The Capital is agog again with the yearly visits of Pravasi Indians, aka NRIs. They are often dismissed as migratory birds, but the metaphor need not be entirely derogatory. Migratory birds not only lend colour to our otherwise drab existence, but their presence also tells us that we are doing something right. Further, not always is the presence of such exotic birds an unalloyed good. They can, and do, prey upon local species and edge them out from their favourite watering holes.
If Pravasi Indians see something worthwhile in India it is surely because of the economic growth that some sectors, riding on the IT boom, are experiencing in recent times. Unless we can ensure that this development is sustainable and becomes more broad-based, our Pravasi friends will stop coming. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect our visiting NRIs to develop India, as our Prime Minister exhorted them to do in his welcome address. If these Pravasis had any such intentions they would not have left for distant shores in the first place. If they are coming now to invest and do business, it is because they see something of interest to them. Fortunately, it is of interest to us as well, but we need to keep our house in order and the watering holes in good repair. Or else, like the fickle Siberian Cranes, they too might drop us one winter without notice.
To keep them coming and happy we must develop our most valued infrastructure and that is our trained manpower. At this point we are very complacent about this all important asset, but we had better watch out. Granted, we have a large population that can perform in English. We also boast that we produce nearly three lakh post graduates each year. All that is very well, but do these numbers suggest that we have got it right and can rest on our laptops?
Other countries are learning English too, most significantly China. Also, and this is a bit of a shock: the proportion of proper qualified engineers in our country with at least a four year degree certificate is quite low. Per million we have only 120 such graduates whereas even the Philippines has a ratio that is six times higher.
Further, the proportion of money devoted to Higher Education is going down with every Five Year Plan. This may be hard to believe, but the total amount of money we put in for research in real terms is falling every year. In terms of percentages the decline is roughly 11 % per annum, and this is really bad news. If we don’t take care, our watering holes will soon run dry. Either that, or get silted with sub-baccalaureates who can only muddy up our hard earned reputation.
In the ultimate analysis, let us remember that only three million people are employed in the IT and IT enables services put together. The small scale sector that was supposed to pick up the slack on the employment front has not done such a great job yet. The percentage of rural industries has risen by only three points over the last decade or so. On the other hand, between 1987 and 2002, employment per lakh of rupees in small scale industry has gone down from 3.94 persons to only 0.67.
Quality education and infrastructure development which ordinary citizens can access are the only way to sustain development and keep the Pravasis coming. As we seem to like them so much, and the colour of their money, let us make sure they descend on our Capital every winter, to our mutual advantage.
If, however, we let them tell us what to do then we won’t develop, but they might.
(Dipankar Gupta is a sociology professor at JNU)