WEEKEND THOUGHTS # 18

CHAKRA

Dear Ornetters,

The following is an article by Madhu Jain, a renowned Indian journalist. This article originally appeared in the "India Today" magazine and was posted on "IndiaWorld" website. A colleague of mine forwarded it to me and I found it very pertinent and appropriate for Ornet members. Hence its posting under "Weekend Thought" column. I am sure, you'll enjoy it.

Also, we'd like to thank the author Arun Shourie and the contributors Joydeep SinhaRoy and Manoj Kumar Sahu for last week's article.

Thank you and have a nice weekend.

Surjit Sahoo June 07, 1996
(ssahoo@ingr.com)
Huntsville, Alabama


Society and Trends
NRIs
Nervously Returning Indians



by
Madhu Jain
with Vijay Menon in Bangalore and Shalini Langer in Delhi
India Today, 15 May 1996
Copyright: Living Media India Limited. All rights reserved.

Non resident Indians ride back on the wave of economic liberalisation often to find fault with local conditions even as they try to fashion the now alien landscape according to their acquired tastes and fancies.

Gingerly sipping her soda with its twist of lemon, Mrs Newly Returned is beside herself with worry. "I just can't seem to find an English- peaking housekeeper. How are we going to survive here?" she moans, as she traces a pattern with her perfectly manicured talons on the table- cloth of the restaurant the group of women are at lunch in. The more seasoned Mrs Not So Newly Returned, busily tucking into steamed prawn dumplings, puts aside her chopsticks for a moment and says smugly: "Well, I suppose I did the right thing, bringing my Filipino maid. Indian maids don't know how to clean...So dirty, really."

If you close your eyes, you'd think that this collective crib session belonged in the realm of Burra Memsahibs before the final rays of the sun flickered out over the empire. In fact, it's more or less an eavesdropped account of Non-resident Indian (NRI) wives, who meet regularly to talk about the travails and tribulations of life in India. An India they may not have left very long ago. An India to which many are not at all happy to return. Some indeed, like the family who could not find English-speaking help, and defeated by the heat and dust and Delhi belly, have packed up their bags and gone "home".

The NRIs, as anybody can see, have come. And post-liberalisation, this is a different breed from the Indians who chose to live abroad for tax purposes, prominent ones being Swaraj Paul and Vijay Mallya. The new genre is aptly a different NRI -- they're the Newly Returned Indians who are coming back for competitive employment prospects.It's not yet an invasion in hordes. But the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the beginning of the '90s opened the sluice gates for multinational companies which suddenly feel that India is the new Eldorado, the new frontier, the new market, and have started sending out their Indian- origin employees to reconnoitre the terrain for projects to the back- ground mantra of globalisation. It's now an easier passage home to India. No longer do NRIs have to sweat it out in the Foreigners' Registration Office: Indian missions abroad now readily give 5-year visas. Nor do they need to spend thousands carting air-conditioners, computers, vcrs and a decade past even cartons of soft toilet paper. Just their cheque books will now do. Nor do they, since mid-1992, need permission of the Indian Government to retain their overseas assets or to do whatever they like with them.

Even individual professionals have flocked because there is work the Indian economy is growing while that of the West is static and bits of India are beginning to become like, well, bits of America. KFCs and Dominos, supermarkets, cellular phones, private airlines, private couriers, whirring faxes. Even the investment bankers started coming in chasing Indian corporations and not the other way round. And so, the numbers swelled.

Enough to make the returning prodigals a visible, more brightly painted part of the landscape. Enough to have Little Americas grafted on to Indian soil for them. Enough to spin off businesses and services catering to the latest wave of overseas invaders - the new Dollar Daddies. Enough to have a chief commissioner (investment and NRIs) in the Ministry of Finance to handle them exclusively. Enough of them to warrant clubs and 'support' groups cropping up to help this new breed - not quite Indian, not quite foreign - cope with India: a group of about 30 NRI women actually set up a 'survival' group, the Indian Women's Association, a year and a half ago. They meet over lunch in Delhi each month to help steer each other through the 'obstacle course' that India has become for some of them. That is, when they are not discussing leaking roofs, dirt on the window ledges, stomach bugs despite their homes being 'Only Bisleri'(bottled mineral water) zones, pollution, inadequate help, and the misleading body language of the local Indian who always says 'yes' even when he means 'no'.

NRI men also flock together, to compare notes for survival in their work zones, digressing often enough to complain about the traffic, telephones, the 'infrastructure', the Indian stretchable time and, of course, the 'filth' and the cows on the streets. In Bangalore - the guesstimated population of NRIs here is 8,000 -- there's even a club called the Returned Non-Resident Indians' Association with more than 300 members. They meet once a month at the upmarket Century Club, often to talk about back 'home' and 'hand hold' the new returnees.

The litany of complaints may get longer as the years go by. But memories also get correspondingly shorter. The ayah may be chewing paan and not be the best dust-buster, the driver not sparklingly white enough, but back home, the memsahib was the ayah, the cleaner, the driver - you have to practically be a Rockefeller to have a chauffeur abroad and the baby-sitter. And the men forget those long Sundays mowing the lawns, hauling out the garbage and only window-shopping the more exclusive restaurants. "Here," says Umesh Saraf, managing director of unison, which runs Hyatt Regency, and himself an NRI, "everything is very cheap by their standards. So they expect prompt service and will not even stand for genuine delays. Back there, they can't afford such services."

If it's a bit of the Wild East that these returnees (from North America, the United Kingdom, Europe, South-East Asia, Hong Kong and the Gulf) want to tame and harness with their hi-tech skills and management techniques, they are emerging as more than a gleam in the eyes of real-estate developers and entrepreneurs. Almost overnight as it were, residential townships which look most-definitely -not-made-in-India, some with shopping malls and recreation facilities, state-of-the-art schools, hospitals and supermarkets -- are springing up (there are many more on the drawing boards) to cater to NRIs and expats. It's as if some latter-day Alladin had got a genie to help materialise on Indian soil never-never lands with names like Beverly Hills, Malibou Towne, Bel Air, Camelot Hills, Oxford Spires. In fact, one of the advertisements for a residential colony actually boasts: "Nothing Indian about it but the address." Literally, N.R.I -- Not Really Indian.

"NRIs are looking for areas where they can lead a lifestyle similar to what they are used to abroad," explains G.R. Bahri, director, Unitech, a real-estate development company in Delhi which now sells at least a third of its properties to NRIs. Unitech is building Modi International Villas, a colony exclusively for NRIs and built to their specifications: curved roads leading to clusters of villas, no boundaries between the houses, a club, a pond, tennis courts and a health centre. Prithvi Nath, head of the department of business promotion, DLF Universal Ltd - another real-estate development company -- admits that the advent of NRIs has pushed up the land prices to some extent and adds: "Because of them, the emphasis is now on quality land development." Perhaps no other city has been hyped more as the NRIs' return nest than Bangalore. Plush new housing estates with names like Camelot Hills and Xanadu are coming up in the outskirts, even as real-estate prices grow at twenty-five per cent a year in the city and by more than 200 per cent annually in outlying boom areas.

Packaged as an 'international village', Xanadu's 100 acres include a world-class club, private microlites and a golf course designed by Ronald Fream, the man who designed the Sultan of Brunei's golf course. And Camelot Hills, a 30-minute drive from the city, offers cobbled pathways, clubs, swimming pools, a golf range, shopping malls and restaurants and parks. The punch-line of the ad says it all: "Camelot Hills is for those of us for whom caviar, Armani and Beverly Hills are just the basic necessiies of life."

Not all the NRIs are Lancelots pining for an elusive Camelot or heavens- on-earth. Some just want to replicate what they left behind. Rajagopalan Ravi, 46, who returned from Phoenix, Arizona, in 1990 to Madras, calls it "emotional insurance". "We spent a considerable amount of money building a house with the comforts we were used to in the US. And I imported every thing from sutures to my Mercedes Benz to make the transition easy." Ravi is one of the 120 original promoter nri doctors who banded together to set up the Tamilnadu Hospital in Madras in 1990.

With the alacrity of ambulance chasers, entrepreneurs, developers and investors -- including NRIs following in the wake of other NRIs to service this growing community -- are setting up schools and hospitals for the dollar-rich new settlers and expats. The Canadian School of India situated just outside Bangalore with Ontario-trained staff and a Canadian degree on offer opens its doors this September. The outer reaches of the capital are also all set to become an international zone.

It already has a couple of many-starred hospitals with a fairly large component of nri doctors, like Escorts Hospital and Research Centre(EHRC). While most of the senior doctors at the new Apollo Hospital are NRIs, Privat has been started by a doctor who returned from overseas. The region will also see nearly 10 international-quality schools (some residential) soon popping up in a reverse domino effect, many of them to cater to the same clientele. In fact, an air-conditioning consultant, a Canadian NRI, has even set up base here to make sure that the new schools will be able to satisfy the stringent demands of the NRI parents.They fear communicable diseases will spread with traditional air-conditioning. Sumer B. Singh, former headmaster of Sanawar,is now setting up a new residential school for the All India Education Society (formed by five business houses) which will provide "international quality education". "We will also offer an International Baccalaureat," says Singh. Although it is not primarily targeted at NRIs, Singh explains that schools like his will need NRI students to make them more economically viable.

Already the returning NRIs and expats are knocking loudly at the doors of the American School in New Delhi. Initially refused admission, some of the NRIs and expats lobbied with American Ambassador Frank Wisner to accept their children because they were American citizens. Apparently, the ambassador recently told the school that all Americans had to be admitted. A new building is now being built to cope with the influx -- in fact, the school has already increased the number of its students from 600 to 1,000.

Just as the native Indians are of different kinds, so are the new settlers. There are, of course, those who are returning because of the challenges such a dynamically changing scenario presents. Like Heman Shah, 33, who heads Boston Consulting in India. "I always wanted to be and work in India but there were no opportunities until recently. Here I am a bigger fish in a smaller pond and exposed to a more important set of issues," he says.

Some do because of strong family ties. Says Dr N.K. Pandey, medical director,EHRC: "I wanted to be with my parents and my own people. I feel at home here. No matter how high up the ladder you go abroad, you feel left out. You are never really part of society there." Others come because they want their children to be Indian. And few "to do something for the country". Like the special-effects man from Florida who is setting up a studio in his hometown, Patna, to provide software for Hollywood films. "I am one of eight children, we had very little money. But my father and my country gave me the education which made my success possible. I want to repay the debt." But there are few like him. Says Raj Sharma, representative of the state of Alberta, Canada, in India: "For most, the reason is purely financial. Developing countries is where the action is." There are basically two kinds of NRIs in the post-liberalisation era. First there are the ones who came prospecting in the first wave after Manmohan Singh waved the green flag. Many of them had their noses pressed to the glass ceilings at work abroad and realised that the Great American Dream ended for them right there. They were door-openers for the multinational companies which were vaguely interested in India. An India they often oversold to their bosses in their desire to come back here. Mr Newly Gone Back (couldn't cope with India and returned) even told his American boss that he knew the prime minister - "who'd himself congratulated me on the birth of my son". Truth was, he didn't even know the PA to the PS of the PM. And some of these salesmen of their erstwhile nation have actually returned overseas. "I actually had to send back nearly a third of my staff," says a senior executive of a multinational company. "They had no clue about how to work here and had delusions of grandeur."

The second wave came after 1992, when India became a conversation piece in the boardrooms of the G-7 nations. Basically high-fliers and global players, they came in senior positions. And often - especially in tele- communications, investment banking and consulting companies -- to head them. Back abroad, these two kinds of NRIs lived worlds apart. Trans- planted to India, they continue to do so -- their paths crossing only at work, the thresholds of homes uncrossed.

The second lot are the golden ones. They blend more easily into the landscape, unlike those who tend to wear their adopted countries on their sleeves like the NRI wife who puts a Canadian flag on her handbag when she goes to embassy dos in Delhi. Usually with family and friends in the right places and the right, unobtrusive accents, this breed of the NRI - commentator Jairam Ramesh labels them hipcoms (Highly Paid Country Managers) is in India as a leg-up on their way up the global ladder of their mammoth corporations. They would be valuable to their country anywhere. To use another Jairamism, the 'dopops' (Dollar Paid Software Professionals) are not far behind -- and the two appear to blend into the local creamy layers. But only appear to. Many of them are employed on expat salaries. And some even get hardship-post allow- ances. India is considered a hardship post for the diplomats of several countries and for many of the expats working for some multinationals. And lately, those allowances have been mounting, as India falls deeper into the hardship category. Health, facilities and security are some of the indicators of these allowances: the plague in 1994, the housing crisis in Bombay and the kidnappings of children in the capital as well as the abduction of foreigners by Kashmir militants helped fatten their pay packets. For some countries, India graduated from a no-risk country to a low-risk country after the terrorist kidnappings.

"The allowances vary from 15 per cent to 35 per cent of their salaries," explains human resources development consultant Anita Ramachandran. "If they are making $120,000 in the US," says a headhunter who advises NRIs, "it's $200,000 here. To which you can add free and fancy housing." Some companies even pick up their house mortgages. "Instead of a life on credit there, they have an array of domestic help and can live like brown sahibs here -- riding, playing polo, hanging around with the diplomats, holding court in the best of clubs," moans an envious executive who works for an organisation with many NRIs.

The gravy train doesn't stop here. Several companies give them R&R (rest and recreation) allowance to go anywhere twice a year and "home leave" once a year. And they ave the best of both worlds: expat perks as well as being home and the status that comes with it. "The Tatas, Ruias and Ambanis are at the beck and call of even the small-time business executive," complains a consultant who advises NRIs. "Back home, they would need an appointment to see their own CEO. Here, they can meet P. Chidambaram or Montek Singh Ahluwalia at the drop of a hat. An Indian would have to call 100 times for the door to open." They also matter here. No matter how high their salaries, they would never really belong or be part of the society in their chosen homelands. "Ultimately, I am somebody here. In the US, I'd be one of the 200 million," says a returnee in the media business. And after a point, life is all right only if you are white in America.

The other Indian, the one who returns at the middle level because he has reached a dead end where he is, or returns reluctantly because his company has sent him because of the colour of his skin, soon begins to stick out like a sore thumb in the Indian landscape. He wants to be given special treatment because he's lived abroad -- there was even a request to create a separate hierarchy for the NRIs in one of the multinationals. Not having done the golden route of public schools and Indian versions of the Ivy League colleges or the IIT-IIM route, and then crossed the seas and landed in second-rate colleges and jobs, he is more likely to end up as the Ugly NRI, a derivative of the Ugly American Abroad. The late journalist Prem Bhatia once described NRIs as "our damads, sons-in-law". In other words, ask only what your ex-country can do for you. Having sold India to his employers back home, his main mission once here is to prove how important he is. If he comes from the US, his first priority when he returns to Delhi, explains the "other" kind of NRI, is to get his child into the American School. "People, basically his relatives, here know how outrageously expensive it is," explains an NRI head of a company (the blue-chip kind). The next step is a house within spitting distance of the American Embassy. And last but not least, because the rest of his life impinges on this: get his family into the American Club where he can "enjoy the comfort of home and get a decent burger".

For the American NRIs, the American School becomes a surrogate community, the umbilical cord to home, especially for the wives and children. Some of the NRI wives, a few of whom only left India a few years ago, join the various orientation courses meant for multinational employees from where to buy what, how to read Indian body language and social and business etiquette. "NRIs generally require orientation to a place they are returning to after a gap," says Lata V. Patel, president, India Orientation Services, which runs courses for foreigners and NRIs. "While the foreigners have few expectations of India, that is not the case with NRIs...they are also less tolerant of India."

So while in their lives overseas they may simulate India with Karoake evenings, singing Indian songs or playing Antakshari, eating dahi-bhallas and chaat, while mixing with others like them, in India, for many, it's Sara Lee chocolate cake mixes, barbecues on the patio and moving in the NRI-NIR (Non-Indian Resident) circle. Caught between two worlds and letting go of neither, it takes the NRIs time to adjust. Perhaps they should listen to Timeri N. Murari, a journalist who returned to India after 30 years abroad: "Once you leave home, you can never come back to what you were. You have to recognise that both you and India have changed. And start out afresh."


Your comments are always welcome...

Surjit Sahoo


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