Immigrant Bengalis

India and Information Technology
Basab Dasgupta

When I was a child in elementary school we had to recite a poem "bolo bolo sabe shoto bina benu robe, Bharat abar jagat sabhaye shreshthaasan lobe......" by Atul Prasad Sen.  During my teenage years and even well after that I always chuckled whenever I remembered that opening line. As I thought of all the problems India faced – poverty, pollution, violence, crimes and corruption, not to mention the wretched condition of the infrastructure -- it seemed absurd that India would someday take the best seat on the world stage; but as Hindu holy men have said for centuries, life goes in cycles. India is not quite situated at the top of the class right now, but she has made a dramatic turnaround in the past twenty-odd years as far as the country's economy, prosperity and recognition of her importance in the world are concerned. The key to this transformation has been the dominance of Indians in Information Technology or "IT". The world itself has changed. We no longer exchange and use information solely by conventional means such as phone calls and mails; it is now largely done by electronic means using the ever expanding application of various mind-boggling technologies. Whether it is the bank transactions, health insurance databases, employee records at workplaces, airplane reservations and even social media, one needs to rely on computers. Computer hardware was, of course, introduced decades ago by technology giants like IBM and Apple, but they were mainly used by scientists and engineers. It was only when the software developers started to make "user-friendly" applications and invented the "Internet" that the world exploded into a new age!

Although I do not consider myself a racist, I do believe that people of each race have certain unique traits that have evolved over decades, if not centuries, and been influenced by their genetic structure, cultural practices, environment as well as history of evolution. Indians are clearly very analytical and strong with numbers, but at the same time they shy away from hands-on efforts and are not very good with equipment. This has traditionally led the Indians, especially in this country, to careers like teachers and professors, scientists, doctors, consultants, accountants etc., as opposed to business entrepreneurs, manufacturers and land developers where big money is made. I attribute this latter aspect to our educational system which emphasizes book learning and theoretical understanding which, in turn, is the by-product of our poor economy. Our schools could not afford fancy laboratory equipment and most of us did not have cars or stereo amplifiers that we could tinker with for initiating that "hands on" interest.

The challenge of software development, modification and maintenance provided a perfect niche for the Indians. There was no need any more to spend big money on various sophisticated equipment to train the technical people; all one needed was a laptop computer. To their advantage, these computers became more powerful and less expensive every year. The combination of easy availability of computers and the analytical minds of Indians constituted a match made in heaven for the emergence of the "new India".

Coincidentally, the demand for IT people in USA started to increase exponentially in the late nineties, and the technology companies realized quickly that USA did not have the capacity to provide all the talents; the answer lay in recruiting Indian and Chinese engineers. There was the added bonus that they were willing to work for a lower salary than their American counterparts. The US Government increased the quota of H-1B visas to pave the way for an unprecedented influx of Indian engineers into the country. However, the very nature of these visas required that they needed to return to India after a certain number of years. The larger tech companies all established facilities in India, and many engineers could travel back and forth between the US and Indian locations of these companies.

All the software giants including Oracle, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo as well as virtually all other major companies that needed IT professionals employed massive numbers of Indians. Some smaller US businesses relied on Indian companies like Infosys to provide Indian engineers to work in US on a contract basis while maintaining their status as Infosys employees.

This phenomenon has resulted in wide-spread social and political consequences, both in India and in USA. First, let us discuss the positive impacts on India. All such engineers transferred most of their savings in US dollars back to India which resulted in an increase in their living standards back home and contributed to a boost in the domestic Indian economy; this included their purchase of residential flats, cars and various appliances and TVs. The Indian government's decision in the early nineties to open the country’s domestic market to world trade facilitated this transformation, and people belonging to the middle and upper middle classes started to see a significant increase in their wealth. Foreign travel became very common, not only for the immediate families of these engineers but their other relatives also. The availability of IT jobs in USA and/or India prompted the establishment of a large number of educational institutes specializing in curricula customized to such careers. The IT trained graduates found job opportunities not only in USA, but also in other advanced countries like Australia, Canada, Singapore, UK etc. The new-found affluence has resulted in a definite shift in the mindset of younger Indians towards materialism and capitalism, for better or for worse. Success of IT professionals abroad encouraged the start-up of domestic companies and the development of new computer-related technologies in their own country. For example, it is remarkable how cell phone use has become so universal and affordable in India. This new way of empowered thinking and emphasis on technology among the young people have definitely contributed to the popularity of BJP and the election of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India.

The US technology companies have, of course, benefited tremendously -- not just from "using" the Indian professionals as some type of "cheap labor", but also allowing them to manage and lead their product innovations. In addition to the Indian engineers on temporary visas, there is a large number of Indians who have green cards or citizenship, which they obtained on their own or with the sponsorship from their US employers. Many of them succeeded in climbing up the corporate ladder. It is a testament to the ingenuity of these engineers that the CEOs of both Microsoft and Google (Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai, respectively) are of Indian origin, and they are both first generation Indians with their educational base built primarily in India! Mr. Nadella has already taken Microsoft on a very positive path with the introduction of products such as "Windows 10" and "Surface". In addition, many of the major divisions of virtually all Silicon Valley companies are headed by Indian immigrants. I even told one of my friends in a half-joking way that it is good that Indians are peace-loving people; otherwise all these Indians at major high tech companies could get together and conspire to take this country down

The large-scale presence of Indians in the US, although not entirely because of the spread of IT, has resulted in a substantial increase in Indian influence on the overall population. There is an Indian restaurant in almost every neighborhood of any big American city. Bollywood style outfits and music are finding wider acceptance. Actors and actresses of Indian origin are relatively common in TV shows and even movies these days. Even the TV characters played by Indians focus on their technical strength. The lT engineers have opened the eyes of the American high tech companies to the potential analytical strengths of immigrant Indian engineers, and made it easier for them to get jobs in areas other than lT, such as telecommunication, semiconductors and hardware design in all electronic industries.

Is there a negative side to all these changes? Of course, a widening gap in India between the "haves" of IT and "have nots" can certainly be a concern although it seems that a "trickle down" economic theory is working in improving living conditions at all levels, and most Indians are probably satisfied enough not to express any widespread discontent.

One problem that I see in the US is that the IT engineers on temporary visas have created a new "class" among the Indians in this country: They seem to feel and behave as if they are neither here nor there. Unlike earlier Indian immigrants like myself, they have not embraced USA as their country simply because it is not their country – and probably they cannot become US citizens for one reason or another. As a result, they make little effort to assimilate themselves into the American  society. For example, they tend to live in their own world of Bollywood movies, Indian food, cultural practices and conversation in their native tongues. Moreover, they tend to socialize only with people who are in the same boat. I don’t know about other Indians, but one can easily detect the IT Bengalis in any social gathering by their mannerism which may even be described as "unfriendly" by American standard. They seem to avoid Bengali cultural activities and religious festivities (except when the programs involve some recent celebrities from India). Secondly, since they view USA and the companies providing their employment only as a source of financial affluence, their entire thought process might be centered on money. They may feel totally oblivious to the political and social issues in USA because they know they can go back to India any time.

There is also a subtler reason for their indifference and self-imposed isolation. Unlike the first-generation immigrants, the "IT crowd" enjoys the conveniences of Internet, Skype, Indian TV channels, cheap phone calls, cheap airfare etc. and do not feel that they have to live their lives in this country any differently from how they live back in India.

I worry that the average Americans who may not know the difference between the "IT Indians" and the traditional Indian immigrants might end up putting all of us in the same class and categorizing us as "rude, unfriendly, snobbish and apathetic" people, and perhaps even develop some animosity towards us.

As someone who identifies himself as an American, I also have another perspective about employing all these IT Indians. I do not completely believe that the technology companies are hiring them because there are not enough similarly educated or trained American professionals available. While there is certainly some truth to that claim, I also think that American companies are saving tons of money by deliberately not making the effort to hire qualified Americans. What is helping them to justify this practice is the fact that Americans who grow up in the Midwest or the Southeast apparently have an inherent aversion to moving to places like California or Washington on the West Coast. The highly liberal images of these states are partly to blame.  However, the high tech companies in the US have made no significant effort to go beyond the traditional recruitment practices to first seek out and exhaust the supply of domestic engineers before jumping on the bandwagon of offshore recruitment.

To make my point, let us consider a scenario whereby a company like Microsoft establishes a new facility in some part of Illinois and a training center associated with it with a name like "Microsoft University". The curriculum at this university can be geared towards various career paths at Microsoft but can be developed in collaboration with the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago -- two of the best schools in the nation. I would bet that such a university would draw all kinds of very bright students from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, etc. who can probably fulfill Microsoft's need for technical talent for years to come.

This line of thinking may also play a role in the US political arena. As the 2016 presidential race heats up, immigration has become a key campaign issue. Although it centers mainly on illegal immigration from Mexico, there has been a debate about the merit of increasing the quota of H-1B visas to help the high tech companies, because this move is not seen by many as conducive to job growth in USA. Even Obama has recently proposed a $4 billion investment to increase education in computer science in USA.

I cannot predict what the future holds, but I know this much. This IT revolution has been a game changer as far as India's position in the world is concerned, and I do not see anyone or any event to stop India from getting to that best seat in the center stage.

NOTE: The author wishes to thank Debajyoti Chatterji for useful comments and suggestions.

(Posted April 1, 2016)

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Comments received from Alok C. on April 2, 2016:

"Basab Dasgupta has discussed several points about the issue of the people who are working in the US as part of the outsourcing phenomenon. 

H1B visa has provided great opportunities to the younger generations in India that were totally absent in our time. So our experience as immigrants has been quite different from the H1B visa holders. Dasgupta has discussed in some details the effect of such differences. 

I am sure that there is some level of alienation among these people, and when they return to India, they may not be the best proponents of the US.  

Satya Nadela and Pitchai notwithstanding, most of the IT-related jobs don't require great skills that the employers like you to believe. The corporations are using the Indian labor as the cost is low and the companies will save greatly in wages and benefits costs. In the current electoral debates this issue has been raised. 

There is a greater danger on the side of India. There is much complacency in India that we have world-class IT companies. But my own studies have shown that unlike China, Indian companies are far behind the curve in building intellectual capital that would provide sustainable competitive advantage. India is simply taking advantage  of labor arbitrage.  Indian companies and the government have to think about  longer term strategy for sustainable development."

Author's reply:

"I appreciate the feedback. I would like to add one other related thought. From what I am seeing among my Indian friends, the second generation Indian children are not too eager to get into the Science, Math, Engineering and Technology subjects in their professional career. They are preferring medical field, business, economics etc. On the other hand, the Chinese second generation (based on my tutoring experience) are fiercely into these areas, backed by their "tiger moms". So I do believe that the Chinese have an edge over the Indians in our next generation in being able to control the Silicon Valley! I cannot comment what is going on in India or how easy these IT jobs are."

Comments received from Rahul R. on April 4, 2016:
"I read the article with much interest. ...  Mr. Dasgupta has aptly identified the role IT professionals are playing in changing the scenario both here and in India.  I actually wrote about the apathy of these IT people towards 'immigrant experience' of people like us in a Bengali article published during one of the Banga Sanmelans.  I fully agree with Mr. Dasgupta on this.  However, I would like extend his take a little farther in terms of its effect in India. Can the current political turmoil be linked to this 'me generation' IT people?  Is their wealth expanding the difference between have-nots and have-gots?  If that is true, a social and political upheaval is sure to follow.  India is already reeling under relentless Maoist anarchy, despite all efforts to put it down.  With enhanced wealth gap such movements will be fueled beyond recognition. 

In this country there is a strong anti-immigrant feeling (fed by Trump and like).  Indian IT professionals are spared at this point.  But, will it be long before they are also drawn into the circle of fire.  It would be a whole lot more interesting if Mr. Dasgupta addresses these issues, may be in another article."