Editorial/With a little bit of tact
India�s got visa power
Letters to the Editor

Vandalism inevitably distorts perspective. The attack on the sets of Deepa Mehta�s film Water in Varanasi is vandalism of the most deplorable kind. Ms Mehta had gone through all the set procedures before she commenced shooting on the banks of the Ganges in India�s most ancient city. But shooting was not possible because of an attack by Hindu fanatics. The latter mouthed the usual slogans about denigration of ancient Indian culture. These charges were based on the fact that Water depicts the plight of Hindu widows in Varanasi and tells the story of one young widow who falls in love. After the attack, the district administration stopped the shooting of the film. Under pressure, the film director edited out certain parts from the script which appeared to be offensive. But she still has not been able to restart her shooting. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has decreed that it will not allow the shooting of Water anywhere in India. The protest is being projected as a spontaneous reaction on the part of the people of Varanasi. In India, this kind of thing is not new. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) did exactly the same thing against the film, City of Joy, which was about Calcutta. This is worse than censorship. It is a combination of irresponsibility and muscle power which tries to pass itself off as protection of culture. No words of condemnation are enough against this kind of fascism.

Protest against this action justifiably takes on the rhetoric about freedom of the artist. In a democracy, it is assumed, that any person engaged in any kind of creative activity enjoys a freedom to express himself. A transgression of this freedom only highlights the fragility of a basic democratic right. The horror that follows the violation leads to the obfuscation of certain aspects of the reality in India. India is a democracy and a proud one. Nonetheless, democracy in India is hamstrung by certain inherent inequalities: inequalities of wealth, status, education and so on. These are legacies of history. Similarly, secularism has very shallow roots: sentiments of people, even of some educated ones, are imbricated with strong and often narrow religious feelings. A writer, an artist, a film maker cannot afford to ignore this context within which he has to function. To function within it does not necessarily imply compromising one�s artistic integrity. It only demands a degree of tact and shrewdness, perhaps the use of what the Italian communist, Antonio Gramsci, writing in a fascist prison, called �Aesopian language��. The absence of this kind of craftiness has led to Salman Rushdie living under the shadow of death, to M.F. Husain�s humiliation in the hands of the Shiv Sena and now to vandalism on the sets of Water by Hindu fanatics.

The issue is germane to an artist�s relationship to the society in which he lives and creates. He cannot claim to be completely isolated from the reality around him. The plight of widows in Varanasi is a part of the city�s reality; so is the entrenchment of Hindu fundamentalism there. It would be naive to assume that one can pursue one�s creativity in Varanasi ignoring the political interest the sangh parivar has in what Hindus consider to be a holy place. Ms Mehta is a filmmaker and she wants her films to be seen all over the world. She could have avoided a confrontation with the more extreme wings of the sangh parivar by not including what she is now omitting because it gives offence. This simple device would have enabled her to do without hindrance what she best loves doing, making films. In fact, by doing this she would have been more true to her calling. India is a divided society and in spite of the veneer of democracy, in many ways it is also a pre-modern society. No artist, for his own good, can afford to ignore this. Ms Mehta is a commercial filmmaker and she has been quick to make adjustments. The condemnation of the vandalism should not distort the wider moral the episode reveals.    

The new year began with United States immigration officers handcuffing 40 Indian computer programmers working in Texas. The Indians were found to be guilty of technicalities like working in San Antonio rather than Houston, the city specified in their temporary worker visas. As one Indian later said, �Our employers fell behind on their paperwork.�� More credible was the US department of labour�s case in December against an Indian American company, Deep Sai Consulting, whose president pleaded guilty to harbouring programmers illegally brought from India.

All this activity against Indian information workers to the US seems to stem from a report in March last year by a Texas immigration centre that as many as 40 per cent of H1-B visas are illegally acquired. And India is among the leading centres for such fraud. One sampling of H1-B visas, the favoured document for Indian information workers, issued from Chennai revealed that 20 per cent were obtained through fraud. Only 45 per cent could be authenticated.

In any case, under US law, a company that imports a temporary foreign worker to the US is supposed to determine that no American alternative exists. This rule is observed mostly in the breach. The US computer industry rightly says there are simply more information technology jobs than there are workers � 346,000 vacancies were abegging said the Information Technology Association of America in 1998.

It cannot be doubted cheap Indian programmers discourage Americans from entering the field. Over a six year period, the US labour department calculated, the number of software jobs jumped 40 per cent but salaries rose only seven. A key reason for the discrepancy: a 300 per cent increase in visa applications by foreign programmers.

But that�s only part of the story. It is impossible to protect jobs in the information sector from overseas competition. If wages rise too high, the work hops on a satellite beam and goes overseas. The Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates, once warned he would do exactly that if H1-B visas quotas were slashed. As it is, though a record 115,000 H1-B visas have been issued this past year, demand for information workers still exceeds supply. Hence the outsourcing of information work by US firms to Ireland, India and Israel.

If solid economic demand underlies a migratory movement, all the laws, fences and uniforms in the world cannot stop people from crossing borders. If you have silicon valley lawyers backing you up, handcuffing Indian programmers is futility itself. To be fair, such raids are often cosmetic. Present US policy was recently summed up as a combination of �high rates of immigration with gestures of resistance.��

For information workers the gestures are especially hollow. Of over 171,000 illegal aliens expelled from the US in 1998, only 351 were Indians. Few, if any, were software workers.

US immigration policy is slowly but surely adjusting to the reality of this overwhelming demand for high technology information workers. In this it lags behind countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These have already introduced points systems which favour immigrants with skills and education. The currency with which to buy passports is brain power.

The premium on knowledge is the key distinguishing trait of migration in the present phase of globalization. The developed world has opened its doors to foreigners during economic booms before. In the 19th century and the Seventies, any able bodied human could find entrance. Work in those days was about assembly lines and agriculture. The demand was for brawn. Today developed economies are dominated by services � and their fastest growing sections are knowledge based. In the past an immigrant needed a good pair of shoulders. Today he needs a good pair of cerebral lobes.

Since 1965 the bulk of legal migration to the US, the bellwether of the West in immigration policy, has been based on family links. In 1993, only 45,000 of some 900,000 US immigrants were granted visas because of their knowledge endowments. Today that figure has trebled. In the meantime, the US congress has chipped away at family based immigration. Since 1997 an American wanting to sponsor a foreign relative must have an income above the poverty level. In coming years, expect knowledge based visas to keep rising in number and family based ones to shrink.

The economic case for knowledge based immigration is almost impregnable. A 1997 study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development concluded that an immigrant with less than high school education would cost the host government $89,000. One with more than high school education meant a net financial gain of $105,000. The �most lucrative immigrant�� was a 21 year old college graduate. The economist, Jagdish Bhagwati, has long argued that the same way a millionaire can get a visa, people with lots of human capital should also be given preference. His slogan: a green card with every doctorate in science or engineering.

The chief beneficiaries of this trend are India, China, South Korea and Taiwan. Indian immigrants to the US are exceptional even among Asians. Their median household income is the highest, their educational levels top all ethnic groups and their numbers on the dole are rock bottom. Unsurprisingly, as more visas become knowledge based, Indian immigration to the US is rising rapidly. They nab over 40 per cent of the H1-B visas already. Between 1970 and 1996, Indians on temporary work visas went from 1,337 to over 74,000. Indians on student visas doubled to nearly 50,000. Over half the Indians who permanently settle in the US originally hold these kind of visas.

Right now, the US is netting the global flotsam and jetsam of information workers. Europe and Japan remain immigration fortresses. But this will change as their information based industries take off. Private analysts say western Europe will see a 20 per cent shortfall in skilled workers by 2002. Brussels will soon have to tap the manpower of India and China or watch the European economy sputter.

Not unexpectedly, there is a muted anti-immigration backlash in the US. This is generally because the Nineties saw the percentage of the US population born overseas top nine per cent, a 50 year high. But the stream of Indian programmers within this flood has not gone unnoticed. A US congressional committee presently investigating whether the ceiling on H1-B visas should be raised, found unemployed white American programmers lining up to testify against the move. But they are likely to be silenced by analyses that say projected shortages of highly skilled workers, if not corrected, will cost the US five per cent of its gross domestic product. Congressmen are already proposing to increase the H1-B ceiling to 200,000.

The real opposition will come from a wider and deeper pool of resentment. These are groups in US society who because of poor education have seen incomes stagnate or shrink as the US economy shifts from manufacturing to information based services. Roughly, the same motley crew of religious conservatives, blacks, environmentalists and lower class whites who oppose the World Trade Organization and globalization in general are the ones demanding the US close its historical golden door to immigrants.

Needless to say, some of that gets directed at Asians, the most successful of immigrants. One black academic wrote an article claiming Asian doctoral students were �crowding out�� black Americans from graduate schools. It is notable the ranks of the US immigration and naturalization service are largely filled with lower class blacks and whites.

Last month, when Indian programmers were being marched in handcuffs from their San Antonio workplace, one US immigration officer complemented one Indian on his jacket. It was telling that he also added, �You earn a lot more money than me.�    


No fun right on top

Sir � The European Union is outraged that Austrians have voted for Hitler�s admirer, Joerg Haider (�Europe slams Austria coalition deal�, Feb 3). Brussels�s fury at Vienna�s open support for Nazi admirers is understandable. But Austria being one of the most prosperous European Union members, it is hardly likely to face a setback because of the slamming of economic sanctions by Brussels. But a united European Union is crucial for two reasons. The euro, of course: it will be in circulation from 2002. Then the fact that debt-ridden east European states are about to join the union. Economic squabbles within the union can damage both old and new members. Should Brussels turn to Washington for help?

Yours faithfully,
Mallika Sen, Calcutta

Service breaks

Sir � The decision of the department of telecom services to allow private internet service providers to set up their own international gateways and establish transponder connectivities with satellite systems, whether Insat or Intelsat, is welcome. The government must inform private ISPs about this decision and also ensure that they can negotiate for transponder facility without any interference from the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited. Only thus can private ISPs establish direct relationships with these transponders and get the best prices as well as quality.

The telecom services secretary also said private ISPs could use submarine cable capacity for their gateways, provided it was done through VSNL. This is due to the exclusive arrangement between VSNL and the sub-marine cable companies. But these companies will find it difficult to deal directly with the ISPs since the cable terminates in a hut belonging to the VSNL. The government could, in keeping with the spirit of liberalization, direct VSNL, which it owns and administers, to ignore or amend this exclusivity clause.

Yours faithfully,
T.H. Chowdary, Hyderabad

Sir � I recently bought a telephone card in the United States and the call rate turned out to be $ 0.02 per minute (90 paise approximately) for calls made within the US only, for whatever distance and at any time of the day. Not only is the voice clarity of this service excellent, it is also extremely easy to use.

If this is contrasted with the extortionate amounts being charged by India�s department of telecommunications for subscriber trunk dialling calls within India, the myth of India being a low cost economy is debunked.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India needs to know of this discrepancy to bring India more in line with world economies

Yours faithfully,
Narayan Khaitan, Calcutta

Sir � The report �PCOs face overcharging rap� (Jan 25) was welcome. Greater awareness needs to be spread about parking fees and subscriber trunk dialling charges since these are commonly used services. Also, the fare of Rs 1.26 is impractical and the authorities should revise it.

Yours faithfully,
Donald Shimoda, Calcutta

Last word

Sir � On returning home on January 15 after a four-day official tour, a news report titled �Sajjad no brake on toy train� (Jan 14) in the Metro section of The Telegraph was brought to my notice.

The report quoted me as saying, � please do not disturb me and waste my time�. I take strong exception to this false statement which has not only tarnished my social reputation but also caused severe damage to the image of Science City.

Yours faithfully,
T.K. Ganguly, Calcutta

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