Prof. M. Vidyasagar is the Director of CAIR (Center for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics) in Bangalore, India. Prof. Vidyasagar returned to India from Canada. In 1993 he was in USA on an official visit and he posted this article on Usenet (soc.culture.indian.telugu).
It is a long and BUT a very well written article. Yes, it will take some time to read this entire article but it is time well spent .
I took the permission of Prof. M. Vidyasagar to publish this posting on the web. Enjoy!
Let me first introduce myself. My name is M. Vidyasagar, and at present I am visiting the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications at the University of Minnesota for the months of May and June. I went back to India in 1989 after having taught in the U.S. and Canada for twenty years. My most recent job in North America was at the University of Waterloo, and I went back to head up the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics in Bangalore. (I don't blame you if you have never heard of it.)
When I was at Waterloo, I used to read soc.culture.indian regularly, and even used to write something occasionally. But I had not read it for the past four years. (We don't get it on the CAIR computer -- too expensive and not worth it, I thought). So one of the first things I did as soon as I arrived in Minneapolis was to read s.c.i. What a transformation? In '89, there was perhaps one good article to two bad ones. But now, there are sixty or seventy articles per day, almost all of them consisting of the author telling someone to shut up, or something equally puerile.
It was with a great deal of pleasure that I started reading s.c.i.t. I knew of its existence before coming here, but this is the first time that I am reading it. How nice it is to see people engaged in civilized discourse, discussing Kalidasa, Sreenatha, etc. Of late, I have seen signs of s.c.i.t. going the way of s.c.i. Please do your best NOT to let it happen!
Now I come finally to the point of this posting. A few days ago someone had posted an article written by R. K. Narayan for Frontline in 1985. It was a nice article, and quite factual for back then. I wanted to ask the netters: Are the sentiments expressed by RKN still valid, in particular about the Indian immigrant not making any effort to integrate with the local community? I personally have sensed some changes in the Indian immigrants and aspiring immigrants over the past five years or so, and wonder whether others feel the same way.
When I went back in '89, I discovered that I really knew very little about life and (especially) working conditions in India, even though I used to visit India almost every year before returning. I think the same must be true of almost all the netters as well, because the vast majority of Indian students come over here straight from college. So, IF PEOPLE ARE INTERESTED, I will be happy to write something about topics of general interest about what is going on in India at present. I would like to AVOID discussing politics, and stick to conveying factual information to the extent possible, but I would not mind venturing an occasional opinion or two. So: What would you like to hear about from a middle-aged person who is quite familiar with life (especially scientific life) on both sides of the Atlantic? Please send me your suggestions. (Suggestions to the effect that I should keep my mouth shut will also be entertained, and will be taken in the proper spirit!)
Now for a DISCLAIMER. What follows is nothing more than an account of one person's experiences and opinions. I went back to India after a lot of deliberation, and I have not had any second thoughts after four years. But clearly the decision to go back or not is highly individual, and should be made on that basis. Also, there is no reason to think that everyone will have similar experiences. Different persons react to India differently. And it is also true that India reacts differently to different people.
Here is a brief outline by topic of my posting.
1. Feudalism is Alive and Well in India, But ...
2. When in India, do as Indians do.
3. Politicians and Bureaucrats: Sinners or Sinned Against?
4. Attitudes Past and Present.
Have I got your attention? Let us go then.
But quite apart from all this, I suspect most people are worried about the working conditions in India. Will they get a job for which they are trained? Will they get "job satisfaction?" And so on.
The jobs available in India can be categoried into four types:
(ii) government research,
(iii) public sector,
and (iv) private sector.
Of these, the public sector is virtually frozen, so let us leave that out. The government research sector includes the scientific departments such as Atomic Energy, Defence R&D, and Space, as well as the CSIR laboratories, and the recently created autonomous societies such as C-DOT and C-DAC. This sector is growing reasonably fast, and in my opinion, is perhaps the most desirable segment. More on this below.
First, about academic and "research" positions in India. One of the first things that struck me upon returning to India is how small the scientific community really is. For years we have been tossing around a myth, namely that we have the third-largest pool of scientific manpower in the world. [Actually, Dr. Vasant Gowariker, formerly Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, demolished that particular myth beautifully in a report, it seems.] Consider the facts: The Indian Academy of Sciences has a TOTAL OF 500 FELLOWS. That's it, for the entire country of 880 million people. Every year, about 50 new Fellows are elected. Now contrast that with the fact that every year IN ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING ALONE, IEEE elects about 150 Fellows. All together, IEEE has around 2,000 Fellows. I am a Fellow of both, so I can confidently state that the two honours are comparable. So what does this mean? That there are three times as many outstanding Electrical Engineers alone in the U.S. as there are outstanding scientists in all disciplines in all of India? I think this is a reasonable interpretation.
Because the number of top institutions (and therefore, the number of highly desirable positions) is so small and the competition is so fierce, it is natural that the feudal spirit still rules strongly in India. All Directors are "all powerful," even a small-time Director of a small-time laboratory such as yours truly. A Department Head in India is literally master of all he surveys, whereas a Chairman here in the U.S. is little more than a bookkeeper.
I should say, as someone with a lot of experience in the matter, that there is a great deal of politicking for HIGHLY DESIRABLE jobs here too (e.g., professorships in places like MIT, Berkeley). But the big difference here is the NUMBER OF ALTERNATIVES. If one doesn't get into MIT as a professor, it is still possible to have an active research career. But in India, the drop-off from the IIT's and IISc to even the Regional Engineering Colleges is very steep. Another good point about academic life in the U.S. is the relative freedom one has to set one's own course.
There is no point in whitewashing that issue. But I say that the situation is NOT going to change unless some brave souls venture out beyond the "elite" institutions and try to bring about some changes. In particular, it is time that those aspiring to an academic career in India look beyond the IIT's and the IISc, and think perhaps of the Regional Engineering Colleges. No doubt the environment in these places is not so good at present, but unless someone takes the lead, how will it ever change?
Next, let me discuss government research organizations. Several netters have written to say that they have heard a lot about CAIR (Thanks, friends), and that they would like to join CAIR. The fact is that CAIR can hire perhaps three or four people per year -- that is all! The point is that more CAIR-like institutions have to be created, not that everyone should aspire to join one organisation. As I said above, in India, I think the best scientific work is being done in three mission-oriented scientific departments, namely: Atomic Energy, Defence R&D, and Space. I have noted also that the bureaucracy is more responsive and more responsible in these departments than either in academia or in the CSIR laboratories, for example. In my view, there is a simple explanation for this: ACCOUNTABILITY. When you promise to deliver something at the end of Y years in return for X Rupees, it focuses your mind wonderfully on the task at hand. The UTTER LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY in the academic institutions and in CSIR laboratories contributes, in my opinion, to the atmosphere there.
During the past five years or so, thanks to C-DoT and other brainchildren (is there such a word?) of Sam Pitroda, it has become fashionable to create small, relatively autonomous organizations with a specific mission. By and large, these are good places to work. Moreover, there will be many more such places in future, I believe. So, while I say with some cynicism that feudalism is alive and well in India, I am still optimistic that the trend is in the right direction.
Finally, let me come to Indian industry, and the scope it offers for employment. Everyone here has no doubt heard about "liberalization," and is wondering whether it is for real. I would say, UNDOUBTEDLY YES! I can see the changes in the day to day operation of my own laboratory, for instance. Whatever may have been the reasons, the rules concerning foreign currency transactions, imports, maintaining foreign bank accounts (or equivalently, buying foreign currency for various purposes) has been made extremely simple and transparent compared to what it was before. Thus opening an export-oriented business in India is much simpler than it used to be. But I should add a word of caution. While INVESTMENT and BANKING have really been made simpler (and that is not just propaganda), the CONDUCT of business still remains complex. Unless a person has a thorough knowledge of how business is conducted in India, it may not be wise to try to set up a business right away as a means of returning to India. Prudence suggests that one should first become familiar with the Indian scene before embarking on such a venture.
A main worry people have when they think about returning to India is whether they will get a job in their own area of specialization, and whether they will get "job satisfaction." At this point, I would ask: What do you mean by "specialization" and by "satisfaction?" If you are looking for a job in India where you can carry on doing EXACTLY what you have been doing here, I can save you the time: You will probably not find such a job. But let me ask a hypothetical question. Suppose you were laid off from your job here. Would you be extremely fastidious and insist that you will take only such and such a type of job? Of course not. And how would you sell yourself in the marketplace? Would you say "I have ten years' experience in machining aluminium alloys to high tolerance, and wish to continue doing the same" or will you take A BROADER LOOK and see what you REALLY have to offer a prospective employer by way of managerial skills, etc.? Would you not be willing to tailor your expectations to the employer's requirements? The answer is obvious. Yet I see many many people TALKING about returning to India but being utterly unwilling to compromise on anything. If one is serious about going back to India, he should spend a month or two just TALKING to people, finding out what openings there are, and REPACKAGING HIMSELF to suit those openings.
Someone asked whether people returning to India have had a significant impact on the Indian Science & Technology scene. Definitely! Indian employers are very aware of the fact that NRI's have a great deal to offer by way of managerial skills, marketing ability, awareness of the latest technology, etc. Unfortunately, many of them also have serious attitude problems (more on this in the next chapter). But if an Indian employer is persuaded that a returning NRI has something to offer, AND that he will be able to fit in, then he will be hired for sure!
Finally, about "job satisfaction." This is a catch-all term to cover a multitude of sins. If it is supposed to mean "using what you were taught in college," then I submit that ALMOST NO ONE has job satisfaction, even in the U.S.! Wherever one works, for the most part he makes use of skills he has learnt on the job, isn't it? If "job satisfaction" means "making a difference," then I submit that one can get EVEN MORE satisfaction in India. But what most people mean is "carrying on doing the same thing in India." I have already given my views on that.
'>'> One of the things that prevents US-based Indians from
'>'> returning to India is the fear that they will not be
'>'> able to fit in. There is a notion (false, in my opinion)
'>'> that colleagues will look upon a US-returned person as
'>'> a "smart-assed-know-all".
'>'> Your comments on this ?
Well, friend (you know who you are), why are you worried only that COLLEAGUES WILL LOOK upon a US-returned person as a "smart-assed-know-all?" Why don't consider the possibility the US-returned person REALLY IS a you know what?
Many NRI's have a large-sized chip on their shoulder, especially if they are mediocre. At the risk of offending netters, I feel constrained to point out that there are many, many mediocre schools here in the U.S., and that the education they offer is not necessarily better than what one can get in India. There are also many humdrum jobs here. (The fact that they pay 30 or 40 times as much is a different matter.) Whether it is in industry or in research, the emphasis in the U.S. is on marketing: Talk fast and hope no one finds out the truth. But, as Lincoln said, you can't fool all of the people all of the time. So one should not be surprised if his U.S. qualification does not "automatically" make him preferrable to a Home-grown product. In my opinion, there is no institutionalized prejudice against NRI's as my correspondent implies. But I would say that all Indian employers (myself included) will study a person very carefully to see if the person will really fit in.
Now here are some suggestions to aspiring ex-ex-patriates.
1. Remember that the first six months are the worst. If you can get through that, it gets easier afterwards. Remember that most Indians really do want to help, and will do so to the extent possible. Also, remember that the way in which things are done in India is different from the way they are done here, but THEY CAN BE DONE! But be patient and understanding. Above all, don't constantly compare how it was done in the U.S. Nobody is interested! Don't run away at the first sign of trouble.
2. Be goal-oriented, not procedure-oriented. By this I mean the following: Be clear-headed about what it is you are trying to achieve. If your objective is to buy a piece of equipment, focus on THAT, rather than on the forms you have to fill out to buy that equipment. Above all, try to see the other guy's point of view.
3. BE A PART of the process of bringing about change. Don't wait for changes to take place before you go back. If an organization can improve itself WITHOUT your help, why should it hire you after that?
I can speak from experience on the last point. When I went back as Director, I took a few months to understand the way in which equipment is procured, visitors are invited, positions are offered, etc. I can honestly say that I have been able to obtain at least as much freedom in India as I had here. Out of the 30 scientists in CAIR, six are foreign-returned Ph.D.'s, and all seem to be happy. Today I can call CAIR "MY centre" because I have made it so. Would I have made the same statement had I stepped into a readymade situation?
Now that I have bashed NRI's sufficiently, let me balance the scales by making some observations about Indians in India. The American approach to life can be summed up in the aphorism: "Take CHARGE of your life." Most people seriously believe that they can control EVERYTHING that happens to them, and that nothing is a matter of chance. This attitude leads to tension and trauma, because some things in life really are beyond one's control. On the other hand, the Indian approach is SUPPOSED to be contained in the immortal line from the Bhagavadgita "karmaNyeevaadhikaarasthe ...". But is it?
In reality, the Indian approach is a funny form of fatalism. They believe that their life is governed by anything and everything EXCEPT their own actions. The typical Indian is quite unable to make a cause and effect analysis. This makes it very easy for them to explain their failures on all sorts of external factors rather than on their own poor performance. The explanation can range from the philosophical ("It was not meant to be.") to the conspiratorial ("I heard that the guy who got the promotion is the third nephew of the Director's fourth cousin!"), but certainly never practical ("I guess I have to work harder next year.")
I can think of no other explanation of why we Indians are so ready to believe the worst about ourselves. For instance, I am sure everyone on the net believes that merit doesn't count in India, that nepotism rules the day, that corruption is rampant, that all Directors are ignoramuses who got their positions by sucking up to the right people, etc. In fact, these beliefs are so strongly held that anyone who tries to challenge them is a fool indeed!
I can do no better than to share my own experience. In the past four years, I have served on perhaps 200 panels for promotion or selection. I can recall fewer than FIVE instances where the verdict (either positive or negative) was not totally obvious on the merits of the case. Yet I am equally sure that almost everyone who did not make it (selection or promotion) would have blamed it on anything EXCEPT his own performance. Now, there is no reason to think that the Defence Research and Development Organisation is particularly exemplary or fair; so I conclude that, by and large, hiring and promotion decisions in India ARE fair. So why do so many people believe differently?
Part of the reason lies in the lack of feedback in Indian organizations, which is one form of feudalism. But a much bigger part of the reason is our own fatalistic streak which, far from leading us to accept the outcome of things in a philosophical manner, actually becomes a means through we escape responsibility for our own success.
How can one change this? I say: Only through a massive infusion of alternative viewpoints, which those of us exposed to the rest of the world can inject into the system. The fact is that, under the veneer of cynicism that most Indians exhibit almost as a matter of routine, we really DO want things to improve.
This chapter can be skipped without any loss of continuity, and the reader can go on to the last chapter, entitled "Attitudes Past and Present."
So what was my reaction to this group? While I cannot go into specifics (as this was a closed-door meeting), a few general comments can be made. First, all the people were remarkably candid, often in complete contrast to their public postures. There was no doubt that these people did in fact appreciate the ground realities about various things, such as the need for genuine liberalization of industry, balancing the budget, containing the external debt within reasonable limits, ending subsidies, self-reliance in strategic sectors, etc., though often their public statements did not reflect such an awareness. This was one of those occasions where I could see very clearly the difference between saying something for public consumption and thinking something else. After this meeting, I felt quite reassured not just about the future of DRDO but about the future of the country as a whole.
So what is the point of this chapter? I am just trying to say that one should not always think negatively about the people in charge of running our country. There are many good and well-intentioned people, who may perhaps be prevented from giving their best owing to several factors beyond their control. Next time we feel like criticizing someone, we should ask ourselves whether we could have done better in their situation.
I had felt for at least ten years before I went back that living in India was not all that bad an idea. I had several relatives and friends who seemed to be quite content (of course, a few were also discontented). One noticeable change in India over the years is that many small irritants in daily life have been removed, by improvements in milk supply, computerization of airline, train, and bus reservations, etc. Finally I took a year's sabbatical leave and spent it in Hyderabad, and really enjoyed it. So we took the plunge.
When I decided to go back to India, I thought I was being pretty brave, because I had a feeling that EVERYONE stays back here; I did not know anyone who had gone back to India. But when I went back to India, I met LOTS of other people who had gone back. In retrospect, the explanation was really simple: If one stays on here, of course one meets only those who have chosen to stay on -- one has no occasion to meet those who have gone back! Conversely, if one goes back, one has little occasion to meet people who have emigrated (except during the NRI seasons of July-August and December-January). This self-evident truth escaped me completely until I went back.
At the risk of oversimplification, I would put it like this: Many of the things I admire about America and Americans are at an individual level. For example, their patriotism, directness and honesty in interpersonal dealings, self-reliance, clarity of objectives, etc. Having learnt the value of these things during my stay here, there was no reason why I could not adopt these attitudes in my daily life even after returning to India. On the other hand, many of the advantages of living in India are at a SOCIETAL level and are difficult to reproduce from within. For example, the fact that friends and relatives are more ready to help, bonds seem to be deeper, and so on, depend on the attitudes of OTHERS to ME, not on MY attitudes towards others. So I believed (and still do) that is possible to recreate a bit of America in India, but more difficult to do it the other way around. I realize that this runs contrary to conventional wisdom, but nevertheless that is my view.
I think an important part of being happy in India is to FORGET that one was ever an NRI. Just as we try to hang on to our Indian connection here by joining the Indian Students Assocation or whatever, so too do returned NRI's try to keep their distinct identity by forming associations in India. Indeed, some ex-NRI's make it a point to let you know as soon as you meet them for the first time that "They are different." For instance, in Bangalore there is something called Canada-India Association, consisting of people who went back from Canada. It is exactly what one would imagine: People sitting around trying to score off each other by comparing how long they were away from India, how much money they made in Canada, etc. -- in short, exactly the sort of group to be avoided at all costs!
Several people wrote to say that Indians don't mix with the locals here, that they don't get involved in local social issues, and so on. I agree with that, but I don't entirely blame the Indians. I was (and I hope still am) somewhat civic-minded, and tried to take part in local issues here at various times, only to be politely but firmly rebuffed. We are to be seen but not heard, was the message I got. But in India I have a greater sense of involvement and of being listened to (even on nonprofessional issues) than I did when I was here.
I should say that I got a big laugh when I read all the passionate discussions about movies on SCIT. Before I went back, I too used to be the same way. In fact, on my trips to India, I probably averaged three movies per week (in the pre-video days). My visits to India consisted of Telugu movies, classical music concerts, and visiting relatives. But in the four years I have been back, I have been to exactly TWO movies -- both of them English!
What is the explanation? I think many of us here miss India more than we care to admit. Movies (or sports, or katcheris) remind us of our carefree days, so we try to relive that period of our lives as much as we can. This "missing India" phenomenon is all the more irritating because it seems to be so IRRATIONAL. If someone, say an American, were to ask us to describe EXACTLY WHAT IT IS that we miss, we would be unable to do so. So we pretend that we miss the "culture" (e.g., the movies or the music, or whatever). I suspect what most of us really miss is the "gestalt" so to speak, that is, the total experience. That total experience cannot be obtained in a "compressed" fashion on a short visit, so we try to grab what seem to us to be the salient features, namely movies etc.
But now that I am back and am fully immersed in the total experience, I find that movies (and the like) are in fact a very marginal part of my affinity for India. Far more important are factors such as people's attitudes to life and towards each other. That is why I no longer have the craze to go to the movies. I predict that if some of the movie addicts on SCIT go back to India, they will follow my example!
Thus far I have been talking about MY attitudes. Now let me talk about the attitudes of OTHERS towards ME. It goes without saying that many of the people I meet in India, especially youngsters fresh out of college or about to finish college, think I am completely crazy to have gone back. The less-well-informed among them think I went back because I was a failure here, or because I was a social misfit here, or both. It is always fun to watch the mental processes of these people, who think they are able to hide their thoughts from me, without realizing that I can read them like an open book! But on the other side is a significant and growing segment of society that actually seems to derive some sense of pride in the fact that I chose to return.
One thing I have noted over the years is that the process of emigration is by now quite well-understood. Fifteen years ago I used to meet lots of people who were DESPERATE to get out, and wanted me to suggest ways for them to do so. But now the "algorithm" is well-publicized. This has had the effect that most people who are keen on emigration are able to achieve their goal one way or the other. A corollary is that most of the people who are still in India are there VOLUNTARILY. This latter group can be further subdivided into two subgroups, namely: Those who never ventured out of India, and those who went back. There is of course a third group, namely the NRI's.
The interesting thing is that each of the three groups seems to be quite content in its own way -- something I would not have said five or ten years ago. This in spite of the fact that the Rupee has gone from 13 to the dollar in '87 to 31 today. Another observation I have is that the people who have chosen to reside in India take much greater pride in the country than used to be the case. I think there is also a growing realization that if the country is to improve, it is only the people of the country that can bring about such an improvement. No outsider (the "white man" or the NRI) is going to wave a magic wand and improve things.
When I was living outside India, I had well-intentioned thoughts of "doing something to help," e.g., by giving short courses on current research, and the like. I am sure many other NRI's share such feelings. But now that I am back, I believe that all such well-intentioned thoughts and efforts in fact contribute very little to the betterment of India. This is a very bitter pill for NRI's to swallow, but nevertheless that is NOW my considered opinion. The only way for a person to make a real impact is to go back. Writing impassioned postings on the network may make a person feel better, but that is all.
Thank you one and all for your patience, and good luck.