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The Beeline for the Swadeshi Chip
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Posted by : thedesk   Dec 30 2004
The recent trend of Indian professionals returning home from the US
This is one exodus that Leon Uris would have loved to begin writing as a sequel to his well

               This is one exodus that Leon Uris would have loved to begin writing as a sequel to his well-known bestseller. As the Indian economy chugs along at a frenetic pace, having become the second fastest growing economy in the world, the ripple-effects of such a development can be felt in the growing band called India Inc that embraces its successful sons who have begun to return home. What began as a blip on radars as distant as Palo Alto and Bangalore and morphed into a cautious, optimistic trickle that may soon resemble an exodus of Indian professionals from the US. In a nebulous world that typecasts identities in alien lands and causes to internalize the conflict between renting sedans and owning hatchbacks, this conscious, patriotic pull cannot be glossed over as isolated decisions of professional journeymen. The causes and fallouts of this intellectual flight have, of late spawned reams of newsprint and speculative panel discussions in the media on the scholarly traffic that touches down frequently on Indian airports these days. As professionals return to join cutting edge software technology companies or to set up shops in Bangalore, Hyderabad or Chennai, and in some cases even in smaller towns, India it suddenly appears, is the place to be for professionals. 

               The question that craves an answer is why these men and women, mostly software and high-end technology professionals leave the comfort of a professional environment and cushy jobs in say, Seattle to settle down in Bangalore, India’s own Silicon Valley. This, despite the acknowledged problems that comes with Package India – snags of a largely bureaucratic mindset, roads and infrastructure support that bring the devil out of the peace advocate, government apathy that has inured citizens into lapsed empathy for continued failures, conservative salaries compared to their American equivalents - and the uncertainty of a new beginning at a crucial time in their careers. What forces these smart and well-settled professionals to decisively switch their wagons on crucial crossroads and undertake such tentative journeys fraught with implied hazards; heeding the bugle call from the land they had once left for better opportunities and attractive greenbacks?  

               To use a cliché, it is a case of home is where the heart is. Take the case of a senior software professional with a California based company developing back-end software tools who decided to return. In the US, India had begun to appear distant and remote for this person who had spent quite a few years away. The click of the very mouse that condensed global distances for him had metaphorically begun creating new ones between him and his homeland. He had money and comfort but, like Mohan Bhargava from the movie Swades, wanted to return and do his bit for the country. He is proud of a decision that he can tell his grandchildren someday. He is not an exception. There are many Indians, like him who left the shores long back in their quest for better education, an affluent life and an outlet for their competitive spirit seem to find those very things back in India now. Years in the US have strengthened their yearning for those very things in their homeland that they associated with – loved or hated but always related to - and yet missed out on. It also proves that despite their success abroad, the idea of India survive somewhere in their psyche. It also suggests the change in priorities – what started as fierce, unbridled ambition has been tempered into a matured understanding of their careers in the Indian context today.  Says Rajiv Modi, a recently returned software professional, based in Bangalore, "A few don't want to come but a majority want to come back. It's a complex situation. The heart is here."   These young professionals planned their return after having explored opportunities back home. The modus operandi included frequent trips to India to explore possibilities before they threw the kitchen sink.

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               In a survey of professionals carried out by a team from a reputed institute, over 75% respondents said that they will return to take up employment in Indian industry, given a reasonable offer. About 11% said they do not want to return, and the rest were not sure. Pankaj Jalote of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur writes,”The survey clearly shows that there is a substantial pool of highly trained professionals in USA which can be tapped by the computer industry…..” It is unmistakably an indicator of how the techies view their return.

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Another important factor that has prompted the return of expatriate Indians is the abysmal employment scene in the US.  For example, over 190,000 workers lost their jobs in the past two years in Santa Clara (California) alone — where Indian IT pros thrived. The rate of economic growth India, projected at more than 6 percent, stands next only to China. In contrast, the economy in the United States, besides having its security worries, has been crawling along at 3%. Ajay Chopra, chief operations officer of Commerce Velocity in the US, who plans to return to India to set up a business process outsourcing says,” Uncertainties in U.S. markets are much higher today, compared to the rapidly growing Indian market.The Indian economy is booming, so coming back was one great opportunity for me. There always was that feeling that this was home."
            There are others who have returned because of a more competitive environment, an improved understanding of technology in India today and better monetary support. "Things are different today. India, and more so Bangalore, is a global hub. People are working on cutting-edge technologies right here," said Mr. Narayanan. This has led to some of the key technology players like Cadence, Cognizant, CalSoft and Informatica looking towards India for higher cost effective returns on their investment.

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               Having seen the causes of these homecomings, let us examine this macro development that interestingly enough, grows to form a larger picture. Let us for a moment permit ourselves a modest digression from the individual trend in order to understand the repercussions of the drift. Cost imperatives, flexibility and outsourcing gains mean that US companies have begun to realize the importance of having off-shore operations. There is another variant, called the best shore operations in which the idea is to create low-cost, yet high efficiency application centres across countries which are much more economical. Indian companies like Wipro and InfoSys have registered higher sales, even in an era of economic downturn while their US counterparts have struggled.  IBM, EDS and HP have already begun expanding in these areas of ‘best shore’ operations. These hard-hitting statistics tell us how these strategies have become the flavour of the tech diaspora.

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               Having seen that let us link it to something more relevant to our original issue. What does all this imply for the US-returned Indian techie? Does this mean that he will be reigned in by a US firm back here in India for a global salary? Does this mean that senior tech pros who had harboured entrepreneurial drives when they returned are in danger of being swamped by thoughts of working for an American technology major back in India with the trappings of home and the luxury of spending a global salary (which will in effect be still lower than what they received in the US) in Indian currency?  TheDesk feels that this change in the sociological and demographic pattern in the US will affect the way technology is run there.  The last few years have been truly phenomenal in terms of what India can expect in the foreseeable future. There is a growing global recognition that the Indian software industry is on its way up - and that it is poised to emerge as a major high-tech hub. As per recent Nasscom figures, over 35,000 Indian IT workers returned to the country since 9/11—almost 10 percent of the current Indian IT workforce in the US! In the medium to long term analysis, as more and more Indian techies return due to a combination of homeland blues, a relentless US economic downturn, visa restrictions, cultural oblivion and a promising Indian economy – the crystal ball will redefine the term outsourcing. The majority of operations may be run from Indian soil with the core research processes happening in the US. In India, the rate of increase in salaries is much higher than the rate of inflation, which means a good real income growth. Senior Indian techies who return to start on their own will receive a shot in the arm as their applications and innovations will find better wealth creation opportunities than before. The younger pros will have more professional opportunities and higher salaries. Technology, for one, multiplies itself. It doesn’t constrict and in this case too, opportunities will arise as a result of innovative technological applications as they happen in India. There are professionals amongst them who are highly skilled in niche and cutting-edge technologies. Also, as time is an essential factor in technological innovation, the advantage of being first to the tape will encourage many more Indian tech innovators. The professionals, having worked in the US, may also leverage valuable contacts for the Indian companies through the people they have known in the US. It may seem like a rosy view of what the future holds for the Indian techie who returns from the US but the uncertainties that arise here are mainly concerns that are related to the afflicting claustrophobia that sometimes plagues accompanies official pronouncements.

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               The other side of this development is the social factor. How does a person, having lived in the US for over a decade, adjust to things like six working days, habitual noise and traffic snarls, boisterous neighborhood, gatecrashing relatives, notoriously listless customer services, a personality driven work culture and inefficient public services ? Some put on a brave face and say that they believe things can be changed. If technology worked for India, other things can ride on its back and achieve a modicum of efficiency. Does this mean that years spent in the US has blinkered their vision of the typical Indian phenomenon of self-pity?! We posed this question to Ravi Reddy, a senior software professional who has recently shifted base to India. Reddy disagrees,” We returned to India, knowing the deficiencies that plague the system. As economically and professionally better off citizens than most, some of us feel it is our chance to resurrect what we felt we couldn’t when we left these shores long ago.” In Bangalore, citizens have begun to organize forums where they can begin to work on small but relevant issues. India Inc believes that it can be the harbinger of a better society tomorrow.

               Many have returned to give their children a more rounded childhood and an education system that is built on time-tested traditions. Take the case of Dr. Maheshwari and her husband, Arjun Kalyanpur (both returned from the US) who see their daughter’s dance class as a way to graft Indian culture onto her. The private school they have selected is another, where the children squat, Indian-style, at desks on the floor and learn yoga and Hindu traditional hymns. The couple came back after eight years away to be closer to their parents, and because she felt she could contribute more in India. She is one of only about 14 pediatric cardiologists in the entire country. In one outpatient clinic, she sees more untreated medical problems than she ever saw at the Yale-New Haven Hospital, where they worked. Her husband, a radiologist, had resigned himself to the possibility of a lower pay when he returned. After he proved to Yale that he could accurately read CT scans and other images transmitted via broadband to India, he set up his own business. He reads images for the emergency room nightshifts of about 40 American hospitals, compensating for the shortfall of night-hour radiologists in the United States, and goes home with a salary matching his American counterparts. Also, there are two more Indian-born radiologists who plan to move back from the United States to work with them.

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               There are stories too of how second generation Indians lost touch with the home country. The thought of their children growing alienated from Indian roots, lingering somewhere in the subconscious, may have also influenced decisions to return. Sujata Rampal is a unique case of an Indian brought up in the US who relocated recently to Hyderabad with her husband. She had spent her childhood in India. He parents shifted base to Florida when she was in college but kept visiting the country occasionally and always yearned to settle here someday. The opportunity came calling when her husband, a senior techie pro decided to set up shop back in India. Sujata couldn’t believe her ears when she heard it. Today, Sujata relives her growing -up years as she watches her child go to school with other Indian children and attend traditional Indian occasions.


               The great Indian exodus will continue as the trend begins to gather pace. It is yet to become a flood.  For that, Jalote feels that an important point is to tap this pool, for which the industry will have to actively recruit in the US and make offers to these professionals while they are in the US.  He adds,” One of the complaints was that if people inquire with companies about positions, they either do not get a reply or get a reply saying that "contact us after you have returned". This needs to be changed and offers have to be made in the US. If the companies want, this can be done easily….. with many companies having some base in the US and many senior persons visiting the US frequently, approaches like "telephone interviews" can be used to evaluate candidates and make offers while they are in the US. “.

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               This view may not echo with senior techies who have access to far greater avenues back home. However, there is no doubt that the great Indian rope trick will continue to tug at the heartstrings of successful US professionals, pulling purses and invoking their elephantine memories to click the mouse for an Indian search that promises to deliver them what the silicon chip couldn’t!

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