Friday, 30 January 2009

Citizenship: Diaspora suffers ambivalence

By Amy Kazmin in New Delhi

Published: January 30 2009 00:10 | Last updated: January 30 2009 00:10

Despite India’s rapid growth and his undergraduate degree in bio-technology, Deepak Jakhar, a 23-year-old aspiring cancer researcher, sees few career prospects in today’s India.

The job offers he received to sell pharmaceutical products had little appeal. An internship in a government laboratory taught him that dilapidated state research facilities offer little scope for professional growth.

That’s why Mr Jakhar, who has never travelled abroad, is now spending Rs2m ($41,000) on a two-year graduate programme – the second year of which will take place at the UK’s Cranfield University. After he finishes his degree in clinical research, his aim is to work in the UK for several years and then come home.

With a “UK-returned” label, he feels he will easily land a good job in what by then will be a large Indian drug trial business. “Conditions in India are improving day by day, but we can’t wait,” he says.

In seeking out better opportunities, Mr Jakhar, the son of a small businessman from the northern town of Rotak, is following a path trodden by tens of millions of Indians.

Since the British colonial period – accelerating since independence – Indians have streamed abroad in search of education, jobs and opportunities unavailable at home, creating one of the world’s largest diasporas.

Yet New Delhi retains an ambivalent attitude towards its massive diaspora. It prohibits dual citizenship and bars non-citizens from holding jobs in public sector institutions, such as universities, research laboratories and state enterprises – the areas most desperately in need of training and experience gleaned from abroad.

“India has severely under-leveraged its diaspora,” says Devesh Kapur, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Advanced Study of India. “You would think that we would be tremendously welcoming of talent. In fact, we are not.”

In the early years after independence, many Indians went abroad on government scholarships to acquire skills such as engineering and science on condition that they returned to help to build the nation. Today, in a perverse inversion, western companies plunder graduates of India’s most elite institutions – who have been educated at taxpayer expense.

Even during the recent years of economic growth, the number of Indians going abroad as unskilled or semi-killed labourers has surged from 199,000 a year in 1999, to 549,000 a year in 2005, according to government statistics. The result of decades of brain drain are evident.

According to the US census, people of Indian origin are the best-educated, most affluent ethnic group in the country, with higher median family incomes and more advanced degrees than any other community. “The Indian diaspora is the most exceptional migrant group ever in American history besides the German Jews of the 1930s,” says Mr Kapur. India also has large, affluent communities in the UK, Canada, Australia and the Middle East.

Private companies have long recognised the benefits of tapping this vast overseas Indian talent pool. Since India’s economic liberalisation began in 1991, many foreign companies have sent overseas Indians, or their foreign-born children, to start operations, investment funds, banks and other enterprises in India. Many Indian professionals living overseas have also returned to start companies, or work in private firms, especially in the IT industry.

But Indian officialdom still looks warily at the overseas community. New Delhi has in recent years started issuing “Overseas Citizens of India” cards to people of Indian origin. Cardholders say it is more like a life-time multiple entry visa than genuine citizenship, as it does not permit holders to vote or take public sector jobs.

Part of the problem appears to be protectionism against the threat of competition for jobs from overseas. Yet non-resident Indians suggest that policymaking towards the diaspora is also clouded by questions over definitions of who actually is “Indian”, given the partition of the Indian subcontinent at independence in 1947.

“The breakup of India is a thorn in the side of the country’s ability to think strategically about what to do with its people because it doesn’t know how to define it’s people,’” says Anand Shah, founder of Indicorps, which brings people of Indian origin, mostly from the US, to internships in India.

India does seek to lure capital from its diaspora, granting them a variety of special investment privileges. Non-resident Indians, for example, are permitted to hold foreign currency accounts in India, which are earn higher interest rates than they could earn at bank accounts at home.

But Mr Shah says many people of Indian origin would like to do more to help India tackle its challenges.

“If the government made a serious effort to recognise that there are people that have some sort of affinity to India who would love the opportunity to share their expertise, or if they created structured ways for people to contribute, you’d see a lot of people jump at the opportunity,” he says.

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