Several years ago, Indian nationals primarily came to Armenia as students, usually studying medicine. More recently, however, our country has become not just an education destination but also a place to gain meaningful employment.
I met Yash Tanvari and Manav Guptha at a downtown Yerevan park. They both bring trash bins to the garbage truck on the street, empty it and take it back to its designated place. It is hard, physical work but you wouldn’t know it from the smiles on their faces. Brushing off the dust from their uniforms, the two young men indulge me by answering a few questions.
“My friends came to Armenia in late 2018,” says 23-year-old Yash Tanvari. “They told me there were many jobs and they were happy with their salary. So I decided to try my luck here.” He came to Armenia in March and had difficulty adjusting at first. “I worked at a car wash but it was cold and I got sick. I was disappointed,” he recalls. However, his friends didn’t leave his side and helped him get better.
His friends invited him to do some construction work at a food joint they had started. By September, Tanvari had found a more profitable job and went off on his own.
“One of my acquaintances had gotten a job at Yerevan’s Waste Collection Division and they even officially register you as an employee,” says Tanvari. He also applied and was quickly hired. “It’s not really clean work, however, they give us uniforms. If we work according to the rules, there’s no problem,” he explains.
Manav Guptha, 22, first came to Armenia for a visit and then decided to stay to earn a living.
“Armenia is a very safe country and I also like how clean it is,” says Guptha. “Everything is affordable, our salaries are also high.” He has even decided to stay here and get an education.
“I’m currently working in waste collection. I can’t say this was my dream,” jokes Guptha. “However, I don’t see anything bad in this line of work. This is a good way to make money and even build some savings.”
Waste collection has famously been a major issue for Yerevan, particularly this past year. In 2014, Sanitek, a waste management company established in Lebanon, won a tender announced by the Yerevan Municipality, which for years had been operating the capital’s waste collection services itself. However, during the past several years, the company had been falling short in its work. Eventually, the city decided to cancel the contract and take up waste collection services itself once again.
Ashot Asatryan, head of the Waste Collection Division of the Municipality’s Communal Service Department, says that Armenians are not interested in working in waste collection. However, many Indian nationals have approached them for work and the division decided to give them a shot.
“We communicate with our Indian employees in English. I can’t say that they generally work better or worse than Armenian employees. Some people are better and some are worse, regardless of their nationality,” says Asatryan. “About 30 Indian nationals work for us, making up a fifth of our workforce. They are all registered workers. Their gross salary is 200,000 AMD [approx. US$420/month], from which taxes are deducted.”
According to Asatryan, it’s worth mentioning that the majority of their Armenian employees are middle-aged or older, while their Indian employees are all young.
“They mainly study and work simultaneously,” explains Asatryan. “There are also some that have come here specifically to work.”
Indians in Armenia work in every possible sector, including construction, factories, food production and more. They are in demand and an affordable labor force. They’ve even caught the attention of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
When meeting with the Armenian community in the U.S. during an official visit in September, Pashinyan talked about the fire that had erupted at Dzyunik Sarnaran Ltd. and said that only Indian nationals agreed to clean the area destroyed by the fire.
“The fire was put out. However, the refrigerators, naturally, were ruined and hundreds of tons of meat had spoiled. There was even a danger of an epidemic,” said Pashinyan during his speech. “Even though this was not the Government’s responsibility, we paid to dispose of the ruined meat. Taking into consideration safety issues, we paid the workers higher compensations.” The Prime Minister claimed that they couldn’t find anyone to do the work for a long time. In the end, Indian nationals did the job. “There was not one person in Armenia who agreed to do that job,” explained Pashinyan.
Indians are playing a growing role in the construction industry as well. However, it is worth mentioning that very few of them admit that they’re in Armenia for work. When asked questions, they usually state that they’re tourists. Even though Indian immigrants do in fact work in construction, transportation, and other types of organizations, those organizations deny they have Indian workers. The implication is that most Indians nationals are working without being officially registered.
Aman Dhipsi, a 19-year-old Indian national, has been living in Armenia for the past five months. He is working at the construction site of a hospital on the outskirts of Yerevan.
“My family lives in dire conditions. In the city where I live, it’s very difficult to find work,” says Dhipsi. “I was thinking about going to another country when I found out that acquaintances of a friend of mine were going to Armenia. There were a lot of risks. I didn’t know anything about this country. However, I was lucky.” Before he started working at the hospital construction site, he used to work on the construction of a building on Paronyan Street. “I get paid 4000 AMD daily,” explains Dhipsi. “It’s true, it’s really hot in the summers to work in an open area; there were difficulties. However, with this money, I can live here and help my family back in India. Of course, every country has its positive and negative sides, but for now, I am satisfied.”
Construction companies half-jokingly say that Armenians “are only high-quality experts” and don’t wish to work as plain construction workers. That is why they are forced to use the services of foreigners - mainly Indian nationals. When asked about signing employment contracts with them, the companies asked not to mention that aspect.
Recently, however, finding workers has become a serious issue for construction companies. Vachik Galstyan has been in the construction business for over 20 years. “I have great specialists that do specialized work like plaster walls and install tiles. However, I need construction workers, which are difficult to find,” says Galstyan.“People come in wanting to do work without realizing they need experience in that specific line of work. That is why we are forced to hire Indians. They do their work quietly, some good, some bad. If things continue this way, then nobody is going to want to hire local Armenians.”
Gagik Makaryan, President of the Republican Union of Employers of Armenia, finds it natural that an employer would prefer to hire an Indian for 3000-4000 AMD a day when Armenian locals will only do the same work for 5000-7000 AMD a day.
“They are used to similar working conditions in their country. However, our compatriots won’t do work like this. They might do so in other countries but not their own,” explains Makaryan. “India is a large country with a large population. It also has a lot of poverty. That is why Armenia has become attractive for them.”
Sociologist Aram Navasardyan, the director of the GALLUP International Association in Armenia, believes that the fact that Indians are considered affordable labor is a positive thing. However, he does see risks for local Armenians.
“There is a demand for workers. There are jobs for which they can’t find employees,” says Navasardyan. “If businesses pay high salaries, then they will financially harm themselves. Hence, they prefer cheap labor. We are a monoethnic country and I don’t think this influx of Indian immigrants poses drawbacks for the near future.”
The Current Situation in Numbers
Nelli Davtyan, head of public relations at the Migration Service of Armenia, has announced that citizens of India can come to Armenia through a simplified visa application process and, hence, enter the country legally. Davtyan says that, since the Migration Service mainly deals with people seeking refugee status, she has not worked directly with Indian nationals.
Based on a decision made in November, 2017, the visa application process for Indian citizens was simplified, which triggered more Indian nationals to come to Armenia.
“As a result of two different decisions made in 2017, more Indian nationals have started entering Armenia,” explains Davtyan.“First in February, visa requirements were lifted for citizens of both countries. Then in November, the requirement for an entrance request was lifted for Indians. As a result, when a citizen of India decides to come to Armenia, all they have to do is buy a ticket, fly here and get an entrance visa at the border.”
According to official data, the number of Indian citizens that visited Armenia in 2016, 2017 and 2018 was 4226, 11,589 and 28,659 respectively. In 2016, 1119 Indian nationals received residency in Armenia, in 2017, 1086 received residency and in 2018, residency status was given to 938 Indian nationals. Indian tourists can stay in Armenia for up to 180 days, after which they have to apply to the Passport and Visa Department of the Armenian Police or the Migration Service to receive immigrant or other residency status. Citizens of India have mostly received temporary residency status.
According to Davtyan, in 2018, Armenia saw a positive migrational index, meaning that more than 2000 citizens of India entered Armenia then left. More than 1100 of that 2000 had a temporary student status and 900 had a temporary working residency status.
“The dynamics changed during the first half of 2019. We had a negative migrational index, which means that nearly 2300 Indian nationals left the country than entered,” explains Davtyan. “During the first half of the year, 15,442 Indian citizens came to Armenia and 17,274 left. However, we need to compare the numbers on an annual basis to have a more complete picture.”
What are the reasons Indians are coming to Armenia? Until 2018, they requested residency status mostly for educational purposes. However, today, a growing reason is tourism, which is often a disguise for those actually coming to Armenia to work.
According to those I spoke with, immigrants from India to Armenia are mainly from the provinces of Punjab and Gujarat.
Earlier in 2019, a story broket about a group that had tricked Indian nationals into paying them to get to Europe but brought them to Armenia instead.
There is no working body that deals with migrant flows into Armenia because, for many years, the country has been seen as an exit, or emigration country. Hence, no state institution carries out research on immigration into the country.
“However, this fact is very important for us because the discourse on immigration is specific to developed countries,” explains Davtyan. “Hence, we started developing an immigration policy and this will come to fruition in the near future.”
Newcomers Being Targeted
Even though Armenians are considered courteous and hospitable people, some newcomers from India have not received a warm reception.
In January 2019, social media was abuzz with discussion on the immigration of Indians to Armenia. There was even a petition on change.org to forbid their entrance into the country. It contained racist comments and was later taken down. Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs made an announcement rejecting any kind of discrimination.
Davtyan acknowledges that there are social tensions. “However, we realize that these attitudes mostly stem from Indian nationals walking and living in large groups,” she explains.
Economic commentator Ara Galoyan says that Indian nationals typically do not initiate conversation. “India has a caste society and it’s clear that people from higher castes don’t come here,” he explains. “They usually live within a closed community, eat mainly from the same restaurants and get together at specific places.”
Besides driving down wages, some local Armenians were also concerned about crime. According to data from Armenia’s Police, in 2018, 14 crimes were committed by Indian nationals. Of these 14 crimes, 11 were battery, one was theft, one was conveying false information and one was based on another crime. In 2018, Indian nationals committed 1022 administrative offenses; 1017 of these offenses included transporting and disposing of hazardous and other waste materials, four included illegally crossing the border and violating residential rules and one was for disturbing the peace.
Gagik Makaryan believes that Indian nationals consider Armenia as an intermediate, transit country. “Taking into consideration that it’s easier to come to Armenia, they come here, work and make money. Then they easily move to other countries,” he says. “This means that they won’t settle down here as much.”
Ethnographer Lusine Kharatyan also believes that concerns by local Armenians are misplaced. “Today, it’s difficult to find an apartment for rent in Yerevan. Many rent their houses to Indians without any issues,” explains Kharatyan. “They even add adjacent buildings to their homes with the aim of renting them out to Indians. This naturally, has its effects on the general housing market.”
Kharatyan says, however, that Indians also bring a different housing culture. “Six to seven people live in one room; often they sleep on the floor,” she explains. “What we used to see in movies is now becoming part of everyday life. And even though locals are complaining that this migration of Indians is also changing their culture and everyday life, however, they are also making a profit.”
Kharatyan finds it difficult to foresee where these developments will go, stating that it depends on the dynamics of the inflow of Indian nationals.
Integrating in Armenia
Gagik Makaryan believes that, in terms of doing business, Armenian is a convenient country for Indian citizens.
“Registering a business in Armenia is free and easy through the single-window system,” explains Makaryan. “All you have to do is register a business to an address with only your passport and its notarized translation. There are no restrictions. In the Doing Business rankings, Armenia is considered one of the top countries.”
I met with 33-year-old Anna Sahakyan at Indian-owned Bampi Supermarket near downtown Yerevan. Besides the familiar brands, you can also find different Indian and novel foods.
“In the beginning, their main customers were Indians. However, now local residents are also interested in Indian spices and different foods,” says Sahakyan. As to how she ended up working in the store, she explains, “In the beginning, they were the ones working in the store but they didn’t understand local customer service nuances. Things weren’t going smoothly so they asked me to help them. I’ve been working here for a couple of months now and I can say that, even though I’ve worked in this field for a long time, I’ve never had such kind and helpful supervisors.”
Sahakyan helps me converse with the store’s owner, Sidhu Kushvinder, who lives in the apartment above the store and also manages the hostel located there, which caters to Indian nationals The walls in the neatly arranged lounge are decorated with scenic pictures of India. It is almost supper time and the kitchen is filled with aromas of different spices.
In 2017, Kushvinder, 33 at the time, moved to Armenia with his wife, leaving their 4-year-old daughter with their parents back in India for the time being.
“Before coming here, we had gone to Malaysia. However, it was quite hard finding a job there,” explains Kushvinder. “You needed acquaintances, had to pay high taxes, etc. It’s hard to start a business in India too. When we found out about Armenia, we decided to come here as well to see what it was like.” He says what attracted them to Armenia first was its cleanliness, safety and ease of starting a business. “In Malaysia, it took months to register a business. However, it took me 15 minutes to start my own business here without any means or difficulties,” says Kushvinder.
“In the beginning, locals that lived nearby went to other Armenian stores they were familiar with. However, later, slowly, they started noticing us,” explains Kushvinder. “Now we’re taking small steps forward.” He hopes he will be able to expand his business soon. “The main problem I have here is the language barrier. The rest are solvable issues,” he says. “We believe Armenia has a bright future. Nikol Masin [Nikol Pashinyan] looks like a good man and we can see progress. For example, this year, the country had a lot of tourists and our hostel saw a profit from this.”
Armenia and India Have a Centuries-Old Partnership
Armenia and India established diplomatic relations on August 31, 1992. Over the next 30 years, the two countries signed more than a dozen agreements and memoranda on economic trade, culture, education, tourism, sport and mass media, agricultural, defense and other types of cooperation.
For Indian citizens, Armenia is appealing mainly as a place to receive an education, taking into consideration the quality of education here and affordability of tuition fees compared to India. Since the early 2000s, you can find many Indians living in the student dormitories in Yerevan’s Zeytun district, which primarily houses students from Yerevan State Medical University.
According to information from the Indian Embassy in Armenia, nearly 500 Indian students study at different medical universities around the country.
Since 2008, annual Indian Fairs have been organized in Armenia and have been popular with the Armenian public.
Even today, Armenia and India actively cooperate in the field of economic trade. India mainly exports meat, tea, rice, precious stones, medicines, textiles, jewelry, manufactured goods, plastic and linoleum products and electrical equipment to Armenia. Meanwhile, India’s main imports from Armenia are precious and semi-precious stones, copper, aluminum, chemical industry products, non-ferrous metals, scrap metal and raw rubber.
However, Armenian-Indian relations go back much further. Information on Armenian-Indian connections can be found dating over 2000 years ago. The first Armenian communities in India were formed in the 16th century. Community members were mainly merchants, state and military servants. Even today, there are Armenian churches in Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai. In 1821, the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy of Calcutta was created through donations by Armenians and still functions today (since 1991, the school has been administered by the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin).
Publication houses were established as well. In 1794, the first Armenian newspaper Azdarar was published in Madras (modern-day Chennai).
Currently, about 400-500 Armenians live in India, mainly in Kolkata and Mumbai. There are six working Armenian churches and two chapels in India.