After US, Indians find it hard back home

Read more below

By HEATHER TIMMONS NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
  • Published 29.11.09
  •  

New Delhi, Nov. 28: When seven-year-old Shiva Ayyadurai left Mumbai with his family nearly 40 years ago, he promised himself he would return to India someday to help his country.

In June, Ayyadurai, now 45, moved from Boston to New Delhi hoping to make good on that promise. An entrepreneur and lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a fistful of American degrees, he was the first recruit of an ambitious government programme to lure talented scientists of the Indian diaspora back to their homeland. “It seemed perfect,” he said recently of the job opportunity.

It wasn’t.

As Ayyadurai sees it now, his western business education met India’s inefficient government, and things went downhill from there. Within weeks, he and his boss were at loggerheads. Last month, his job offer was withdrawn. Ayyadurai has moved back to Boston.

In recent years, India has welcomed back tens of thousands of former emigrants and their offspring. When he visited the US this week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally extended an invitation “to all Indian-Americans and non-resident Indians who wish to return home.” But, like Ayyadurai, many Indians who spent most of their lives in North America and Europe are finding they can’t go home again.

About 100,000 “returnees” will move from the US to India in the next five years, estimates Vivek Wadhwa, a research associate at Harvard University who has studied the topic. These repats, as they are known, are drawn by India’s booming economic growth, the chance to wrestle with complex problems and the opportunity to learn more about their heritage.

They are joining multinational companies, starting new businesses and even becoming part of India’s government bureaucracy.

But a study by Wadhwa and other academics found that 34 per cent of repats found it difficult to return to India — compared to just 13 per cent of Indian immigrants who found it difficult to settle in the US. The repats complained about traffic, lack of infrastructure, bureaucracy and pollution.

For many returnees the cultural ties and chance to do good that drew them back are overshadowed by workplace cultures that feel unexpectedly foreign, and can be frustrating. Sometimes returnees discover that they share more in their attitudes and perspectives with other Americans or with the British than with other Indians.

Returnees run into trouble when they “look Indian but think American”, said Anjali Bansal, managing partner in India for Spencer Stuart, the global executive search firm.

People expect them to know the country because of how they look, but they may not be familiar with the way things run, she said. Similarly, when things don’t operate the way they do in the US or Britain, the repats sometimes complain.“India can seem to have a fairly ambiguous and chaotic way of working, but it works,” Bansal said.

There are no shortcuts to spending lots of time working in the country, returnees say. “There are so many things that are tricky about doing business in India that it takes years to figure it out,” said Sanjay Kamlani, the co-chief executive of Pangea3, a legal outsourcing firm with offices in New York and Mumbai.

The case of Ayyadurai, the MIT lecturer, illustrates just how frustrating the experience can be for someone schooled in more direct, American-style management.

After a long meeting with a top bureaucrat, who gave him a handwritten job offer, Ayyadurai signed on to the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, or CSIR.

The agency is responsible for creating a new company, called CSIR-Tech, to spin off profitable businesses from India’s dozens of public laboratories. Currently, the agency generates just $80 million in cash flow a year, even though its annual budget is the equivalent of half a billion dollars.

Ayyadurai said he spent weeks trying to get answers and responses to email messages, particularly from the person who hired him, the CSIR director-general, Samir K. Brahmachari. After several months of trying to set up a business plan for the new company with no input from his boss, he said, Ayyadurai distributed a draft plan to CSIR’s scientists asking for feedback.

Four days later, Ayyadurai was forbidden from communicating with other scientists. Later, he received an official letter saying his job offer was withdrawn.

Brahmachari said in an interview that Ayyadurai had misunderstood nearly everything — from his handwritten job offer, which he said was only meant to suggest what Ayyadurai could receive were he to be hired, to the way Ayyadurai asked scientists for their feedback on what the CSIR spinoff should look like.

To prove his point, Brahmachari read from a government guide about decision-making in the organisation. Ayyadurai didn’t follow protocol, he said. “As long as your language is positive for the organisation I have no problem,” he added.

As the interview was closing, Brahmachari questioned why anyone would be interested in the situation, and then said he would complain to a reporter’s bosses in New York if she continued to pursue the story.