Many NRIs have been returning to India for good, but a large number go right back. Here is why
Over the past decade, as the West floundered and India’s economy prospered, Non Resident Indians (NRIs) started returning from the US, UK and EU to their home country in large numbers. Not only were career prospects brighter in India, something that was unthinkable a generation ago, their homeland now offered many of the West’s comforts: gated housing enclaves, gyms, shopping malls, Italian restaurants and even coffee shops with whiffs of the knee-weakening aroma of Java that characterises the air abroad.
According to a study by recruitment consultancy firm Kelly Services India, nearly 300,000 NRIs will return by 2015. The number could increase if the US government imposes stiff immigrant visa rules. This phenomenon has been called India’s ‘reverse brain drain’, with India’s best minds going overseas only to come back after some years with their skills enhanced. In an interview with Thefinancialist.com, Anita Raghavan, the US-based author of The Billionaire’s Apprentice: The Rise of The Indian-American Elite and The Fall of The Galleon Hedge Fund, says, “I think a large cohort of Indians will still come to America, but in the past they would have stayed in America and built a life.
Today, because of the dazzling array of opportunities in India, they will probably go home.”
The term ‘reverse brain drain’ sounds catchy, but as with many such complex patterns of migration, it does not capture the whole story. While many NRIs stick with their decision to return to India, quite a few go right back. Initially, coming back feels wonderful to most. The din and quirks of India are fun. Family is close at hand. But after a while, many of these Indians are drawn back to where they were. Some are cases of professional compulsion, but many are decisions to do with lifestyle, children’s education, health and safety. What follow are the stories of some people who went back abroad, and they reveal as much about their aspirations as they do about India and their adopted homes.
Milind Patwardhan is a Mumbai man employed as an R&D professional in America’s infotech industry based in Silicon Valley, California. He has been in the US since 1995. In 2002, he moved to India for a 12-month assignment with a choice of staying back after that. Asked what was nice about coming back to India, he says, “The thought of being together with family, rekindling old friendships, experiencing the luxuries of an expat package as well as the emergence of India in the context of BRIC nations [Brazil, Russia, India, China].”
Patwardhan, however, chose to return to the US. He lists his reasons: “It was the inability to adjust [to India] despite my best efforts, realising that lives and people change and things move on, and that what I was looking forward to was probably locked in [an old] context and time.” He was also disturbed by the corruption in the country, as also a deterioration of values among the young, as he saw it. “Though you see extreme acts such as mass school shootings in the US, when it comes to grassroots rules and regulations, the US system is very high up on [the scale of] fairness and justice for all,” says the father of two.
These factors, coupled with professional logic—his contacts network and market for skills were still in the US and Europe—put Patwardhan back on the plane to America. He says he is willing to return to India so long as he is able to manage his assets and liabilities irrespective of where he stays and lead a quality life.
Ajay Kela, a 1981 graduate of IIT-Bombay, is a senior member of India’s infotech fraternity in the US. Currently CEO of Wadhwani Foundation, a non-profit organisation management company aiming to accelerate economic growth in India and other emerging markets, Kela spent 22 years in Silicon Valley before moving to Bangalore in 2003. Kela’s wife and two children shifted to Bangalore as well. But last year, after nearly a decade in India, his family returned to the US. The main reason for this was not any of the usual. Kela wanted to expose his children to foreign countries in their formative years. It is why he had brought them to India. It is also why he sent them back to the US.
“There were three reasons why we moved to India,” Kela says. “The first was that I wanted my kids to experience another country. They were four and six [years old] then. I think kids need to be more global in their experience these days. You cannot be one-dimensional. If you have lived in India, you should live elsewhere for a while and vice-versa.” The second reason was his career. India’s software industry was doing well, but Indian firms were mostly doing backend work. Kela had a rare opportunity to set up a software company in Bangalore, Symphony Services India Pvt Ltd—of which he was managing director and chief mentor—that would go out and generate revenue. That excited him. The third reason was that he did not see relocation as an emotional or logistical strain. “For my father’s generation, even changing a city or a job was difficult. When we moved to India, we thought ‘No big deal, if we don’t like it, we can move back.’ I didn’t feel I was uprooting myself or my family.”
The Kelas spent a reasonably happy ten years in India. “As a company, [Symphony] flourished. The kids were flourishing too,” Kela says. “I have three siblings and my parents in India. Reconnecting with extended family was excellent. Had my kids been in the US in this phase of their lives, the bonding with their extended family would not have happened.”
But after almost ten years, Kela felt the kids had absorbed enough of India. And there were a few aspects of life in the US that the family missed. “In India, your standard of living goes up but quality of life diminishes,” Kela says. “The moment you step out of your cocoon, it is a mess. We loved to go on hikes and long road trips in the US. Marin County has some beautiful hiking trails and we often went there. Also, we once did a 3,000-mile road trip in ten days, covering Yosemite, Reno, Disneyland [among other places].
These are some of the things you cannot do in India. You drive 45 minutes in Bangalore, you are tired. Also, my children are athletes. They were at the top level in India. In the US, they are nowhere. And in India they would participate in three or four meets a year. In the US, there are 21 meets in a four-month athletics season. It is only when you compete with the best, and on a regular basis, that you improve.”
Asked if he’d bring his family back to India, Kela says that he’d rather his children experienced China or a European country.
Considerations of the well-being and prospects of children are often a determining factor in decisions to go back abroad. Kalyani Balaji, a therapist with Sparrow Health System in Okemos, Michigan, is candid about her India experience, especially about the attitude of schools here. Kalyani, her husband Balaji Srinivasan and their two children shifted to Chennai in 2006 after over a decade in the US. The experiment did not go well.
“We shifted mainly hoping to be closer to family. The big tech growth [in India] encouraged us in that decision,” says Kalyani, whose husband is an infotech professional. Asked about the experience, she says, “Being near family is probably the best thing. Other than that, we are not very attracted to India, even though there is an emotional attachment.”
They faced problems of various kinds.The hassle of enrolling their children in school was the last straw. “School admissions are a horror,” Kalyani says. “Have you seen an application to elementary school and the ridiculous questions they ask, not to mention parent interviews in addition to these exorbitant so-called donations? Frustration [over this] was a major concern. Re-enrolling kids in school in the US only required an e-mail.”
Kalyani does not foresee moving back to India. Her children too are at home in the US. “My kids love visiting India to see grandparents, cousins and relatives. [But] they have always known the US as home. At this stage, we feel the kids are benefiting from the US educational system. There is some stress involved in [the American] high school syllabus, but there is still time for my kids to pursue music, dance and sports.”
While the family’s experience of India was difficult, almost seven years on, Kalyani does feel that they could perhaps have been more patient. “I know that our struggles are not unique and have been encountered not just by us, but by every parent, be it Indian or America-returned Indian,” she says. “We have not been conditioned to endure the little stresses of life [in India] and were not patient enough. There are a lot of things I might do differently now that I have hindsight.”
Ashish Walavakar, an infotech consultant in Hartford, Connecticut, was also not very comfortable with his daughter’s school when he came back to India in 2003. He thought the work culture here was poor as well. And he disliked the bumpy roads and traffic that made his commute an ordeal.
A Dadar boy, Walawalkar studied engineering at Bombay University and got a job in the US in 1995. He came back to Mumbai in 2003. “As the IT industry and India in general was booming, I decided to come back, anticipating much improved standards of living. With my parents being in India, there was no reason I had to stay away from my country,” he says. He enjoyed the perks of the move: “A good salary, standard of living, being with relatives, food and festivals.”
But then, the downside began to register. Asked what the difficulties were, Walawalkar says, “The commute. The roads and traffic were still in terrible condition, although claimed otherwise. [Also, the trauma of] adjusting to the social structure in general—especially the school atmosphere for my daughter and to the still-backward work culture for me—and of seeing Indian politics and life entangled in corruption and injustice.”
Walawalkar’s employer sent him again to the US on a prolonged assignment. A couple of years later, his wife and daughter rejoined him. “I was worried how tough it was going to be for my daughter in the long run [in India].” Asked to specify what problems his daughter faced, he says, “They were not problems; it was more about the difficulty adjusting to the school atmosphere. Crowded school, sanitation, the way teachers deal with students. In the US kids are appreciated for everything, whereas in India it is very straightforward. And finally, the way students study. In India, you have by-heart [memorising], whereas in the US it is more about understanding the concept and applying it practically. While I say this, she was a topper right from the beginning in her school and the teachers and principal appreciated it very much and gave her a lot of exposure.”
Walawalkar says he is open to moving back to India as long as he does not have to work here.
Brijesh Khergamkar, an IIT-Bombay and IIM-Ahmedabad graduate, works as a techie in San Francisco. In 2011, he and his wife Yaffa Truelove moved to Delhi temporarily from the US. Khergamkar had a project there while Truelove was doing research with a jhuggi cluster in Vasant Kunj, Delhi, on the politics of water access in the city. Though they lived in Delhi only from October 2011 to July 2012, it was long enough for them to learn enough of life in North India. There were some positive things they saw. “Tech companies in Noida were more professional than, say, in San Antonio,” Khergamker says. But the bureaucracy, street culture and infrastructural shortcomings tested their patience.
“We came for potentially a year’s stay,” Khergamkar says. “So I got a car and house. Living in Delhi was difficult. I got blindsided by quite a few things. I had to make 18 trips between the FRRO and the Ministry of External Affairs office to convert my wife’s visa into a spouse visa. There was also a water shortage at home. You had to carry water in buckets. Wires would be of inferior quality… You have to give yourself six months to get used to things.”
There were safety concerns as well, given the notorious Indian male gaze and Delhi’s crime rate. “My wife said that in India you become aware of your identity as a woman,” says Khergamker. “On the Metro, if there was a girl in jeans, just the way people looked at her was a social experiment. My wife never went out alone after dark. We went out only with people we knew. It’s about contacts. If you find a reliable taxi driver or electrician, you stick with him.”
Once their work was done, the couple returned to the US. Khergamker is open to coming back to India. “But not Delhi,” he says, “Just like we won’t work in Texas or Alabama, the Bible Belt, where people love Jesus and guns.”