India—the land of infinite opportunities, proclaim the announcements. Periodically, state and federal ministers stomp through the U.S. on a coast-to-coast yatra to exhort Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) to invest and set up industries in India. Courted assiduously with offers of co-operation and assistance from the central and state governments, many NRIs respond positively to the patriotic pitch about “helping the motherland.”

Can the NRI investor really expect a red carpet welcome in India?

The minister woos the NRIs and vanishes after promising the moon, the sun, and the stars for good measure. The actual help that an investor can expect is from bureaucrats whose incompetence is matched only by their lack of interest.

Indian bureaucrats personify impudence, ignorance, and indifference. These qualities were vividly illustrated through the 1994 visit of a senior bureaucrat to the Bay Area—the highlight of a decidedly rambling “key note” speech being a charge of “incompetence” against the organizers. “When you are not competent enough to handle the microphone system, how can I expect you to help India” thundered the bureaucrat.

All that separates the senior bureaucrats from the junior bureaucrats is one of rank. The lower level bureaucrats i.e. the babus are a class unto themselves. There exists no authority to extract work from them other than “gifts,” preferably of a monetary kind. While the net investment in such gifts can substantially alter the budget, it offers no guaranties on the final result.

After months or years of effort in “enriching the quality of life in India,” the NRI discovers that the only people who have been enriched are the babus and the politicians.Sadder and wiser, many return to the U.S. cursing themselves for believing in the ministerial yarn.

A singular exception to the above phenomenon seems to be the “body shopping” business. It is trite to state that computer support at most organizations depends on software developers recruited mainly from China and India. Contractors who recruit workers from India and help them with the necessary paperwork to come to the U.S. form the core of the “body shopping” industry.

This sector has protected itself from the bane of “regulation” (read governmental meddling) in India. The resulting situation is a textbook example of supply-demand economics where a skilled worker can expect competitive wages and a smooth immigration transition to the U.S.

Given the quantity and quality of Indian software developers in the U.S. and their obvious impact on the sector, can we conclude that all is well with this sector?

The answer is a resounding “No.” Lack of regulation and mechanisms to monitor the welfare of workers is the bane of the sector in the U.S. While wages and contracts are supposedly competitive, the average “body-shopped” developer is at the mercy of the contractor. Horror stories about the insatiable greed of contractors forcing developers to work long hours at paltry wages abound.

While concerns have always existed, the dire lack of mechanisms to address violations of basic rights came to the fore in early 2000 after Indian software developers in Texas were manhandled and imprisoned by the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS). While the victims were in no way responsible for the tardiness of the contractor in updating paperwork, they faced the wrath of the INS. The efforts of the victims to have their grievances addressed were spectacularly unsuccessful.

The recent downturn in the economy only complicates the plight of the body shopped. The absence of an authority mandated to advocate or pursue legal remedies on their behalf make it impossible for any unemployment related issue to be addressed.

In the absence of other mechanisms, the Government of India (GoI) should take on the responsibility of advocating on behalf of its citizens.

The GoI should explore the prospect of creating a sub-Ministry under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs mandated to integrate NRIs and Indian infrastructure as well as intervene on behalf of Indian citizens outside the country. The responsibilities of the ministry would specifically be:

* Intervention on behalf of NRI investors with various federal and state level agencies for smoothening the setting up of industries.

* Provision of legal assistance to, and advocacy on behalf of Indian citizens outside India.

India should do its citizens a favor by borrowing a book from countries with significant expatriate presence, including Bangladesh. The Government of Bangladesh has long set up schemes that facilitate Bangladeshis searching for jobs abroad in addition to regulating the resultant revenue flowing into Bangladesh. A similar program set up by the Philippine government to assist the significant numbers of Filipino women working as domestic care givers abroad seems to be fairly successful than in terms of efficiency.

Likewise, a significant effort seems to have been initiated in recent months on behalf of Mexicans aiming to leave and work outside the country by the Government of Mexico. President Vicente Fox’s lobbying of President George Bush to grant amnesty to approximately millions of undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. has been preceded by other governmental assistance—videos depicting the dangers posed by the desert as well as when and where to look for assistance in the U.S.

Immigrants and Indian citizens abroad have been likened to young saplings, which will bear fruit a decade later. How can a sapling grow unless somebody waters, nourishes, and protects it from marauders?

S. Gopikrishna writes about India and Indians from Toronto.

 

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