The recent tide of NRIs coming back to India is motivated by more than sentimental or personal reasons.
NO MORE IDEALISM: The returning NRI is no more an activist who wants to work for the country like Shahrukh Khan in “Swades”.
In Ashutosh Gowariker’s 2004 film “Swades”, the protagonist Mohan forsakes material comfort and his evidently stratospheric career prospects as a NASA meteorologist to usher sustainable development into a little village in India. Fo
r many decades now, a sizeable chunk of the faculty in top-tier universities in India and executives in corporate India have worked and studied abroad.
Notwithstanding, even three years ago, Mohan’s character embodied the prevailing perception of the prodigal NRI returning home: like Gandhi, Mohan’s namesake, the returning NRI was seen as an idealist and activist — charged with his khadi-clad mission “to do something for India”. That stereotype is changing.
Similar lofty missions brought Ravi Kuchimanchi back from the U.S. some years ago; he and some of his friends at graduate school returned to set up Association for India’s Development (AID), an NGO. Ditto for Tanmay Rajpurohit whose political outfit Lokparitran, having styled itself as the party formed by IITians, has garnered considerable newsprint recently. His bio at the official Lokparitran website gushes about how “the current plight of India and the grim future facing the country” convinced him of the need to do “whatever is necessary for the Land [sic].”
Avijit Goswami, who returned to Pune around the same time as “Swades” was released, to establish a local branch of his U.S.-based company, published an article about his personal motivations to return to India at NRIOL, an online community for NRIs. In his article, he seems sceptical of such quixotic notions of nation-building. Goswami is among the recent tide of repatriating Indians who are motivated by more than sentimental or personal reasons.
Returning to India is no longer the first-generation immigrant’s version of an early retirement. At soirees, potlucks and pujas, when the conversation drifts to those homeward bound, we tend to ask each other, how much exactly do I need to have saved up? Talk of “the Number” — that magical figure of liquid net-worth which, if invested in low-risk assets, would yield a comfortable pension for returning NRIs — still dominates conversation on the online message boards. But galloping inflation in India and the rapid devaluation of the U.S. dollar have considerably tempered the notion of financial security that such a nest-egg might have engendered in the past.
Instead, the conversation has turned to the declining disparity of income between the U.S. and India; with India’s thriving economy and the associated spate of foreign investment in Indian industry, career prospects have improved. The Chinese characters for ‘returned from overseas’ and ‘sea-turtle’ sound the same, giving rise to the homophonic Chinese pun ‘hai gui’ used to describe returning expats.
More and more sea-turtles, like Goswami, are returning to attractive positions in senior management in corporate India. Further, the quality of life has improved markedly for NRIs returning to the country. With freer regulations on currency, many are able to repatriate their savings at lower transaction costs and live within the comfort of NRI enclaves in the metros. Most predict that with improved infrastructure, the problems of water, electricity and transportation that plague these overcrowded metros will soon be rapidly remedied.
Not all returning NRIs, though, are professionals with years of experience or with the insurance of a green card in case things don’t work out in India. Immediately after his Ph.D. in Computer Science, also in 2004, Jai Ramamirtham returned to India to work at Bell Labs’ research facility in Bangalore. Jai now works at netCore Solutions, a software solution provider to Indian companies led by another returned expat. On the phone from Bangalore, Jai describes the entrepreneurial nature of his job and the challenges it exposes him to. “The growing market in India presents a very clear opportunity to be here and work here”, he says.
Appetite for risk
Entrepreneurship emerges as a strong theme among returning expats. A classmate from IIT, Chennai, Ajit Narayanan decided to move back to India from San Jose earlier this year, to start his own company Invention Labs with the simple goal of bringing product development and design innovation to products targeted specifically towards the Indian marketplace.
Leaving a steady salaried job for the return on sweat-equity in a bootstrapped start-up is a risky prospect: one that many professionals in India are still loath to embrace. Whereas India’s educated professional remains very risk-averse when it comes to career decisions; there seems to be greater appetite for risk, and the promised rewards, in Ajit, Jai and their contemporaries. Erstwhile NRIs back in India will tell you that living and working abroad have definitely impacted their notions of success and autonomy; none would trade their experience of living, studying and working abroad. Attitudes towards risk and entrepreneurialism, even in old-economy corporate North America, are rooted in neo-liberal approaches to individual freedom and critical rationality.
Indians who have worked previously in the West typically expect greater autonomy in the workplace — from their superiors, peers and subordinates. The Indian workplace, by contrast, is more oriented towards industrial-age command-and-control. “People expect to be told exactly what to do, without necessarily working out how their contribution fits into the larger scheme of things, or asking why,” comments a recent returnee.
Emotion does have its place among the reasons motivating this reverse brain-drain. Like most immigrants, both Avijit and Jai talk of the indefinable cultural otherness that NRIs experience in the U.S., and the contrasting, but equally inchoate, feeling of belonging in India. Many of the returning NRIs graduated from top colleges in India, went on to graduate school in the U.S. in the 1980s, and thence to careers in multinational firms. They are keen to raise their pre-teen children in India, away from the Edwardian complexity of social hierarchy and the ready availability of drugs, alcohol and sex that define the typical American high school experience.
Equally importantly, the often articulate and compelling NRI voice is heard and acknowledged in India. Those who return to India and to the loving embrace of established familial and college networks speak of how connected they feel to the core of Indian life. Ajit, whose company is focused on engineering design innovation and product development catering to developing markets, says almost all his business interactions to date have been through word of mouth and personal connections.
The steady economic growth has definitely helped; none among the returning NRIs had come back with this kind of blistering growth in mind, but are definitely glad they’re in for the ride. For the right kind of company, there appears to be no dearth of money, from even serious venture capitalists. Invention Labs is in no hurry though, and would rather find their feet and decide their strategic direction before they decide to take funding. “I am almost sure we’ll end the year cash-flow positive,” Ajit declares.
Enterprises such as Ajit’s — capitalising on innovation and designed to cater to India’s burgeoning middle-class, urban and rural — still remain the exception rather than the norm. For a product business such as Ajit’s finding custom manufacturers and suppliers is still a challenge; international parcels add huge lead-times to each step and give the lie to the conceit that the world is flat. Jai observes that India has yet to grow the active network of venture capitalists, advisors, niche suppliers and serial entrepreneurs that nourish younger, less experienced, innovators and risk-takers — Bangalore is yet to foster that connection between a young Jerry Yang and a seasoned Mike Moritz.
In the current economic situation, global economic growth is greatly dependent on India and China. While the government works out ways of regulating the volatility injected by speculative foreign institutional investors, creative policies to attract more sea-turtles might be a way to encourage innovation and, in turn, long-term investment in private enterprise.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences instituted the “Hundred Talents Programme” back in 1994 to woo Chinese scientists and engineers from the West; today Chinese cities have office complexes named “returning-student entrepreneurial building” to encourage sea-turtles to return to shore.
Perhaps we could peek over our eastern border for clues.
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