2014-2019: How do Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) look at India?
1st Jan 2014, when I permanently moved to Australia and became an NRI, some would say a non-reliable Indian; I would say at heart a non-removable Indian. You can take the Indian out of India but you can’t take India out of the Indian. A new land offered new challenges and life was busy tackling them but there was always time to read news, to learn what was happening in India. Come elections and their results, we had a new government and a new prime-minister. Optimists hoped it would be a departure from the past practice of corrupt governments and weak policies, pessimists said it’d be the same.
I watched a clip from the John Oliver show where he joked about the Indian elections and said the new prime-minister has promised toilets in India. It was the first time I realised lack of toilets and open defecation was such a serious issue associated with the image of India globally. I remembered how walking through a Mumbai slum in 2008, I came across a group of western tourists who were photographing slum residents. Open defecation was not uncommon in that slum and they were filming kids relieving themselves around their shanties. Around that time came a movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, and I had wondered what image foreigners had about us Indians.
An active internet user I often turn into the keyboard warrior responding to derogatory comments against India on social media be it facebook, twitter or YouTube. India happens to run the world’s IT, has an advanced space program and has made great progress in the medical sciences. I was thrilled like most Indians when we launched the Mangalyan (Mars Mission) successfully. However it didn’t seem to have gone well with a lot of Westerners specially the Brits who were busy slamming India on social media coming up with imaginary stories (inspired by their T.V debates) around how Britain has been sending “funds” to India and how India used that “charity” to build a space program instead of removing poverty. Like many online nationalist warriors I would demolish their claims with reference to the British loot of the Indian sub-continent but each one of them when running out of logic would end up saying- ‘You guys don’t even have toilets. You shit on the streets’.
I would have no answer to that and I realised what a great step the new government had taken to build something we consider so basic but what had been stopping the previous dynastic governments from doing the same? I realised the prime-minister did connect with the masses associating himself with the most basic human necessities in the modern times. This did seem to be a government for the people and by the people.
Dirty roads lined with garbage have also been a part of the Indian image in the mind of an average foreigner. It’s always been uncomfortable to get away from this reality and then came ‘Swacch Bharat’ mission. Social media was abuzz with videos of the initiative, the P.M taking the lead, broom in hand and other ministers and senior officials following him. I had a chance to see the implementation during my 2015 visit to India. The plan included millions of new toilets that had to be built to make India ‘open-defecation’ free and I could see new public toilets standing in public places where none had ever existed. I felt a positive vibe and knew this initiative would help moving on.
Back in Melbourne driving to work one morning I was waiting at a level crossing when I saw a train coach that had an ad featuring a familiar lion made up of mechanical cogs, the ad saying ‘Make in India’. It brought a smile to my face but also reminded me of the now Indian opposition and sections of the media mocking it saying it would never be successful. Only time was going to tell who would have the last laugh.
I passed out of school in 2002 and like every kid in my generation had the two options that life gave back then, Doctor or Engineer? I was never doctor material so I quietly joined the bandwagon of thousands of other kids enrolling in engineering courses all over the country. Finished my degree and thanks to the IT boom got a job in an MNC. I was quick to realise that our company didn’t build any software products of it’s own but just supported a foreign company’s IT related work. Looking around most IT companies were doing the same. India was a cheap market so it was profitable for a lot of Western companies to outsource their jobs to India. No one was going unemployed, those who couldn’t make it to IT would find jobs in BPOs/call centres. Life looked good, parents from small towns like mine would brag how successful their hard working kids had been in the big cities. How long was this going to last? If we didn’t have enough products of our own to sell to the world, how long could we depend upon the outsourced work being given to us?
‘Startup India’; why didn’t anyone think of it 5-10 years ago? India has a large population which means we are a huge market, even if we tap it with our own money that will keep our economy running and people employed. Coupled with initiatives like ‘Skill India’ it will keep a large number of people employable even as we see massive cuts in jobs that had been outsourced to India by foreign companies. Coupled with a global shortage of jobs accelerated by growing automation there is a better chance for the Indian worker to compete for far fewer jobs in the future.
I don’t know if demonetisation made everyone happy but in the long run it will generate massive benefits in terms of tax revenue generation and reduction of black money trades. A big achievement I feel was making the average Indian tech savvy almost overnight. It looks like everyone could instantly Paytm, use a smartphone and bank online. Coupled with unbelievably cheap internet access Indians now have a massive presence in the virtual world. Few years ago I wouldn’t have thought that I’d be video calling my grand-mother every weekend, true there are some technical issues with operation and handling at her end but we are happy to see each other so often. It’s like India has arrived with force in the virtual world and the world knows.
Ayushman Bharat, Jan Dhan Yojna and so on, I hear about them and feel they must be so handy for the invisible people of the society we so easily tend to forget. A daily wage labourer can have a bank account, the domestic help who’d request financial help when one of her family members would be sick can get them treated with full dignity. Being blessed with stable family incomes these are little things we never cared about but the current government showed that it cared for everyone and stayed true to it’s words, ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikaas’.
2018 I landed in Mumbai and took a taxi to Pune. One thing I couldn’t help notice was newer high-rises and fewer slums. The taxi driver told me that a number of high rises had come up to settle those who were living in slums. I could instantly draw a parallel with an article I had read about Fitzroy and Richmond being slums some hundred years ago and how the Australian government’s housing initiatives back then helped those areas turn over. I felt we are over a hundred years late but thanks to someone’s efforts we are trying to get there. Swacch Bharat did seem to have an effect in terms of lesser garbage all around and ‘almost’ no open defecation observed. What was more heartening was the fact that youth volunteers in groups go around localities urging people not to litter on the streets. It’s the mindset that had to change and I could see that coming. Victory over garbage is on it’s way, yayy!!
In both Mumbai and Pune I was rather amazed by the number of European luxury cars I could see on the roads. I felt there were as many Merc SUVs in Koregaon Park as in Brighton. People seemed to have built a taste for the luxury cars or maybe it was just the fact that Mercedes and Volkswagen are now getting assembled in Pune. Make in India?? Think it’s working.
With three months to go for the national elections our hearts are filled with sorrow due to the suicide bombing in Kashmir that martyred 42 of our CRPF braveharts. Personally I’ve always blamed soft Nehruvian policies for our weak handling of foreign backed aggression throughout decades. The Indian government’s reaction to a similar attack on an Indian army base in 2017 however had given us a reason to smile and feel proud of. The surgical strikes gave the world a message that we are no push-overs. We are the land of Buddha, we want peace but we are also the land of Krishna and we won’t hesitate to defend ourselves if it comes to that. Pulwama suicide attacks have united the nation like never before. Our hearts weep for our martyrs and we have deep anguish but what’s different this time is that we believe this attack will not go unpunished. Indian communities across the world have come together to show solidarity and unity but for the first time we firmly stand behind our prime-minister. There’s every chance by the time anyone else reads this, steps would have been taken to punish the culprits of Pulwama. No doubts that will happen.
I wish we Indians vote with open eyes and hearts in the upcoming elections, our votes going to those who have proved they are above dynasties and that they should be judged by their work and dedication to the Indian population instead of dedication to a family name or a myth.
Kunal Singh (NRI)