Nibin Maxwell is the first Indian casualty of the Israeli war against Hamas and the Palestinian population in Gaza. Maxwell was a 30-year-old Kerala migrant who was working as a farm labourer when he was struck by an anti-tank missile fired by Lebanon-based Hezbollah militants. He was among the thousands of Indians who have been heading to Israel since Hamas staged its horrific October 7 massacre.

These workers aren’t ignorant. They know the dangers of working in war-hit Israel. Nevertheless, some 10,000 Indians who’ve just been recruited will soon leave for Israel to help plug an acute labour shortage caused by the sudden disappearance of 80,000 Palestinian workers banned from entering Israel after the Hamas attack. “The feeling of fear is there, but what can one do? Poverty’s a peculiar thing,” one Indian worker, Harish Chandra, told Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “Everybody’s afraid. Everyone’s life is precious to them, but people are rushing there only for the money,” the 30-year-old said.

India and Israel signed an accord last May under which 42,000 Indians will head to Israel to work, mainly in the construction and nursing sectors but the deal’s been fast-tracked. The Indian government believes there are already 18,000 privately recruited Indians working in Israel, largely as caregivers, nurses and IT workers. Ultimately, Israel hopes to hire 100,000 Indians and the cash is what’s attracting them. Construction workers, for instance, can earn about ₹1.37 lakh a month, as much as six times what they could earn in India. “Yes, I’m aware of the conflict, but I can earn a lot of money in a short time,” said Vivek Sharma, a 28-year-old mason.

But the Indians heading for Israel are just a fraction of estimated 13 million NRIs globally, according to government estimates, whose remittances are vital for India in bolstering foreign exchange reserves and balancing its balance of payments as well as being lifelines for many families. Remittances from Indians working abroad shot up dramatically in 2023 with Indians last year sending back $125 billion. That’s a huge leap from the $89.1 billion in 2022 though Covid-19 caused a slowdown in recent years. A World Bank report forecasts NRI remittances will hit $135 billion in 2024. India is now, far and away, the biggest remittance recipient, way ahead of other countries like Mexico and China. Mexicans working abroad sent back about $67 billion in 2023 while China is third at $50 billion.

What’s triggering this jump? Professor Irudaya Rajan is chair of KNOMAD, (the Global Partnership on Knowledge and Development) and he reckons that “migration is picking up.” Crucially, he adds, “The quality of migrants going from India is improving. We’re slowly vacating the low-skilled jobs to countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Indians are graduating to higher wages.” Besides all this, there’s the fact online payment systems are getting easier.

Gulf leads

Most of the money comes, of course, from the Gulf where an estimated 8.8 million Indians live, out of which about 3.4 million are in the UAE and 2.5 million in Saudi Arabia. Another 1.02 million are in Kuwait. These workers are vital for remittances because they send as much as possible to India and only keep a bare minimum to live on. There are higher-earning Indians in the UK and US but they hang on to large amounts to pay commitments like mortgages and car loans. But then there are also countries like Malaysia and Singapore who send back large amounts to their families here.

Turn for a moment to the high seas. Merchant navy sailors are not strictly NRIs but they’re another example of how Indians are willing to travel to any corner of the earth to earn better wages. In 2017, there were approximately 1.5 lakh Indian merchant sailors and officers. By 2022 that had surged to 2.5 lakh. There are hardly any ships without Indian sailors or officers.

The government has cultivated this fund flow by making its remittance costs among the lowest globally and while India’s merchandise export stagnate, its human capital export keeps booming, not only from States like Kerala where the youth is educated but unemployed but also from much poorer States like Bihar and UP. While India’s economy is booming, economists say it’s safe to predict Indians will keep scouting for jobs around the world. Is this an indication there aren’t enough good-paying jobs in this country? Or is it an indication that Indians are hardy and enterprising? Possibly a bit of both.