This article was originally published in THE TIMES OF INDIA by PRASHANT AGRAWAL on JANUARY 06, 2005
NRIs are descending on Mumbai (last year we got the World Social Forum) for the third Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, full of ideas, hope and criticism. As an NRI (a former NRI now), who moved back to India nearly three years ago, I have seen both the possibilities and the limitations of what we can do. NRIs often have a passion for doing something for India, but are at a loss to figure out what. Many want to solve the Indo-Pak situation, end corruption etc... All wonderful thoughts but a bit impractical. Here are four concrete ways for NRIs to make a difference:
Invest. This is a no-brainer. India offers the highest returns with among the lowest risks of any market in the world. India is on a high that will last for the next 20 years. NRIs have already invested more than $2 billion into India. Even more can come. There will be a downturn, a year from now, two years from now; who knows when, but it will happen. Stick through the downturn. Be the first to arrive and the last to leave. The Indian market will outperform the rest of the world over the next 20 years. Tell your friends to invest, they'll like you more for making money for them. Think of investing in India as India's gift to you.
Travel. There are 20 million NRIs. Last year was a banner year and India received just three million tourists, including NRIs. If only half of them visited India once every two years, that would be five million people. And if they brought a friend, that's 10 million. NRIs could help create the Indian tourist industry. And they can enjoy Goan beaches, the Himalayan mountains, the Kerala backwaters. Any of the places mentioned in the anthem (minus Sindh now) offers a chance to visit some of the world's most magnificent monuments and gorgeous scenery. And bringing a friend will definitely make you more popular at home.
Give and think big. Three projects started by NRIs standout. They all have a commonality to them: They are focused, big-bet projects, establishing institutions to act as instruments of change. The first is the Indian School of Business (ISB), founded by Rajat Gupta and other NRIs, which is changing the nature of business education in India. The second is the American India Foundation (AIF), which seeks to channel the resources of NRIs in the US. In the aftermath of the tsunami, AIF is raising $2 million for relief efforts. They should aim at creating something along the lines of the Bill Gates Foundation, and donate generously to sincere NGOs working in India. The ability to have an impact in India dwarfs the rest of the world. By giving here, you will feel good, better than you can anywhere else.
Think locally. India's image is slowly changing. From a developing country to an IT powerhouse to a 21st century superpower. Help change the image. Local textbooks in the US and UK are woefully inadequate on their Indian history. Volunteer at the local schools and teach about Ashoka, Jhansi ki Rani and India's scientific and mathematical heritage. Explain that 1857 wasn't a rebellion, it was a revolution. Show them Bangalore — where their jobs are going. India is a big country and some things are left better to just the Is in NRIs, the Indians.
No politics. All politics is local politics and you, unfortunately, are no longer local. Indians couldn't vote in the 2004 US elections and you couldn't vote here either. India's democracy is for Indians. India appreciates your concern over the 2002 riots. We were all concerned, but the shrill e-mails spammed around were unnecessary. The riots were horrific, but neither India nor Indian democracy is dying. It's as vibrant as ever. And, we know Indians and Pakistanis live peacefully together in the US and UK. But don't ask why we can't get along. Realise it's a bit different when there are 5,00,000 Pakistani troops facing our boys on a daily basis. No one wants peace more than Indians do. So don't worry about us, worry about peace in Iraq and democracy in Florida. Here's a novel way to help: Try outsourcing elections to India. The 2004 elections in India were conducted on computerised machines. The West is having trouble with computerised ballots; we can pitch in.
No lectures. India needs infrastructure. India needs less corruption. India needs better bureaucracy. These are some of the stunning observations NRIs make, but they don't come as news to those living in India. Sitting in Mumbai traffic, Indians understand the need for infrastructure. It is happening, sometimes slowly (Mumbai Highways), sometimes fast (Delhi Metro). There really isn't much you can do here. You could come with a shovel and tar and fill up the potholes post-monsoon, but that's probably not worth your time. So, instead of lecturing, enjoy yourself. Listen to music in the traffic jam (some catchy Bollywood remix, perhaps?). It'll be more peaceful for all.
Twenty million NRIs can do a lot for India. They can create an industry (tourism), invest, give back (in a big way) and teach India to their local communities. If NRIs want to do more then they will have to watch Swades. Like Shah Rukh Khan, they will have to move back. As for what I do for India, I live here.