Returning diaspora faces cultural shock

Many returnees find work ethics in India totally foreign and frustrating
Last Updated : 29 November 2009, 16:47 IST
Last Updated : 29 November 2009, 16:47 IST

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Ayyadurai, now 45, moved from Boston to New Delhi hoping to make good on that promise. An entrepreneur and lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a fistful of American degrees, he was the first recruit of an ambitious government programme to lure talented scientists of the so-called desi diaspora back to their homeland.

“It seemed perfect,” he said recently of the job opportunity. But it wasn’t. As Ayyadurai sees it now, his Western business education met India’s notoriously inefficient, opaque government, and things went downhill from there. Within weeks, he and his boss were at loggerheads. Last month, his job offer was withdrawn. Ayyadurai has moved back to Boston.

In recent years, Mother India has welcomed back tens of thousands of former emigrants and their offspring. When he visited the US this week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally extended an invitation “to all Indian-Americans and nonresident Indians who wish to return home.” But, like Ayyadurai, many Indians who spent most of their lives in North America and Europe are finding they can’t go home again.

About 100,000 ‘returnees’ will move from the United States to India in the next five years, estimates Vivek Wadhwa, a research associate at Harvard University who has studied the topic. These repats, as they are known, are drawn by India’s booming economic growth, the chance to wrestle with complex problems and the opportunity to learn more about their heritage. They are joining multinational companies, starting new businesses and even becoming part of India’s sleepy government bureaucracy.
But a study by Wadhwa and other academics found that 34 per cent of repats found it difficult to return to India — compared to just 13 per cent of Indian immigrants who found it difficult to settle in the US. The repats complained about traffic, lack of infrastructure, bureaucracy and pollution.

For many returnees the cultural ties and chance to do good that drew them back are overshadowed by workplace cultures that feel unexpectedly foreign, and can be frustrating. Sometimes returnees discover that they share more in their attitudes and perspectives with other Americans or with the British than with other Indians. Some stay just a few months, some return to the West after a few years.

Returnees run into trouble when they “look Indian but think American,” said Anjali Bansal, managing partner in India for Spencer Stuart, the global executive search firm. People expect them to know the country because of how they look, but they may not be familiar with the way things run, she said. Similarly, when things don’t operate the way they do in the US or Britain, the repats sometimes complain.

“India can seem to have a fairly ambiguous and chaotic way of working, but it works,” Bansal said. “I’ve heard people say things like ‘It is so inefficient or it is so unprofessional.” She said it was more constructive to just accept customs as being different.

While several Indian-origin authors have penned soul-searching tomes about their return to India, and dozens of business books exist for Western expatriates trying to do business here, the guidelines for the returning Indian manager or entrepreneur are still being drawn.

“Some very simple practices that you often take for granted, such as being ethical in day to day situations, or believing in the rule of law in everyday behaviour, are surprisingly absent in many situations,” said Raju Narisetti, who was born in Hyderabad and returned to India in 2006 to found a business newspaper called ‘Mint’, which is now the country’s second-biggest business paper by readership.

He said he left earlier than he expected because of a ‘troubling nexus’ of business, politics and publishing that he called “draining on body and soul.” He returned to the US this year to join ‘The Washington Post’.

The case of Ayyadurai, the MIT lecturer, illustrates just how frustrating the experience can be for someone schooled in more direct, American-style management. After a long meeting with a top bureaucrat, who gave him a handwritten job offer, Ayyadurai signed on to the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, or CSIR, a government-financed agency that reports to the ministry of science.

The agency is responsible for creating a new company, called CSIR-Tech, to spin off profitable businesses from India’s dozens of public laboratories.

Currently, the agency, which oversees 4,500 scientists, generates just $80 million in cash flow a year, even though its annual budget is the equivalent of half a billion dollars.

Ayyadurai said he spent weeks trying to get answers and responses to e-mail messages, particularly from the person who hired him, the CSIR director general, Samir K Brahmachari. After several months of trying to set up a business plan for the new company with no input from his boss, he said, he distributed a draft plan to CSIR’s scientists asking for feedback, and criticising the agency’s management.
Four days later, Ayyadurai was forbidden from communicating with other scientists. Later, he received an official letter saying his job offer was withdrawn.

But going public with such accusations is highly unusual.  Ayyadurai circulated his paper not just to the agency’s scientists but to journalists, and wrote about his situation to prime minister Manmohan Singh.

Brahmachari said in an interview that Ayyadurai had misunderstood nearly everything — from his handwritten job offer, which he said was only meant to suggest what Ayyadurai could receive were he to be hired, to the way Ayyadurai asked scientists for their feedback on what the CSIR spinoff should look like.

To prove his point, Brahmachari, who was two hours late for an interview scheduled by his office, read from a government guide about decision-making in the organisation. Ayyadurai didn’t follow protocol, he said. “As long as your language is positive for the organisation I have no problem,” he added.

Returnees say that being positive, no matter what, is important. The current Indian psyche, reinforced by a decade of growth and development, “is one where being critical of anything Indian is immediately seen as being negative or down on India,” Narisetti said, adding that it was very easy to be typecast as an “ungrateful whiner”.

Published 29 November 2009, 16:47 IST

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