The New York Times

July 24, 2004

Indians Go Home, but Don't Leave U.S. Behind


BANGALORE, India - Snigdha Dhar sat in the echoing emptiness of her new home, her husband off at work, her 7-year-old son prattling on about Pizza Hut. The weather outside was California balmy. Children rode bicycles on wide smooth streets. Construction workers toiled on more villas like hers - white paint, red roofs, green lawns - and the community center's three pools.

Six years ago, Mrs. Dhar and her husband, Subhash, a vice president at Infosys Technologies, the Indian software giant, migrated like thousands of Indians before them, to America's Silicon Valley and its suburban good life.

But Silicon Valley is not where their gated housing colony, Palm Meadows, sits. Like growing numbers of professional Indians who once saw their only hope for good jobs and good lives in the West, the Dhars have returned home to India.

Drawn by a booming economy, in which outsourcing is playing a crucial role, and the money to buy the lifestyle they had in America, Indians are returning in large numbers, many to this high-technology hub.

What began as a trickle in the late 1990's is now substantial enough to be talked about as a "reverse brain drain.'' By one estimate, there are 35,000 "returned nonresident Indians'' in Bangalore, with many more scattered across India.

For this still developing country, the implications of the reverse migration are potentially vast.

For decades, it has watched many of its best-educated move abroad, never to come back. Now a small portion of that talent is returning, their influence amplified beyond their numbers by their high-level skills and education, new cultural perspective and, in many cases, ample wealth. They are both staffing and starting companies, 110 of which set up shop in Bangalore in just the year that ended in March.

In some cases, they are seeking to refashion India implicitly in America's image. It takes leaving and returning, said Arjun Kalyanpur, a radiologist who returned in 1999, to ask, "Why should my country be any less than the country I was in?''

This impulse is not universally welcomed by some Indians who never left and who see a globalized elite - many of whom now carry American passports, not Indian - importing a Western culture as distorting in its way as British colonialism.

Still, returned reformers are already sparking change. Srikanth Nadhamuni, who helped design the Intel Pentium chip, is now applying his formidable skills to designing a software platform that could revolutionize the administration of India's local governments.

Lathika Pai, one of the few women in India's high-technology sector, is trying to bring America's best practices for working mothers to the B2K Corporation, her business-process outsourcing company. Others are trying to encourage schools to teach critical thinking, or force government to be more responsive to citizens.

S. Nagarajan, an entrepreneur, calls it "brain gain." "They have not come back just as they went there," he said.

He came back because he saw in India the business opportunity he once saw in America, where he struck it rich in the 1990's. The call center he and his partners started in Bangalore in 2000 with 20 employees now has 3,600, and $30 million in annual revenues.

Others have been drawn back by the tug of family and the almost atavistic pull of roots, or pushed by diminishing job opportunities in Silicon Valley and tightening Americans visa regulations.

Many of them are returning to communities like Palm Meadows, whose developer, the Adarsh Group, advertises "beautiful homes for beautiful people.'' The liberalization of India's state-run economy over the last 13 years has spawned a suburban culture of luxury housing developments, malls and sport utility vehicles that is also enabling India to compete for its Americanized best and brightest.

"It is amazing what you can get in terms of quality of life,'' Subhash Dhar said of the India to which he and his family returned about two months ago.

Trying to Reconnect

The little girls wore dresses of rich blues and hot pinks and deep reds. Their ankle bells tinkled as their feet smacked the floor. They cocked their heads and bent their hands up, trying to perfect the poses of a 1,600-year-old Indian dance form, Bharathanatyam, in the community center of a housing complex that bore almost no trace of India.

All the girls were daughters of returnees, like Prasad Kamisetty, an Intel employee back after 15 years, whose sonorous singing accompanied the dancers, and Sunita Maheshwari, a pediatric cardiologist, who kept one eye on the dance lessons and one on her 4-year-old son in the pool outside. They live in a pastel, pastoral gated compound, Regent Place, where two-story houses with barbecues in the backyard line a tree-shaded main lane.

Where Indian parents have long worried about how to give their children sufficient exposure to the English language and Western culture, many returnees say they worry more about how to connect their children to India.

The returnees describe identities in flux, riddled with continuing questions about what to cook, what holidays to celebrate, what languages to speak, and how to interact with a country that sometimes seems as foreign as the United States once did.

Many spent formative years abroad. On their return, they rejoin an upper middle-class tributary of Indian life that represents a mere sliver of this nation's more than a billion people, 300 million of whom remain abjectly poor.

Their communities are secure and closed off, immune from the water shortages and power cuts that plague this city of 6.5 million people. Their children attend private schools, often Western-flavored "international" ones. For lunch, their children want what they ate in America: peanut butter and jelly and potato chips - all now available here.

Dr. Maheshwari and her husband, Arjun Kalyanpur, see the dance class as a way to graft Indian culture onto their daughter Alisha. 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.

"We're sort of crosscultural byproducts who are straddling both worlds without necessarily being firmly entrenched in the Indian culture,'' said Dr. Maheshwari, 38, who is half-American but was raised in India.

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 Yale-New Haven Hospital, where she and her husband trained and worked.

Her husband has found himself on the cutting edge of medical outsourcing. A radiologist, Dr. Kalyanpur had resigned himself to a significant pay drop upon his return. Then he proved to Yale that he could accurately read CT scans and other images transmitted via broadband to India. He began working for them from afar before starting his own business, Teleradiology Solutions Inc., in 2002.

He spends his days reading images for the emergency room nightshifts of about 40 American hospitals, compensating for the shortfall of nighttime radiologists in the United States, and being compensated at near-American salary levels. His partner, like him, is American-trained; at least two more Indian-born radiologists are moving back from the United States to work with them.

"India always suffered from the cream of its medical community migrating overseas," he said. "Now there is the possibility to go back."

India changed in the time Dr. Kalyanpur, 39, was away. Where it once took a year to get a phone connection, it may now take a day.

But he changed as well. He and his wife gravitated to Bangalore, where neither of them had ever lived, in part for the cosmopolitanism in its pubs and cultural life. Regent Place drew them because many European expatriates also live there.

"It makes the transition easier," he said.

On his return, India's poverty loomed up at him, and he and his wife grapple with how to deal with it. They raised money to put a playground in the government school in the village across from their housing complex, and are doing the same for another school nearby.

It is a small attempt to bridge India's great and growing gulf. On a Saturday, children with want visible in thin faces, in bare feet and tattered uniforms, scaled the swing set bought by the returnees, whose own children played across the street inside Regent Place.

New Outlets for New Talents

On a Sunday morning, Ramesh Ramanathan stood before some 40 middle-class Indians in a garden green with banana, coconut, and hibiscus trees.

"How many of us think India is a great country?" he asked the group, all residents of the Pillana Gardens neighborhood.

All hands rose.

"How many of us think India has a great government?"

All hands fell.

"Give a few hours each week to making governance better," he implored the skeptics before him.

Mr. Ramanathan, 40, was at ease, yet somehow stood apart. Was it the jeans and rolled-up shirt sleeves? The hip, slightly floppy haircut? Or his insistence that change was possible in India, when many of those present confessed they had given up?

"We will try our best," one man said in answer to his exhortation.

" 'Try' is not good enough," Mr. Ramanathan said.

By the traditional career arcs of the West, or India for that matter, Mr. Ramanathan and his wife, Swathi, did not seem destined for proselytizing for civic activism.

Like many young, ambitious, middle-class Indian couples, they moved to the United States in the 1980's. He earned an M.B.A. from Yale and rose to become a senior executive at Citibank. She earned a master's degree in design from Pratt and became a successful designer. They moved to London, where he ran a $100 million business in corporate derivatives for Citibank.

Among their pastimes, usually with fellow expatriates, was bemoaning their homeland with sentences that began: "The problem with India is " They would ponder why they so easily went forth and succeeded, while back home, India and so many of its people could not.

At the end of 1998, they came back, wanting their children to get to know their grandparents. They have since put their skills and their experience in the West toward improving public governance and working with the urban poor. Mr. Ramanathan made himself an expert in public finance, and spent two years reforming Bangalore's chaotic financial management system, now ranked among the world's best.

In December 2001, they started Janaagraha, a civic movement intended to make citizens demand greater accountability and effectiveness from their government. The monthly review meetings in municipal wards also help bind the middle class and poor - to build a community, in short, strong enough to challenge a government imbued with both colonial and socialist assumptions that it knows better than the people.

"In America, citizens have reluctantly let government into their lives," he said. "Here government is reluctantly letting citizens in." As part of what he calls the "lucky generation" that has been able to succeed abroad, he said, "If we don't come back and say there is an alternative, who is going to do it?"

He and other returnees believe that India remains too reliant on personal relationships, decisions and whims, and they have resolved to build American-style systems.

That is the focus of Srikanth Nadhamuni, who returned two years ago after 16 years in America, most of it spent in Silicon Valley, where he helped to develop the Sun Microsystems Ultrasparc and Intel Pentium chips.

When he returned, he was appalled by Bangalore's pollution, traffic and poor roads. Tax revenues were not growing commensurate with cities, and therefore neither were basic services. Wealthy individuals and companies had swanky homes and offices, but they were islands.

In response, he began developing an "e-government" software platform that uses digital mapping to permit far more accurate property tax assessments and collection. It will allow for electronic tax payment, birth and death registrations, the filing of citizen grievances, the public tracking of small infrastructure projects, and more.

In Bangalore, the system has already brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional property tax revenue and has reduced corruption. The Delhi Municipal Corporation - the world's second-largest municipality after Tokyo - will test it soon.

Mr. Nadhamuni wants others, especially in information technology, to offer their talents to India. "We are making a couple of billion dollars of software exports, but we are not solving India's problems,'' he said. "We are solving the world's problems. He says his mission is "even better than being on the Pentium project."

His work abroad, like Mr. Ramanathan's, has made it possible to be a full-time volunteer, living off savings potentially for life by taking advantage of the much lower cost of living. In Bangalore, Mr. Nadhamuni said, he can live well on $1,500 a month.

"This is not to prove a point that we're back here," he said. "We've gotten used to the U.S. If I have a huge drop in my standard of living, I'm not going to be effective."

On a Saturday morning, his 4-year-old daughter played on the computer in their airy apartment at a gated apartment complex, the Golden Enclave.

"Build a fortress like Tipu Sultan's fortress," Mr. Nadhamuni said, trying to entice her to the wooden blocks on the floor with a reference to the 18th-century warrior who challenged the British colonial rulers. "Sim City," she clamored, her preference clearly for the American-designed computer game in which you alone shape the virtual urban landscape on the screen.