Flying Donkey

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

H1B - Slave By Choice

"Thy treasures of gold Are dim with the blood of the hearts thou hast sold; Thy home may be lovely, but round it I hear the crack of the whip, and the footsteps of fear." - Lydia Marie Child

Ten years ago, I followed the voluntary exodus of well-educated and ambitious young Indians who left India for America by the thousands every year.

H1-B was the magic word that was on everyones tongue. Land of opportunity! Once you get a job there everything in the world would be OK. Not too many of us really understood what this really meant. We were only too happy to escape the crime and lack of opportunity (at that time) that India presented to its children. Our relatives who visited from America only talked about the picket fences and the huge malls; the big fast cars and the six-lane highways.

No one talked about the tenuous nature of being bound to one employer and the fear of getting axed and the resulting deportation. No one mentioned the massive culture shock and the often simmering hostility of the Americans against foreigners taking their jobs.

We lobbied our boss for the elusive Green Card sponsorship and networked with other Indians for back-up options. We gave up our right to vote, the familiarity of our own country and culture, and came to America to be at the mercy of our employer. We worked long hours, got paid less than our American colleague, paid our taxes and had absolutely no say in the local affairs. We rented houses, and brought our spouses with us. We wanted to plant roots but not too deep. Afterall, we might lose our jobs and might have to go home at short notice.

We flocked to the only theater in town that played Indian movies on weekends, and hung out with fellow Indians. Sometimes, there would be a token American in the group and we felt happy at our international friend circle.

Slowly and steadily, we started spreading our roots without even realizing it. We got our Green Cards and bought homes. We started paying attention to our social security and started worrying about the health insurance costs. Suddenly, a time came when we felt like vistors while visting India.

We looked around at older Indians approaching retirement age and saw their confusion. India tugged at their hearts, but so did their now-adult children in America. All the while, we looked at pride with the progress India made and defended it vigorously at lunchtime discussions.

Now, its a new century. India is no longer the sleepy country of power-cuts and bullock carts. Indeed, it is the "land of opportunity" of the 21st century. The same restlessness we felt growing up in India, we feel now. Like migratory birds we sniff the air for the currents that will tell us when its time for the long migratory flight.

...but this time, it will be our last flight. We'll be finally going be free.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Where the Mind is Without Fear...

Many moons ago, the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore captured in verse his vision of India. He wrote...

Where the mind is without fear,
and the head is held high...

Today, at the dawn of a new century, India is well on its way to realizing its true potential. But, this vision of Tagore is far from being realized. We have secured our freedom, and have embarked on a path to prosperity. But our heads are still not held high and our minds are still not without fear. India continues to be plagued by violence against women and general lawlessnes.

India, especially the north, has shown an unfortunate disregard for women. Delhi was recently dubbed the rape capital (The Hindu) and recent reports have suggested the hundreds of thousands of unborn females have been aborted in India over the years. As an ex-Delhiite, I have been a first hand witness to the widescale public harassment (euphemistically termed eve teasing) that women have to endure. Not many women would hasten to venture out alone at night, and am sure many a professional woman has looked apprehensively at the clock when she is working late at work.

If an economist were to calculate the economic costs of this pervasive culture of intimidation, I'm sure the costs of lost (wo)manhours, and decreased productivity would be significant. Perhaps more damaging than the economic cost are the deep-seated psycholigical scars that women develop as a result of this culture.

One of the biggest yardstick of a great civilization is the security and freedoms that it provides to its citizens. India, I'm afraid, lags woefully behind in this regard. From the plains of Bihar to the mountains of Kashmir, non-state actors continue to negatively impact the life of the common man. One can argue that foreign elements are involved in Kashmir, but that still does not account for the lawlessness in some of the other states.

In modern geo-politics, the reality is that nations always try to influence the domestic affairs of each other in the hope of affecting a favorable it weakning a stronger country or supporting a more friendly government. It is upto each individual nation to create a system of transparent and enforceable law & order so that the domestic grievances, fringe elements and the rest are duly kept in check.

In India, be it the case of widespread harrassment of women or the lawlessness resulting from the actions of non-state actors, the bottomline is that the police is not effective. If one searches the horizon for stable countries - US, UK, Sweden, Norway etc. a couple of things jump out:

  1. Laws are fairly transparent and equitable.
  2. Law enforcement is fairly transparent and non-discriminatory. (Although, things have changed a little bit since 9/11 in UK and US)
  3. Citizens have faith in the law enforcement agencies.
  4. Lawmakers represent the interest of their constituents.
  5. There is a legal recourse available to citizens which is fair and balanced.

This obviously is a very simplified list, but it captures the essential elements. Also, no country in the world will score a perfect 10 in either of these items, but stable countries score better than the others.

The common thread that runs through this list is the need of an effective and potent police force. If I were to grade our police forces, I would give them a "C"...not quite a failure, but need significant improvement.

We are a nation of laws, but the enforcement of the laws is sporadic and haphazard. There is substantial political interference in policework and even beyond that, a sub-culture of vice, indiscipline and influence-peddling exists amongst the police ranks, resulting in a general loss of morale and performance.

We look with pride at our Armed Forces, and justifiably so. They are a model of discipline and professionalism. Till recently, their pay-structure was not too different from the police, and the population from which the recruits came was also essentially the same as the police. Than why is it that there is such a glaring qualitative difference between the two forces? I would like to submit my own hypothesis for the reasons behind this difference:

  1. Army is apolitical. Police being under state control has much more interference from local politicians.
  2. Army is a cloistered force unlike the police. By and large it is confined to barracks where the daily interaction with civilians is not as much. This is one thing the police have no control over.
  3. Army places a much higher premium on training and discipline than the police.
  4. Army personnel are evaluated frequently and on a much more objective and quantifiable performance metrics. Consequences of failure/indscipline for soldiers are immediate and severe.
  5. There is a culture of pride in one's battalion and regiment in the army. Police forces are not as tightly bundled with an identifiable structure.
  6. The police mostly deal with the seedy elements of the citizenry and are therefore hardened by the ugly side of human nature.

It is absolutely imperative that India move swiftly to reform its police forces. The last decade of growth has put India in an enviable position where it is already being projected as a future superpower. The increasing visibility and prominence also brings with it increasing responsibility. Now, we not only have to be responsible for our own citizens but also for the safety of foreign visitors who are coming in increasing numbers.

The increasing prominence also brings with it the unwanted attention of foreign miscreants. In order to foil their activities, we need a more effective police force that realizes the importance of community relations and intelligence gathering. Community relations will only improve if the common man has confidence in the neighborhood thana.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

India Acendant

Read any business magazine in the US or go to any conference, India is all the rage. While US grew at 1.1% annual rate last quarter (Economic Times), India grew at a robust 8% (CSFB estimates).

China is still the #1 destination for foreign investors, but this is poised to change soon, if you believe Prof. Yasheng Huan of the MIT Sloan School of Business (Financial Times Jan 24). He cites various reasons for the projected slowdown of the Chinese economic juggernaut. The gist is as follows:

1. Political unrest resulting from authoritarian centralized regime.
2. High unemployment rates in rural areas.
3. Restive muslim population in Western China.
4. Weak banking system and general anemia in financial institutions.
5. Large scale corruption.

Indeed, some of these things are common to India as well, but India has the safety valve of a democratic system, which China lacks.

India has arrived and not necessarily because firangs are talking about it. I think India arrived with the birth and coming to age of the Gen-X, which was devoid of any colonial hangover and the resulting inferiorities.

Indians of this generation grew up with a much greater exposure to the West resulting from opening up of the cable TV and increasing literacy rates. Y2K was simply a catalyst for helping unleash the Indian technology talent. Had Y2K not happened, something else would have happened. It is just not possible to control the fire when ample fuel is available.