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The Great Indian Climb

Strength in numbers, or hidden economic forces acting beneath the surface?
Siya Goyal
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Some Indians have found themselves at incredible heights in their professional career pathways. They are the highest earning migrant group in the US, second highest in the UK, the CEOs of some of the largest multinational corporations: Alphabet, Microsoft, IBM, and Adobe. In 2021, the BBC published an article titled ‘Why are Indian born CEO’s Dominating Silicon Valley.’ 

Adding to this a population over a billion and the title of the world’s largest diaspora since 2010, we could argue that the likelihood of someone being Indian and economically prosperous is greater than any other ethnicity.

So that’s where the question may be asked:

The Great Indian Climb:

Strength in numbers, or hidden economic forces acting beneath the surface?


One key economic force is the intense level of competition in India’s labour and education market.

Like firms, the greater the number of competitors, the higher the level of competition. And with India’s labour force in the hundreds of millions, competition is copious, especially since well paying jobs make up a small minority of work available.

When we look at the structure of India’s economy across the three key sectors of employment: agriculture, manufacturing, and services; we find that 44% (see figure 1) of the population are employed in the agricultural sector. Unfortunately, this sector is almost notorious for its low pay as it has sunk hundreds of millions of families in the lowest earning class. Research shows how they earn a monthly wage of Rs 3,000 (equivalent to £28.57). The Indian services sector (i.e. the highest paying and most skilled) only accounts for one-third of employment and has shown a feeble 3% growth from 2011-2021 as a sector. For some perspective, the US and UK have only 1.3% and 1% of its workforce in agriculture but a titanic service sector accounting for 77.6% and 83% of jobs.

Higher education unfortunately paints a similar bleak picture of intense competition as seats are scant. Reports show that for the 35 million students keen to embark on higher education, only 25,500 seats are available in the top 50 Indian universities. Even students scoring in the 90th percentile of the National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET), are unable to secure a place at medical school.

Consequently, prospects of prosperous career opportunities for Indian workers in India are clearly limited, as individuals must battle viciously to secure a place at university and embark on a high paying career path. However, it also demonstrates that those managing to succeed in the education and labour market must possess high academic talent and professional expertise.

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Figure 1: India: Distribution of the workforce across economic sectors from 2011 to 2021 (Statista 2023)

Leaving Home

With the odds clearly stacked against you, leaving home seems like the obvious decision.
This may explain why India has the largest diaspora and why they have found more global success than other ethnic groups. After all, the only way to excel in numerous countries across the globe is to leave your own country first.

However, it is important to note that it only applies to a small minority of individuals as most countries use a points-based immigration system, meaning only highly qualified professionals, or students with acceptance from top academic institutions will be offered visas and citizenships.11 Furthermore, for students, wealth plays a pivotal role as the cost of undergraduate degrees in the US and the UK (80% of the top worldwide universities are located here), is not exactly budget friendly. For example, a four year undergraduate degree costs around $60,000 and £27,000 (US and UK respectively) per year, which doesn’t even include living costs and other expenses.

Consequently, this Great Indian Climb is a slightly misleading metaphor as it only refers to a small minority of individuals that have managed to migrate either owing to natural academic intelligence, relentless grit and determination, wealth, or a combination of these factors. Interestingly, it may demonstrate that only the Indians that do leave are the country’s true cream of the crop.

“Several news reports suggest that more than half of the first rankers in Class 10 and Class 12 examinations during 1996- 2015 had migrated and were studying or employed overseas, mostly in the US” 

Push-Pull Factors

A final piece of the puzzle is to consider additional push and pull factors that have incentivised the brightest and wealthiest Indians to find success internationally—aside from competition.

The simplest answer is the improved standards of living other countries can provide. Coming from an Indian background I can answer this myself. After all, my parents left India to work as doctors here in the UK. Although I am proud of my heritage — I think the colour, chaos, culture and cuisine of India is unparalleled — I am not oblivious to the negatives, such as its dangerous roads, high pollution levels and poor welfare state.

Another lesser-known factor concerns the colonial roots India has with the UK, which has ingrained a culture of speaking and teaching English in its society. From grade 5 (year 6), English is taught as a compulsory second language in most schools and many subjects are taught in English too. This means that Indians possess an ability to speak perfect English from a young age, enabling them to move to Western countries with ease if they wish.

Key Takeaways

Overall, economic forces seem to play a critical role contributing to the international success of many Indians. Competition has meticulously assessed and identified the brightest and encouraged them to pursue future endeavours in alternative countries. The nature of immigration laws may also be considered an economic force as they have restricted entry to only those with great potential and/or financial backing. The impact of current standards of living in India, shaped by economical, social and environmental forces as well as potential historical factors, have also incentivised this outward flow from India.

And although the Great Indian Climb only refers to those lucky few who have the ability and can choose to leave the country, we see how economic forces play a vital role in deciding who is awarded the opportunity.

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