What do NRIs want? Let's start with a diamond ring

By Minal Hajratwala

Apparently it's no longer couth to say that what you really want from an NRI is access to his or her wallet. The new buzzword is "engagement."

In the basement ballroom of the Taj Lands End in Bandra recently, some 200 people gathered for a panel discussion and mingle session called The Indian Diaspora: Converging Destinies.

But there was precious little talk of destiny, or even convergence. Instead, we heard about how Hillary Clinton has effectively "engaged" (raised money from) the Indian American community for years. And how pleased the US Government is about the "substantial engagement" of NRIs in helping to boost US-India trade by 30 percent this year alone. And how important it is to "engage" NRIs through the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs -a government entity whose entire raison d'etre has been to smoothen the flow of NRI money into India.

A Suitable Country

Like any good Guju girl, I should make it clear that if you want to get me engaged, you'd better be on your knees with a diamond ring. Preferably one worth two months' salary (international salary, that is).

But as an NRI, it seems that when I get engaged, I'm the one who needs to be paying a dowry. And the suitors are gathering around.

No, no, no, protested the Secretary of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs. "We are not standing here with a begging bowl," he declared proudly. In the very next breath he bragged that India's foreign remittances are the highest in the world - $54 billion.

Actual investment by NRIs hasn't quite panned out on a large scale, but funds transferred by workers to their families, combined with miscellaneous items like philanthropy and education, add up to $100 billion in NRI inflows.

This narrative of success relies, of course, on a very broad definition of NRI that includes labourers in the Gulf (27 percent of remittances). None of them, as far as I know, made it to the ballroom.

But anyway, money's not the focus, says India. No one is looking at the girl's trust fund, no one at all. We are impressed by her homeliness, her MBA, her wheatish complexion. For these reasons only we wish engagement.

Hmm.

As an NRI, it seems that when I get engaged, I'm the one who needs to be paying a dowry. And the suitors are gathering around. Reuters

A wise girl with US citizenship doesn't need to rush into anything, though. Because these days she's got no shortage of suitors. Why, look: Over here we have the United States, also gazing starry-eyed in my direction, telling me I am The One. Apparently I'm a potential gold mine.

India is one of the fastest-growing investors in the United States, said one panelist. Another cited US census figures showing that of 27 million entrepreneurs in the United States, Indian-American-owned firms are bigger by both dollar amounts and number of employees than any other ethnic group.

That's a lot of Patel hotels, Dunkin Donuts franchises, and one or two Infosyses. Bring your money over here, says America. We could buy a nice Mercedes and a diamond-studded Rolex with that kind of engagement.

No, no, this has nothing to do with the US recession. It's all you, baby.

Where's the beef?

The superficiality of the recent discussion was all the more disappointing because Gateway House, which is actively recruiting NRIs in its quest to become India's equivalent of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, actually has some powerful intellectual firepower. Executive Director Manjeet Kripalani is a former business journalist with the brains and contacts to pull off a big-guns think tank. Her team of smart researchers puts out decent policy writing, including an article that was distributed at the event on the converging interests of the US and India . I don't need to agree with everything in the piece to appreciate that it would have served as a good starting point for discussion.

Sad to say, none of the panelists responded to or even seemed to have read the brief. Instead they wanted to retell the now-stale drama of "reverse" or "circular" migration (an extremely minor statistical trend) and how Harvard Business School graduates are jumping to join the "excitement" of building India's new economy.

So what's really on the NRI agenda? Judging from audience questions, some items might include:

Assistant US Secretary of State Robert O Blake. AFP

•Lower-cost access to such reforms as the Overseas Citizen of India status. Any NRI who can prove Indian ancestry can get this near-citizen statusfor upwards of $300. The price tag is fair enough for those of us from the (relatively) wealthy West, but why not a sliding scale for diaspora populations, like those in South Africa and Fiji, whose ancestors took the virtual slavery route out of India?

Secretary Alwyn Didar Singh of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs answered that question with a tautology: The less affluent communities are simply less "engaged" than those who are taking advantage of (can afford) the OCI status, mostly Americans.

Translation: No one wants a girl from a poor family. Even if she is kind of cute.

•Exchange programmes at the secondary school level for students and teachers. Nice idea, said Assistant US Secretary of State Robert O Blake, but higher education is where the money is - and so higher education is where the focus shall remain.

Translation: No one wants a girl from a poor family. Even if she is kind of smart.

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•The removal of "irritations" that are currently barriers to more NRIs and expats being able to settle in India. Traffic, pollution, corruption, inefficiency, that sort of thing. The response from the panel's sole returned NRI, the affable India head of the international consulting firm McKinsey & Co., was that, well, if it irritates you too much, go back where you came from.

Fair enough, but this kind of "dialogue" is a bit of a bore. I don't need a fiance to trot out ancient clichs and make me yawn. For that, I'd go do something like peruse the working papers of the 1967 international "brain drain" conference - where India's representativepresented a paper complaining about how that NRIs wanted their Brylcreem in tubes rather than glass jars and felt Indian refrigerators to be too noisy.

Translation: It's the girl who has to adapt to the boy's family. Sorry, dear. Did you think this was an American-style love marriage?

What Do NRIs Want?

If the movement to "engage" NRIs really wants to take off, it needs to do more than treat us to paneer hors d'oeuvres and pandering speeches. We all know that money is the motivator for the sudden interest in NRIs. But like any girl on a date, ultimately we want to be seen for ourselves. A smart boy will make us feel ... special.

The "returnees" I know - most of whom, like me, spent their childhood abroad and are living in India as adults for the first time -are not, for the most part, wealthy investors or corporate executives. They are artists, writers, NGO workers, public health advocates, strugglers, researchers, mid-career professionals, small-scale entrepreneurs. Like everyone else in a boom economy, they're working hard, looking for lucky breaks, and seizing opportunities when they can. They're eager to turn their ideas into reality.

The role of investor doesn't begin to describe them. Even the role of bridge-builder is a very limited one. Ultimately, as with the old anti-feminist question "What do women want?", the truth is that - given the diversity of the diaspora - there is no single answer to the question of what NRIs want.

But personally, if I'm going to be part of some kind of NRI club, I'd rather meet the interesting ones. I'd like to hear about the inspiring work of people like designer Mriga Kapadiya, one among a growing number of social entrepreneurs who are using a rural fair trade model to shape handcrafted Indian fabrics into modern clothing designs. I'd love to see events that pair visiting artists/performers - for example, New York choreographer Parijat Desai, who'll be touring India in September- with their Indian peers to converse about aesthetics, heritage, and creativity. And I'd be fascinated to hear the stories of people in corporations making a difference, such as gay and lesbian returnees who are bringing a Western-style diversity ethic into India's corporate culture.

Whether or not such efforts ultimately succeed, the energy and creativity behind them are far more compelling to me than either the nostalgia-plus-fireworks displays of a Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, or the numerous spontaneous support groups that take place at the Taj on the difficulties of managing maids and drivers.

The truth is that NRIs living and working here are already "engaged" in the contemporary, vibrant India. We're not only here to make or dole out money; we're here to live, learn and, at our best, to help make a change.

And anyone who wants to reach NRIs needs to tap that authentic desire. They can start by creating opportunities for NRIs to share these experiences and strategies with one another; to take part in real dialogue, not officialspeak; and to link up with locals who share our passions.

Authenticity, passion, and great communication skills: Now that might even get me engaged.

Minal Hajratwala is a Fulbright Senior Research Fellow and the author of the award-winning book on the Indian diaspora, Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents. For the record, she has never wanted a diamond ring.


Published Date: Aug 04, 2011 01:09 pm | Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 05:21 am