Opportunities for and Responsibilities of Non-Resident Indians in India

24th January, 2000, New Delhi
Abraham M. George

Shri Pant, Shri Khurana, Shri Patil, Dr. Singh, Mr. Harbajan Singh, Officers of the NRI Welfare Society of India, Ladies and Gentlemen

I am very honoured to speak before this distinguished gathering, especially in the presence of such a diverse group of individuals who have brought along with them the cultures and experiences of many nations, and yet remain very Indian. I too take pride in being of Indian origin, and as we share this common bond, our strength derives from our diversity and clarity of purpose. As NRIs, we frequently return to India because she draws us to her in a mysterious way, and we care passionately about her and want to make a difference. I believe that this forum is precisely for that reason - that is, we are here not just because we want to benefit from India, but mainly because we want to give something back. As President Kennedy once said, "ask not what the country can do for you, but what you can do for the country." I believe that is what we ask of ourselves today.

At this dawn of the new millennium, the question that we need to ask each other and ourselves is this: What kind of a nation do we want India to be? Are we going to achieve prosperity for a good majority of our peoples within our lifetime, or will we drift along as we have done in the past since our independence? Are we going to create an economic system that would reward entrepreneurship, innovation and hard work, or will it continue to favor those with special privileges and access to centers of power? Will we be a nation of just laws and equal opportunity for all, or will corruption, bribery, special favors, and misappropriation of public funds drag us down? Are we going to be a pluralistic secular society or will we tear ourselves apart by intolerance, hypocrisy, and hatred? Will we learn to respect nature and the environment, and act accordingly, or will we cause our own destruction by the failure to act responsibly? These are the critical issues of the day-for India's elected leaders and public servants who have the responsibility to lead the nation, and for the rest of us as citizens and NRIs.

India is witnessing, just as in many of the industrialized nations, the revolution in computer and information technology. It has opened up new opportunities for NRIs to participate vigorously, and shall I say, with some escape from the choking constraints of bureaucracy and regulations. Net is a ready-made marketplace of several trillion dollars worth of network connections, computers, and limitless databases full of information. And it is available largely free to anyone with a phone line and a personal computer. Anywhere in the world. In short, Net offers an entry point to all comers in every market and industry. Business opportunities are no longer restricted to the few privileged in India. This wrenching revelation is forcing a fundamental rethinking of what a company does. Increasingly, savvy companies avoid building expensive, time-consuming in-house capabilities. Instead they form partnerships with their suppliers, and outsource much of the manufacturing, assembling and even distribution. Consumers are given direct access to the manufacturers to customize what they exactly want, bypassing the traditional channels of order taking. Business has never been about avoiding tough choices. What is different this time is that experience may be the worst teacher of all. I don't think that we have seen the biggest changes at all. Those adrenal glands we developed eons ago could come in very handy.

I am convinced that the Internet is the future of our democracy. Soon, the government will not be able to manipulate public opinion with false information. Secret practices that are in self-interest instead of public interest will be uncovered. People will soon gain the upper hand over their rulers - the government -, and the government will be the servant of the people, as it was always supposed to be.

India has little choice about globalization. India needs to export $3-4 billion worth of goods additionally each year to service $15-20 billion of foreign investment it needs to improve infrastructure and introduce modern technologies. India's cultural reaction to imperialism and Nehru's socialistic philosophy of distributive justice has caused a misguided profound mistrust of global economic forces. Economic self- reliance as opposed to economic interdependence had become an axiomatic corollary of independence itself. I hope the current thinking has changed. As we seek new investment opportunities in India, it is for us as NRIs to illustrate the virtue of assimilating new ideas, innovation, and change.

Even with these new opportunities, I must express a few words of caution and responsibility for all of us as NRIs. We have now discovered that unlimited progress cannot occur within the limited resources of our planet; nature needs to be supported rather than conquered. We have also discovered that the endless accumulation of possessions will not bring fulfillment either. As our spiritual development becomes stagnant, and often deteriorates, the whirlpool of selfish pleasures fails to bring satisfaction. No, all hope cannot be pinned on science, technology and economic growth. While such progress could enrich us, it could also enslave us. All is a struggle for material things, but an inner voice tells us that we have lost something pure, elevated and fragile. We have ceased to see the purpose. For example, the environmental ruin in India is proceeding at rapid pace. And the population explosion. Drowning in poverty and misery, more mouths to feed will only make demands on the environment and the rich. The growing ecological crisis may alter the climatic zones, leading to shortages of fresh water and suitable land in places where they were once plentiful. Simultaneously, the demands on the rich for economic and social justice will lead to unprecedented social unrest. We have to soon find a way to restrain ourselves where we must, care for the nature, and share our plentiful gifts with those who are less fortunate. Otherwise, tranquility does not promise to descend upon this country.

World Bank now talks about "sustainable development" and incorporates ecological concerns into their sponsorship of economic development. I recall reading Homer's warning of the doom of Nemesis in the Greek epics. Driven by pleonexia, or radical greed, Prometheus transgressed the boundaries of the human condition. In measureless presumption, he brought fire from the heavens and thereby brings doom onto himself. He was chained to a rock, an eagle preyed on his liver, and heartlessly healing gods kept him alive by regrafting the liver each night. The encounter of Prometheus with Nemesis is an immortal reminder of inescapable cosmic retribution for the ecological damage being caused in the name of eliminating suffering. Every man has become Prometheus, and Nemesis has become endemic; it is the backlash of progress. We are hostages to a lifestyle that provokes doom. In the words of the Chilean poet Vincente Huidorbo, insight into the alternatives not chosen, and opportunities missed can be found by remembering "those hours which have lost their clock."

Similarly, can we learn to treat with dignity the people with whom we share this earth? The value of service to others, the value of caring for others, the value of attempting to keep aware of social misery, inadequate housing, lack of proper healthcare, deprivation of food, and so on - these are not issues on which religion has a monopoly. The quest for truth, the quest for good, the quest for beautiful, all require us to let suffering speak, let victims be visible, and let social misery be put on the agenda of those with power. The life of a thinking man, one with feelings and a soul, is inextricably associated with the struggle of those who have been dehumanized on the margins of society. No justifications, philosophical or religious, can excuse the conscience and the soul of the more fortunate if he fails to act in compassion.

As NRIs, we need to talk about what can improve the lives of our peoples - the ideas that shape, sustain, and challenge us; ideas we constantly test against experience and refine through the trials and errors of a true democracy. When we offer messages of hope and possibility, we must be conscious of the potential for evil. We must not be blinded by our few successes. Yes, we are excelling ourselves in computer science, engineering, and technology in general. But where is the heart?

Most of us have found prosperity in the countries we have adopted. We are prepared to consider investment in India if the rewards are commensurate with the risks. But we also owe something greater than our self-interest to the country of origin. I respectfully ask of all of us to do just that.

Thank you.

[ home | projects | news | volunteer | donate | contact ]