The Indian Economy Blog

July 18, 2007

My Passage To India

Filed under: Business — Nandan Desai @ 7:51 pm

Recently, we had an interesting back-and-forth about whether the Indian economy was overheating. Touchy topic these days: investors are worried that the bears will win the war for the airwaves, property seekers are worried that land is too dear, the finance wonks are blanching at valuations, the policy wonks are complaining about a lack of reform and deregulation, organized labor is worried that there will be too much, everyone wants better infrastructure, and the businessmen and a few policymakers want to be left alone to accomplish all this. Most Indians want to ‘beat’ China (whatever that means), and this irks the Chinese – who appropriately point to the mess in our own backyard.

Welcome to India 4.0, the real economy.

Gradually, more and more people have a stake in what happens next. I lived in India not too long ago, and most of India just seemed to passively observe, taking for granted the slow pace of change. Having lived in the US for the last one and a half decades, and returning intermittently to see snapshots of a country in transition, the change is what sticks out most. More and more Indians are becoming market participants, and taking a greater degree of control over their economic future – hoping desperately that the government will take the necessary steps for this to happen. Of course, sitting 10,000 miles away, one can only admire – because one has thankfully become oblivious to the day-to-day struggle of living and working in India. That is what drove me to return.

I moved to the US in 1993 and did my schooling and college there; returning every summer to see all my cousins, aunts, grandparents, and close family friends. I got a good job in New York after graduating, and until recently, was carrying on with business as usual. I had always held in my mind that sooner or later I would come back to India and settle here – but, as I settled in to life there, every passing year made that a fainter and fainter dream.

Lucky for me, the Indian economy decided to really take off for the stars the same year that I entered the labor force (2003) – and I became completely engrossed in macroeconomics and international finance. I studied what was happening, talked to people about why, occasionally I wrote about it – but through it all, I had this nagging sensation that I was not really experiencing it. I was the quintessential armchair quarterback – bold enough to make suggestions about what the Indian government should do, and tell the pessimists that they’re wrong and India was going to boom – but not bold enough to actually give up my cushy life and move there.

So after much planning and deliberation, I finally managed to find a job in Mumbai and I left New York for good. This was a couple of months ago. (The logistical pains of moving continents are my excuse for my hiatus from blogging.)

Since arriving, I have had to reassess all my preconceived notions under the ruthless prism of the reality of day-to-day life in India. I see the poor people on the streets as opposed to merely in World Bank data files. I see corruption (the petty kind at least) in front of my eyes, rather than in Transparency International reports. I have gotten sick because of unhygienic street food. And I have had to spend tons and tons of time in traffic. In Delhi, there were a couple of power cuts, and the airport was a complete bloody mess.

I am fascinated and at the same time dismayed by the vicious contrasts that one encounters every day. Tall fancy buildings coming up next to dilapidated slums; companies who offer better service than any comparator in the West, and those which make transacting with them such a morass that you wish you were never born. Hope and misery coexist seamlessly here.

In a lot of the writings I read about India, there is a constant thread of presenting this as a struggle between rich and poor, left and right, public and private, market fundamentalists and socialists, etc. It’s not. It is an epic struggle between those who benefit from progress and those who benefit from the status quo – and there are characters of both stripes in every quadrant of society irrespective of income, job, or political affiliation. And that’s the beauty of this whole thing – the economic progressives need nothing more than the passage of time in order to win. Because amidst the oppressive tyranny of mediocrity and despair, the blind are the first to see that things have to change.

27 Comments »

  1. “I finally managed to find a job in Mumbai and I left New York for good.”

    What does “for good” really mean ? If you find a better job in NY, you can’t ( or won’t ) come back ? Does “for good” mean legal status ie. Indian passport with green-card stamp, so you can always come back if Indian economy heads south, but so long as it is booming, you can stick around in Mumbai ? I’ve seen too many people head to Mumbai with a US green card, for good. They will come back at the drop of a hat if economy head south. If that’s what for-good means, you can be honest and state it upfront.

    Comment by Jealous NRI — July 18, 2007 @ 9:37 pm

  2. Hey Jealous NRI – what an apposite pseudonym – how may instances is “too many people head to Mumbai with a US green card, for good”? And how do you prove a negative? The Indian economy is showing no signs of heading south any time soon. And at any rate, that was not the thrust of Nandan’s post.

    Comment by Lionel Baptista — July 18, 2007 @ 10:04 pm

  3. A very interesting entry. Congratulations for being able to make the transition and come back. According to me a lot of Indians go to US with these thoughts in mind but once they get too involved and family matters are not able to come back.

    Definitely India is making new waves and new strides. I myself just left a great opportunity in New York and am staying in India doing an MBA :) India will definitely grow and give tough competition to the rest of the world and like you rightly said “And that’s the beauty of this whole thing – the economic progressives need nothing more than the passage of time in order to win”

    Comment by Shubham — July 18, 2007 @ 10:26 pm

  4. Lionel dude, In these days of globalization, only idiot farmers can legitimately employ noble expressions like “for good”, they are literally tied to their land and crops for good. The rest of us IT monkeys or quants or analysts or businessmen or policy wonks or whoever are just drifting from here to there, there to somewhere, in search of the almighty dollar. If given a better opportunity, any sensible rational person will move. Right now opportunity is in Mumbai. Tomorrow it will be somewhere else. There is no real “for good”.
    btw what exactly is the thrust of Nandan’s post ? He came to USA. Then he went back. So ? Some 100 million people must have done that. Power cut in airport, Unhygenic Street Food, Petty Corruption, same old same old. Only new thing was “for good” :) I will join him one of these days using the same “for good” excuse :))

    Comment by Jealous NRI — July 18, 2007 @ 10:32 pm

  5. Dude… I think you\’re reading a bit too much into the words. I said \’for good\’ to distinguish from a temporary move.

    Some people chase the dollar, some people chase family, others do it for fame, or sometimes obligation. Some people even do it for love. There are thousands of reasons for people to move… And you\’re right that no one knows where someone will end up.

    …Ask a metaphysical question, and you\’ll get a metaphysical answer.

    The point of the post was simply to highlight my initial impressions of returning to India.

    Comment by nandan — July 18, 2007 @ 11:14 pm

  6. I tried this move-to-India-for-good business in 2005. Lasted 3 months, then ran back to USA. Then tried again in 2006 with more conviction. 7 months, then ran back again. I will probably try again after a few more years.
    Too many hassles for aam aadmi. All the things you\’ve written about plus lot more. No reliable electricity or water or roads or internet or housing or parks or ad infinitum. Everything exists but nothing is reliable. Frankly, I don\’t see anything beautiful in the epic struggle you\’ve written about. Brutal, yes. Beauty, not. \”Amidst the oppressive tyranny of mediocrity and despair, the blind are the first to see\” ?@! Yeah, right. There is so much pollution even junta with 20/20 vision are losing their eyesight :)

    But, there is something haunting and magical about India. Good luck with the move.

    Comment by Jealous NRI — July 18, 2007 @ 11:39 pm

  7. Nandan, please write more about your experiences in India. Very interesting stuff.

    Comment by Haku — July 19, 2007 @ 12:25 am

  8. Nandan, welcome back man! You are certainly not the first and surely will not be the last. Life here in the motherland is a lot better than people think. There is an acute shortage of good talent in the local industry and if you are upto the task you will not miss a thing.

    The so called shortcomings are nothing but reality. India is real. Embrace it and you will be better off for it.

    Comment by Nikhil — July 19, 2007 @ 12:54 am

  9. I returned 9 months ago after spending 11 yrs in US and I must say life in India is a real test of one’s patience and will. Unless you have strong family ties or a great career opportunity, I really don’t see much point in being in India. I do wonder sometimes that being a Janitor in US offers a better life than being a senior executive in India :(

    Nandan – didn’t mean to discourage you but wanted to give you heads up for the challenges ahead. Welcome to the club and goodluck!

    Comment by ashutosh — July 19, 2007 @ 10:10 am

  10. When I first started reading this blog, I found the articles very heavy on analysis but not necessarily on reflection. This post however is almost lyrical in its tone and great to read. Having watched last night, first of a BBC two-part documentary on the Bombay Trains, I can see how brutal struggle for living can have a raw beauty of its own.

    Not everyone’s cup of tea, though for many reasons which deserve some reflection of their own…

    Comment by Shefaly — July 19, 2007 @ 11:54 am

  11. [...] Although many have returned to India from the US and Europe, few are honest about their real experiences. An exception to this is a post I read on the Indian Economy blog today. [...]

    Pingback by Homeward bound? « La Vie Quotidienne — July 19, 2007 @ 12:25 pm

  12. I really don’t see the point of this post besides the expression of one’s emotions turning the blog to a personal ‘horn tooting’ – and that to for what? I read these kinds of posts/articles everyday on some media, my close friends who recently moved to India from US too sing similar songs (at least for me who is very much aware of Indian leisures and hassles) is nothing new. No offense but the post is something that should have been on a personal blog – not a general blog like this – but hey it’s democracy right?

    Goodluck for making that leap and the excitement of living the Bombay life.

    Comment by Dhaval — July 19, 2007 @ 9:53 pm

  13. Dhaval, there might be something here you might be missing completely. What in the heck are we doing all of this for? Keep peeling the onion until – for most us at some point – it comes down to family. Pick your target, pick your number (salary, milions in the bank etc) and after you reach there then what?

    Behind all the economics are folks like Nandan who make the machine work. If it works out for him then India in one way has begun to tick.

    Comment by Nikhil — July 19, 2007 @ 11:06 pm

  14. “And that’s the beauty of this whole thing – the economic progressives need nothing more than the passage of time in order to win. Because amidst the oppressive tyranny of mediocrity and despair, the blind are the first to see that things have to change.”

    That may be so but there is another set of the blind, and not just blind- they are deaf(to the common person’s woes), mute(about workable solutions, except some cliches) and behave as if were totally retarted. Unfortunately they are in power , have been power for a long, long time and are likely to remain so.
    Not much the ‘economic progressives’ can do against this bunch.

    http://libertynewscentral.blogspot.com/

    Comment by Gurmeet — July 20, 2007 @ 1:20 am

  15. As a regular reader/lurker of this blog, I have to say, I visit this blog for its informative, rational analysis. Reading some of the comments above, it seems I am not the only one that appreciates this.

    Recent articles (eg., My passage to India, Public Transport in India – and I mean no offense to the authors) have been personal reflections and subjective notes. From time to time, such accounts may be a welcome pause. But its appears to be one of those long awkward pauses.

    Perhaps the authors could do a bit of both – include personal reflections and substantive facts. For instance, are there any studies of how desis returning to India fare in the short and long terms? How have the bus systems of Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore changed in the past decade?

    Comment by Naresh — July 20, 2007 @ 6:50 am

  16. Nandan:

    Good post, nice read and I will wait for a sequel. The sequel that has commentary mixed with the analysis after living the life first hand.

    Good luck and hang in there!

    Comment by chum — July 20, 2007 @ 9:33 am

  17. Thanks for all the comments, well wishes, and gripes. Rather than responding individually, there are a couple of basic issues I’d like to address up front:

    1. IEB (and for that matter, any blog) is necessarily by definition a portal for personal reflection. Even the heaviest dose of economic analysis has to be twinged with personal reflection, argument, and some kind of subjectivity to merit a place on a blog. Otherwise, it is better suited for some quality economics journal. I’ll admit that sometimes we may veer too much to one end… So if you ever feel cheated out of your requisite dose of analysis or reflection, do look at our archives. There’s a wealth of information there for every taste.

    2. The purpose of the post wasn’t to discuss my move, but to highlight the circumstances which made it possible, and even desirable (India’s boom, the West’s stagnation), and to discuss my initial impressions of the economic and political situation here.

    Comment by nandan — July 20, 2007 @ 9:44 am

  18. Nikhil – you may be right from your perception but I still do not see the point you are seeing.

    Nandan – discussing initial impressions are great but that is exactly what belongs to a personal post. Nothing wrong that you posted here but it just seems a bit out of place.

    Your labeling as Economy 4.0 also is super vague. You are an individual and your observation should not be generalized as any sort of version – for you individually? Sure why not! Hence I felt strongly that there is absolutely no point in your post. What you have mentioned is your individual opinion which is very much on the level of any mainstream media journalism.

    Comment by Dhaval — July 20, 2007 @ 8:43 pm

  19. Dhaval, the point is that behind the hard number crunching we call economics is the fact that we are dealing with people. As Nandan said we could have discussed “Stagnation in the West” and dressed it up with some stats and it would have been more appropriate. In that sense this discussion went on a tangent.

    I agree with you that the few recent articles have been a departure from the analysis we’ve come to appreciate here on IEB. I see it as a nice change though.

    What isn’t being discussed is the flood of medical professionals who returned some years ago. Those guys are doing great. Similar trend in manufacturing jobs in the auto industry. Found an old article which is interesting reading:

    http://www.telegraphindia.com/1050918/asp/look/story_5232790.asp

    This isn’t a trickle folks, its a flood.

    Comment by Nikhil — July 20, 2007 @ 10:58 pm

  20. So now its between NY and Mumbai and finally Mumbai wins. I have had been in Mumbai and I was flummoxed of having pleasure during my stay. Being more pragmatic, as you have already mentioned about power cuts, corruption, unhygienic street food etc etc. also “I have had to spend tons and tons of time in traffic” so obviously it doesn’t matter whether you are top class official or nadir level employee, you will have to meet various obnoxious blockades while reaching your office.

    Recently one of my friend was doing summer internship in IITB. He told me a strange and funny incident. His friend came to the airport to see off his brother. On his way back to the hostel, he was stuck in traffic jam at 11 p.m. in night. And during jam he got phone call from his brother that he has reached Delhi. So this is the pathetic story of Mumbai traffic. I don’t know much about NY traffic but hope condition will be better there.

    If you are emotionally attached to the India then no problem but when it comes to money, its still NY. I agree with your comment “India’s boom, the West’s stagnation” but this stagnated limit there is much more than booming economy here. I do not mean to disparage your move but after spending nearly 15 yrs in US you will have to metamorphize yourself here. Besides all those things I think there is always a mysterious impetus taking people back to India. Wishing you the best in India. :)

    Comment by Rangnath — July 20, 2007 @ 11:31 pm

  21. Regarding hassles, now I feel US is getting worse. Last year, we had couple of bad weather days in Seattle and everything got screwed up. We had hardly 0.5 inch of snow and the traffic was so mad that I took 3 hours to reach home, 5 miles away. Couple of my friends reached home at 4am (after 8 hours in the car). The next week, we were were out of power for 5 days (no gas stations, grocery shops, no gas-stoves to cook and no way to heat or eat). 2 weeks before that most neighborhoods were flooded with 2-3 feet water. This is in the World’s tech capital (Boeing/Amazaon/MSFT/Starbucks… all centered here)

    The lesser said about Manhattan traffic, the better. It is worser than Chennai/Mumbai roads. It has taken me many hours to get from one end to the other end dodging all those jaywalkers, angry taximen and all kind of crazy people. If you are not on Metro, you are screwed. The power lines and steam pipes are screwed (the other day the water was guzzing upto the height of Chrystler building, during a leak)

    Still, the mayhem and Chaos of overall India is unbeatable. But slowly, India is rising up and US is falling down to catch up with it. So, not a bad decision overall.

    Comment by Balaji Viswanathan — July 21, 2007 @ 4:33 am

  22. To all those complaining about Nandan’s post being too personal, I have a couple of pointers
    1) Check out the IEB archives — no dearth of the more analytical, policy-oriented posts there

    2) Better still, send us a guest post or two that are “analytical, policy-oriented”. Please email me at prashant-at-stringinfo.com. We’re always looking for new contributors.

    After all, a primary catalyist behind IEB was the abysmal quality of most op-eds/ magazines in India w.r.t economic issues. We took matters in our own hands, and decided to write what we liked to read.

    Comment by Prashant — July 21, 2007 @ 5:09 am

  23. I started reading this article completely unaware of its contents. At first (after reading the title in fact) I assumed that it would be about the Indian Economy, generally. Your article starts of interestingly enough, having a perspective such as yours is almost invaluable in understanding what draws foreign investors here. However, after reading the last paragraph I was taken aback that that was all there was. You started of on an interesting thread and you end with this:

    “In a lot of the writings I read about India, there is a constant thread of presenting this as a struggle between rich and poor, left and right, public and private, market fundamentalists and socialists, etc. It’s not. It is an epic struggle between those who benefit from progress and those who benefit from the status quo – and there are characters of both stripes in every quadrant of society irrespective of income, job, or political affiliation. And that’s the beauty of this whole thing – the economic progressives need nothing more than the passage of time in order to win. Because amidst the oppressive tyranny of mediocrity and despair, the blind are the first to see that things have to change.”

    First of all it is a very abrupt ending to your otherwise exciting post. Your idea of an “epic struggle” between those who benefit from progress and those who benefit from the status quo is a novel suggestion, however it is not clarified satisfactorily. Are you implying that the maid of a rich businessman wants “progress” (whatever that may be in your definition) because her status quo is unsatisfactory.

    The last line makes no sense to me whatsoever please clarify that.

    Comment by Abhiroop Basu — July 22, 2007 @ 7:29 pm

  24. Nandan,

    What you are describing isn’t, of course, unique to India, is it? Mumbai, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Cairo, Nairobi…. All over the so-called developing world, the wages of neoliberal globalization have had a similar impact.

    The contradictions are structural ones and not accidental. When I was in Gurgaon recently, I was struck by the image of workers erecting an ultra-modern mega-mall by hauling cement on their heads up wooden scaffolds, in the same way that they had been doing before liberalization began.

    I too have lived in the U.S. for about the same length of time (I came here in 1992), and I too am going through the same push-and-pull of wanting to return, but knowing that the idea of returning is likely much more appealing than the actual experience would be. (That is, of course, compounded for me, as I am a professor of English literature, which essentially means that I would be returning to a job that these days pays for little more than bus fare.)

    I can imagine that the transition isn’t easy. That said, I must say I envy those of you who are able to return. Take heart: I doubt it will be long before you are eating chat at Chowpatty Beach like in the old days and not getting sick! :)

    Comment by LeftyProf — July 25, 2007 @ 4:30 am

  25. I forgot to add that Mike Davis has written an excellent analysis of the convergence of the urban geography of poverty in the major cities of the world: check out Planet of Slums.

    Comment by LeftyProf — July 25, 2007 @ 4:34 am

  26. Hi Nandan,

    The article was good to read and does indeed represent the feelings of most of the people who return to India. However, what i have felt is that the developments one see in India are not the result of any planned policies and vision from any one. The economic liberalisation which we saw in early nineties did not come out long term visions and was more a reaction to the exterme debt situation india found itself in. The government had to go for broke and decided to open up. Even now, we as a country dont seem to have a vision on where we need to be, except of course what our articulate former president brought out some time back.

    Despite of all this, we still see development, yes. And i believe we owe a lot of it to the enterprenuerial spirit of average indian citizens, who have gone ahead and exploited the opportunities availabe in the global market, be it exporting talent , outsourcing of manufacturing/services etc. These things did not happen due to a co-ordinated approach from the government, it was largeley the act of private enterprises who were finally allowed to participate in the global market. And a side result of this has been that the entreprenurial ones have got rich leading to some in-evitable income differences. The ones who dont have access to eductaion have been left behind, and here i agree to your comment “And that’s the beauty of this whole thing – the economic progressives need nothing more than the passage of time in order to win”, which in effect is similar to the trickle down effect.

    The point im trying to make is, when u get down to the street, u will see the co-ordinated approach from the goverment is still missing. There is no nation wide focus on security, public transport, health and hygene, infrastructure etc etc.

    Part of the problem may lie in the way our governance is structured. We have a central government (that too a coalition, comprising of elements who are looking out to get political mileage out of every decision that the government has to make), we have state governemts (who eat up a lof of the central gverment funds and do not seem to be accountable as to how these funds are used), and then we have muncipalities and panchayats who are involved in execution. Often we find that there is a disconnect between the parties ruling at the centre and state and the panchayats, leading to a situation of not having a vision at all, and even if we have one, it ususally ends us as a conflicting one. The fact that 40% of the country does not even vote (who should we vote for? its a choice between devil and deep sea) and that the ones who do vote seem to be making a choice out of factors which are beyond development agenda does not help either. The states who have had enterprenuerial CM’s at the helm have managed to attract investments and jobs (and maybe in the process have helped themselves to some money), but again forgot to plan for infrastructure and other basic facilities, which are now under tremendous stress owing to the development.

    This could be the reasons why one party countries like China and Vietnam seems to be good at, they decide on what the future should look like and take an iron hand approach to execution, which works fine, provided that the vision is not detrimental to basic tenants of humanity.

    Sorry for long comment,but i feel that india is more on a random path of development, rather than a chosen and planned course. Our socities and our governments needs to speed up the “passage of time” which will allow the development to be more broad based and structural, resulting in some more ‘visible’ changes like improved safety/secutirty/law and order, hygiene, infrastructure, public health, education etc.

    Comment by Renjith — July 25, 2007 @ 8:19 am

  27. Its the same story of status quoists vs those wanting change. So far, the west had the renaissance, industrial revolution, WWII, which allowed the forces of change to succeed. On the other hand India is run by a bunch of status quoist, on whom changes are being foisted on.

    Comment by kpr — July 31, 2007 @ 7:39 am

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