My country, my home

give & take

My country, my home

My first year of college was a very lonely time. Living in the town of Indore, far away from home, I felt disconnected. My only communication with home was a monthly letter that I wrote and posted, and a reply that my father sent.

Things changed in the second year — a new concept called a PCO booth had begun to spread in Indore. These places let you make phone calls — yes, even to other towns! — for a fee, and what was more, they charged 1/4th of the daytime rates if you called after 11 in the night. For the remainder of my college years, I was a connoisseur of PCO booths in my area. It was only later that I found who was responsible for this magical innovation.

It was a man named Sam Pitroda. Pitroda, an NRI settled in the US, had come to visit India in the 80s. He found that he could not phone his wife back in Chicago, and resolved to strengthen India’s telecommunications network. Thanks to his experience in the field, C-DOT was set up in 1984. Over the next decade, phones became more commonplace. By the 90s, they were available in small towns, too. And, every street corner shop had one.

Pitroda is not an outlier in the way he came back to contribute to India. The last few decades have seen a sea change in the place of NRIs, or Non Resident Indians, in Indian society. Where they were forgotten by all except for the family they infrequently visited, now they are taking a larger role in the nation. The change has not been made apparent, though. This is partly because we tend to club all types of emigration into one bucket and treat it the same. But there have been at least three separate waves of emigration, for very different reasons, over the past century, from India. Let’s look at them separately.

The first kind was forced emigration. During British rule, Indians were shipped abroad to work as labourers in plantations all over the world. When the world wars came around, we were shipped as cannon fodder for the front lines in Europe and Asia. These ‘NRIs’ became ‘PIOs’ (Persons of Indian Origins), and rarely if ever, managed to come back to their homeland. Instead, they branched off into a new culture that was a mix of Indian and local culture. This phenomenon was enabled by colonialism, and has thankfully died out today. The people who were affected by these forced moves are now long gone, and their descendants have now integrated into those societies.

In this century, there has been a second wave of voluntary emigrants for primarily economic reasons. Simply put, there are unskilled or semi-skilled job opportunities in rich countries that pay many times what the Indian market can pay. Often there’s a coupling of specific states with destinations. So Keralites, for example, have a strong affinity for emigrating to the Gulf countries. Punjabis have preferred Canada. And Gujarati Patels have chosen the motel industry in the USA. This kind of emigration is the most commonly recognised stereotype. When Donald Trump and the British politicians talk about stopping immigration, this is the kind they mean.

There’s a third kind, which isn’t discussed as much. It’s the specialised skills-based emigration, and the dominant direction here has been from India and China, to the US and Europe. The process usually starts with going abroad for higher studies, and then moving on to job opportunities. The software engineers you know, who post on your Facebook timeline regularly about their visits to American national parks, are part of this trend. By some counts, more than half of Silicon Valley are immigrants from India and China. There’s an overlap between this category and the previous one, but the technical education angle is unique here. It has really caught on only in the last three decades, fired up by the rise of the software industry worldwide.

Dinesh (name changed), one of these skills-based migrants, shares his story: “I went to the US to do my Masters in the late 90s. Hadn’t originally planned to stay, but the job market was bad in India in the early 2000s, and I stuck on here. Then marriage, a home, a child, happened. It was just a case of one anchor being heavier than the other. I’ve been in Atlanta for the last 15 years now.

“When I first went there, Indians were few and far between. Of late, there has been a sharp rise in their numbers. I can see them everywhere. And I see more and more Indian parents visiting, pushing along prams in the evenings. We’re a significant minority now.”

Brain drain

The dominant narrative in the 70s and 80s in India was that all emigration was ‘brain drain’, that we were losing all our best people to foreign countries, and that India would never progress as long as that kept happening. Movies like Ek Doctor Ki Maut talked of how the best Indian minds were pushed to emigrate because of the inefficiency and corruption in India. People were lost, the zeitgeist went, once they left the country. However, the last two decades have proven this narrative wrong, sometimes in surprising ways. Indians do love their country, it turns out, and they’ve shown it in myriad ways.

Descendants of forced emigrants have maintained their connection with the country in any way they can. The more affluent ones have returned to re-establish their roots. Others have paved the way for a cultural acceptance of India in the places they settled in. So, the West Indies, Mauritius, Singapore, and parts of Africa have that India-inspired cuisine, language, and a familiarity with our customs and traditions. Many have taken up India’s open invitation to PIOs to reconnect. Others will make it a point to marry within their community back home in India to keep up the relationship.

Economic migrants have had a big impact on their hometown areas through remittances. World Bank data shows that remittance inflows to India in the last few years have been about $70 billion per year, which is about 4 lakh crores. Compare this to the entire Indian government budget of 19 lakh crores this year. The communities that benefitted have seen startling changes. Kerala, an early recipient of remittances from the Gulf, has had the highest literacy rates and the second-lowest poverty rates in India. Punjab and Gujarat, traditionally business-oriented states, have had their fortunes boosted by their NRIs. The money is remitted to their families, but of course, it begins to circulate in the economy and boosts it.

But the latest wave of skill-based emigration — the so-called ‘H1B’ immigrants, largely software engineers, have triggered a virtual revolution in India’s economy. Out of thousands of examples, I’ll select one: Dr Anand Deshpande. He completed his education at Indiana University and took up at job at Palo Alto in the late 80s. Sensing an opportunity in India, he returned and founded Persistent Systems in Pune in 1990. Today, it is one of India’s best-regarded services companies, employs over 6,000 people, and has steadily moved up the value chain in the software space.

Or, consider other industries like food products. The sisters Suhasini and Anindita Sampath, inspired by the health bars they saw during their stay in the US, founded Yoga Bars in Bengaluru. Today, it’s one of the notable health food brands in India. Several popular restaurateurs are returned NRIs.

By some metrics, the current software start-up revolution, going on in India, can be traced to the first generation of software engineers who went ‘on-site’ to the US and Europe through service companies.

Not all benefits are in the corporate universe. In 1990, a small group of Indian students at UC Berkeley decided to start a group dedicated to helping children in India. After much discussion, they decided to focus on children’s education. Most of their initial funding came from US college students and NRIs. Today, this group, known as Asha, has more than 50 chapters spread across the US, Europe, and India. A 1,000-plus volunteers have mobilised funds to complete 400 projects, across 23 Indian states. The culture of social awareness and giving back, prevalent in the western world, has had a fillip from our travellers.

Living in another country exposes one to new viewpoints and cultures. This varied experience, especially when gained in a developed country, can be brought back to one’s homeland.

On the flip side

Not all is positive about the NRI phenomenon. There is a sizeable proportion of Indian migrants who make their adopted home their own and never look back. Who can blame them, with the multiple negatives of life in India? And the public perception about NRIs here often puts a burden on them. But, life isn’t really easy in the US, either. Dinesh says ruefully, “Latent racism and fitting in is a real problem in the US.” Dinesh has continued to write on his blog and on web forums about Indian movies and music, and makes it a point to pick up the latest books whenever he visits home. In these ways, he’s very much the typical NRI.

The intellectual and financial heft of the NRI market has changed some things about India. PIOs and Pravasi Bharatiya Divas are priorities for the government, which recognises that this section of Indians wants to be involved with their motherland. As more Indians return with first-world experience, they demand the same quality of service and professionalism from businesses here. They are willing to pay a premium for well-made global cuisine and products. They take up teaching positions in colleges and consultancies at hospitals and corporates, utilising the high-quality experience they have gained.

On a lighter note, some film-makers are making NRIs the theme and target market of their films. As more international brands of fast food make their way to India, returned NRIs are often their early adopters.

Those who left India for global destinations are no less Indian than those who stayed behind. They have the same wish to help the country, if only they are enabled to do so. India gains from their experience and skills, not to mention finances. This is not a zero-sum game: it is quite doable for returning NRIs to gain for themselves from the newfound interest that India has in them. It’s the very definition of win-win.

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