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Time to stop NRI-bashing

It's time this great Indian pastime stopped. Let the NRIs and PIOs do their thing as well. 'Us and Them' is no longer an option, writes Sudeep Chakravarti.

india Updated: Dec 29, 2003 12:28 IST

I've been thinking these past three days about the grand meetings and banquets that India's Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has attended in New York to touch base with Diaspora India. There primarily to attend the United Nation's annual assembly session, he delivered grand speeches, took a few digs at Pakistan, amused the audience, pressed the flesh and appealed to their hearts—if not their wallets—to help the home country.

There are those in India who think it's a complete waste of quality government time and money to attend these overseas Indian gatherings. There are others who feel such interactions have little value beyond increasing cash flow to the coffers of Sangh Parivar organizations back in India.

Why bother with these Non-Resident Indians, People of Indian Origin—or whatever—goes another sneering refrain. These guys are essentially chicken. They chose to go away while we chose to stay back and take on what life, the system and a backbreaking government apparatus dished out. So who the hell are these NRIs anyway, to visit home occasionally, run down everything in India, show off their dollars and dinars, and insist they have a say in India's future? They gave up their vote long ago. And besides, now that the going is getting slightly better, some of these NRI types are scurrying back to India, saying they have had enough of racial discrimination and a squeezing global economy.

To quote a prominent businessman who will perforce have to go unnamed in this article: "These NRIs can sod off."

I disagree. Not because of the undeniable reasons such as increasing economic wealth and political clout of people of Indian origin in countries like the United States and United Kingdom. Or the technological prowess that is now ploughed back home in a hundred different ways from BPO operations to farming grain or strawberry. Or the most basic: such as billions of dollars being remitted home every year by India expatriate workers across Asia. These are all important reasons of value and value addition, and if I may, I would like to call it the Great Indian Equity.

My point of disagreement is simpler. Basically, I have never understood the reasoning that while it's okay for businesses to migrate from one part of the country to another—or to another country altogether—and be lauded for business acumen, when individuals initiate a similar move for socio-economic well being, it's labeled as "running away" or "turning chicken."

Take me. I am not a NRI, though certainly, I could be called a NRB, or a non-resident Bengali. I went away not from my India, but from my Kolkata, in West Bengal, India. Not a day's flying time away to another country-though sometimes it feels that way, as some fellow—Kolkata emigres would snigger—but a two-hour flight west, to what is now known as India's National Capital Region. It's home. It's where I work and live. It's where I'm rooted till the day I decide I want to, need to—provided I can—live somewhere else.

I left Kolkata three decades ago because my parents—lifelong residents of Kolkata—decided that the education system in Bengal was falling apart, infrastructure was terrible, law and order bad, jobs were going to get scarce and quality of life was going to tank. All true. So, for thirty years as I traveled through high school, university and a work-life, I've been a NRB. I don't even have a vote there; as a resident of Gurgaon, I will vote Haryana, not Bengal.

Certainly, a key difference between the NRI—or more correctly the PIO—and people in India is that they generally end up adding directly to the wealth and well-being of their adopted countries while we add to the wealth and well-being of India, irrespective of whichever state we come from.

(The other key difference is, of course, that unlike an Indian Prime Minister who gets mobbed when he travels to Indian-heavy enclaves across the world, most Indian chief ministers would be ignored if they traveled to any other part of the country, let alone the world. There are notable exceptions, like a Chandrababu Naidu, because he comes across as a can-do sort of person—and that's precisely the point.)

But if one were to stretch the argument, I could be asked why I was chicken, and didn't stay on in Bengal and try to make something of the state as part of a great collective action?

Indeed, I recall vividly an interview with Reliance Industries' founder Dhirubhai Ambani a few years ago, when he typically went off on a personal tangent, fixed me with a beady stare and declared, "You Bengalis are so smart, then why can't you do anything in Bengal? Why do you do well only when you go out of Bengal?"

I smiled and kept quiet then, partly because I thought the answer that came immediately to mind—"Oh yeah, so why did you go to Aden to earn a living?"—was rude. And partly because despite the irony of the situation, he had a point. As it happened, I replied after a while: "More opportunities." He shot back: "Then Bengal can't develop until it creates more opportunity. Kya, thik bola na?"

Bingo. Logic wins. Reality wins.

But through all these years of being away, I can't remove myself from Bengal, and agonise over anything negative and feel great when there's some good news. Flying into Kolkata earlier today, I didn't feel particularly energized that the city that still looked dilapidated and generally morose (maybe it was the rain, but what the hell?). But maybe the emerging malls and shop fronts, new offices and swank new hotels appeared to be telling a story of some who thought Kolkata was worth putting money into. Indeed, the Hindustan Times has done gloriously well in Kolkata in a very short time, but that's another story.

Maybe it helped that just yesterday, newspapers front-paged articles that incredulously wrote about the Marxist West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Dasgupta's plan to re-deploy government staff from fattened offices in Kolkata to staff-deprived parts of the state, so that citizens would get the service they voted for and paid taxes for. Mr Dasgupta has reduced the traditional Puja bonus for government staff citing austerity measures, and reduced the number of official state holidays. This is almost unthinkable, as is his drive to get technology companies to put money into Bengal.

This is great stuff. But will it drag me back to Kolkata to energetically participate in a glorious new Bengal? I don't know yet. I will probably attend a meeting that Mr Dasgupta is addressing, but as an individual, I need to see more to take a call on opportunity costs. There has to be more happening, a lot more.

So are we chicken because people like me won't throw in our lot? Fine, we'll live with it, and in our own way, prod and pressure for positive change irrespective of whether we will ever go back to Kolkata or not. A good beginning is always made when a sense of hopelessness gives way to a sense of the future and a sense of history in the making.

I would urge us all to let the NRIs and PIOs do their thing as well. When they think risk factors at home are suitable, they will come back if they want—to work, run businesses, or spend the end of their days in the country of their birth.

Until then, it's not such a big deal if Mr Vajpayee regales them with humour and sparkle. It makes them feel right at home. And it doesn't hurt India one bit.

(Sudeep Chakravarti is Consulting Editor with the Hindustan Times)

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First Published: Dec 24, 2003 21:35 IST