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Returning to India: Why NRIs Are Heading Home

This article was was written by Dina Mehta in January 2005. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

I saw Ashutosh (Lagaan) Gowarikar’s Swades - We, the People on the second day of its release, with great expectations. Swades means "our country". The message in the film was alright, about a Non-Resident Indian, a project manager at NASA, getting drawn back (emotional connects with an amazing old lady and a village belle as catalysts - i wonder how the story might have evolved without these tugs) to work in India and get a village to generate its own power. It's been described as an ode to leapfrogging.

Except I was disappointed with the film. A lot. Terribly long, poorly edited in patches, with bad music and just so full of old, cliched dialogue about Indian heritage, morals and caste-structures. For me, the bigger story was really lost in the poor scripting; it reminded me of patriotic movies of the post-independence era which touted Mera Bharat Mahaan (My India is Great). But that’s not the point of this essay.

Swades fails to capture the emotional complexities embodied in this moment of Indian history. There are no subtle nuances in the film, no tugs and conflicts about leaving a high-paying job in the US and returning to India -- tugs I know a lot of families encounter when they come back to live and work in India. The choice doesn't always bring happiness. For some, its a feeling of restlessness, for others a sense of not being able to cope with the tremendous changes that have occured in India. And for a few, it can result in a state of anomie.

I’ve spoken to many returning NRI’s about their reasons for coming back to India. Very few speak of wanting to give back to the country. Typically they speak of today's opportunities in India -- of great salaries and a good standard of living. Supporting these is a certain global lifestyle now easily accessible in our towns – schools for kids, malls, recreation, communication, utilities, entertainment etc. There are bold plans to revamp direct and indirect taxes, e-governance in several states with the lead coming from Southern states, e-medicine, a new metro rail system in Delhi built in record time, a huge plan to wire up the whole country in the next few years. Just some examples. And when coupled with the lure of familial and community ties “back home” it’s a very attractive proposition.

I am not really sure how many are returning to help India progress or give back to the country – many may just be recognizing that India is indeed a nation that is leapfrogging ahead and hence the opportunities are here, now.

In contrast, the film makes a large statement about an NRI who sacrifices his hot-shot job and jet-set lifestyle and comes back home to make a difference. Implicit in this is the assumption that an NRI is a superior being – and that is where it fails – leaving many with the feeling “so what’s the big deal?” Is it meant for NRIs? Is it inspiring to them? Are we supposed to feel oh what a big sacrifice he has made?

Perhaps mine is a more urban-centric view and what inspires me is the not-so silent revolution in large cities and in second-tier cities like Ahmedabad, Indore, Jaipur, Chandigarh, Coimbatore, Vizag, where opportunities for a better future are here and now. As a result of these opportunities, the aspiration to go west isn’t there as much any more. There is also a certain pride in belonging to and living in India today – so many of us live in several worlds as an Indian. We do not lust after NRI-dom anymore.

As our worlds have widened, perhaps we are more in synch with what’s happening in the western world than in our own villages. Which is a sad comment to make - and i wish that Ashutosh Gowarikar had addressed this in his film instead. Because there truly are some inspiring projects and people working in rural areas and making a change. Proving that India is a leapfrog nation.

There are some NRI’s too with a lot of money who are doing some remarkable work in the villages they hail from. India Today had a story on them recently - NRI Do-Gooders - Return of the Natives (subscription required for full story).

But others who are not NRIs are also making change - here's a good article, full of examples of a leapfrog approach in projects that cut through urban and rural India and can make a real difference. Its very difficult to select some excerpts – so I’m just quoting from the beginning – do read the whole article to get a flavour of these projects :

Aiming for a Bigger Byte– by Rajender Menen, Special to Gulf News

"India is leapfrogging eras and crises of poverty by embracing technology in a tight clinch. Bit by bit, byte by byte, India is digging her teeth big-time into the global technology pie.

While symbols of the good life swamp middle-class India and cyber cities crop up like daffodils in the urban ghettos of India, rural India thankfully isn't being left behind. The world is witness to the miracles wrought by technology, and India knows only too well that she can leapfrog eras and crises of poverty by embracing technology in a tight clinch. And that's exactly what's happening now!

In the heartland of India, food, water, clothing, medicare and shelter still remain dreams. But the information revolution is exposing villagers to a world of previously inaccessible knowledge. With information and access there will be change and with change, India will shine in the darkest wastelands. Starting from the big cities, the technological invasion of rural India is well on its way …… ”.

Swades: NRIs, Leapfrogging and the Indian Future is a part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on Oct. 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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