India are also increasing.
“Many Indians are living outside and they want their family members with them, especially considering the poor healthcare system in the country. So there has been a discernible surge in such cases too,” said Mayal.
According to a United Nations report, India already has the largest diaspora in the world, with 18 million people from India living in other countries.
For Sudipta Mallik, a 24-year-old IT professional from Hooghly, West Bengal, the devastating second COVID wave was an eye-opener as it “lay bare the infrastructural and healthcare crisis” in the country.
For him, like Agarwal, it is time to look for better opportunities abroad.
“I have a good job with a very good pay scale. But the COVID crisis has completely devastated the country and I don’t see things improving for next three to four years. So, I think it is right time to look for alternatives elsewhere,” Mallik told Al Jazeera.
“Right now I just want to move out. I am even applying for PhD in foreign universities. I will think about going into academics or continuing in the corporate sector later,” he said.
Various overseas educational consultancies Al Jazeera spoke to across India confirmed an unusual spike in the number of people looking for opportunities to study abroad as it provides an “easier way” for immigration.
“Many are ready to pursue studies again after quitting jobs so that they can move to a different country,” Kishore Sabarangani, owner of NZ Connexions, an immigration consultancy based in Mumbai, told Al Jazeera.
“Enquiries have shot up drastically, especially for places like New Zealand. People find it a good place to settle. But since last March, as there have been travel restrictions imposed by New Zealand, the desperation among people is running deeper, ” he said.
Sameer Moothedath, director of Edroots, an overseas education consultancy based in Kerala, believes stay back policies in some countries are encouraging many Indians to quit their jobs and apply for educational courses in order to settle abroad. Many Indian students are also deciding to pursue higher studies abroad, seeing it as an easier way to immigrate.
Stay back policies allow foreign students to stay in their host countries for a certain amount of time to look for a job after completing their studies.
Once they get a job, it can lead to permanent residency and citizenship rights. Australia, Germany, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US offer stay back options, making them popular destinations.
“There is some 40-percent increase in demand to move out for education. The important reason is government accountability in other countries which is missing here. They get the vaccine, good healthcare and unemployment wages in these countries,” Moothedath told Al Jazeera.
“Students applying to the UK has spiked to 65 percent more because they introduced the stay back policy,” he added.
Afsal Avunhipurath, a solicitor based in the United Kingdom who deals with emigration cases, told Al Jazeera there is a boom in applications by students from India.
“Even before second wave, there was a rise in people coming to UK, but now the demand is way higher,” Avunhipurath told Al Jazeera.
Dr Shah Tarfarosh, a psychiatrist based in Oxford, UK, attributed the trend to German-English migration scholar Ernest George Ravenstein’s “push-pull” theory, where unfavourable conditions in one place “push” people away and favourable conditions elsewhere “pull them in”.
“India recorded the third-highest coronavirus death toll globally. These deaths were portrayed in the media in an alarming fashion, intensifying the sense of impending doom,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Therefore, psychologically, people started to associate their homeland with death. Naturally, in order to avoid death, their brains are ‘pushing’ them to move away from an unfavourable area to countries where ‘pull’ elements or favourable conditions are many.”
Tarfarosh believes more and more Indians will opt to leave in the immediate future.
“Psychology reveals that mass behaviour is so powerful that just the news of some people migrating will force even more Indians to do so,” he said.
“Also looking through the lens of pandemic, despite several thousand deaths in the western nations, they (Indians) can distinctly see the difference between healthcare in the West and India,” he added.