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25 May 2011, Gateway House

What NRIs Can Do for You. No, Really.

A new generation of scholars have made their mark in India through a robust Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship. Many of the Non-Resident Indians part of the program are returning to India to conduct research and act as "catalysts for change".

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The bravest pardeshi scholar currently in India may be Professor Abir Mullick of Atlanta, Georgia, who is spending nine months in Gujarat studying the toilets.

Yes, they stink.  Design-wise, that is.

At a conference earlier this month in Goa, Dr. Mullick, who is temporarily based at his alma mater, the National Insitute of Design in Ahmedabad, shared his research into a “universal design” for public and community bathrooms in India that would be accessible to the disabled and elderly.

In another session, a young economist discussed the financial and governmental reforms required to grow small and midsize enterprises in a district of Tamil Nadu. Meanwhile, a sociologist offered insights into the impact of globalization on gender equity and the environment in Gujarat.  In between all the Powerpoints, there were bharatanatyam and kuchipadi performers, sessions on art and literature and medicine, and the endless buffet tables that are the markers of five-star conferences in India these days.

What was remarkable about the Goa gathering was not only the diversity of its topics but that so many of the researchers present were NRIs.  These American citizens of Indian descent are devoting months to delve into issues of importance to India, and its role in the world, as Fulbright fellows.

Begun as a “cultural ambassador” exchange program in 1956, the Fulbright program has evolved into a massive worldwide scholarship and fellowship enterprise, providing prestige, financial support, and a global network of contacts to some 8,000 Americans per year, who travel to 150 countries.

But it is in India that the most remarkable transformation is currently taking place.  Thanks to new investment by the Indian government, the name of the program here has changed to the Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship.  The number of awardees coming from the U.S. has more than tripled:  In 2008, 46 U.S. fellows came to India; this fall, 150 Fulbrighters will arrive.  (Another 150 Indians will travel to the United States to research and lecture.)

At the program’s onset, almost all of the Fulbright recipients were white Americans for whom India represented an exotic cultural experience.  Today, a significant portion of the Fulbrighters in India are NRIS.  In the Senior Scholar category, one of the largest, NRIs make up 40% of fellows this year.  This is a sea change for a program that began with, and still sees its core mission as, promoting mutual understanding between different cultures.  Around the world, most Fulbrighters arrive at their host institutions with no prior in-country experience.

For the NRIs, though, it is cultural familiarity that allows the real work to take place.  Dr. Rajiv C. Gandhi, a Visiting Lecturer from New Jersey, came to Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute in Mumbai to lecture on algorithms.  But his real mission, and the reason he did not choose to be placed at a more prestigious institution like an IIT, was to encourage computer science students from his alma mater to apply to PhD programs in the United States.  Traditionally, computer science students outside the IITs take jobs or settle for master’s degrees.  In his first few months in Mumbai, using the same intensive mentoring and enrichment techniques he developed for his American students, he has already been successful; one student has been accepted to a U.S. doctoral program, and several others are applying.

“Now I don’t have to push much more, because the junior Indian students will always ask their senior for advice,” he said. “It definitely helps being an NRI. You know how the system works already.”

So far, this trend has been more a happy accident than a conscious shift in priorities.  NRIs, perhaps more familiar with India and with a wider network of contacts than their non-Indian peers, are writing strong applications and proposing projects that are compelling and innovative.  Not only Fulbright but numerous other programs pay to send scholars to India; more and more recipients across the board these days are young NRIS using a research project as an opportunity to live in India, or older NRIs wanting to come “home” for a period of time.  Once here,  their heritage, including even limited language skills, and prior experiences in India equips them to be quicker and more effective in conducting short-term projects.

Unlike the stereotypical NRIS of the past, who come only to attend weddings and stuff their suitcases with Fab India goods, these scholars are not only reconnecting culturally; they are bringing professionalism and global standards of scholarship to the institutions and disciplines they touch.  If organized, they could be part of creating an intellectual base for India, to parallel the country’s rapid economic growth.

Yet India has no systematic way to benefit from this outpouring of research and scholarship.  The NRI experts may attend a few conferences and give lectures while here, but eventually they go home, publish their papers and, for the most part—without sustainable sources of funding in India—return to their American careers.  It is the institutions overseas, not the Indians, who benefit from much of this work.

It seems unlikely that longterm funding, which barely exists for high-quality Indian research, will suddenly become available for NRIs.  Instead, what is needed are a set of systems and priorities for sharing best practices and useful research.  Foreign scholars might, for example:

• help their peers in Indian universities improve their writing and thus gain access to international journals;

• have input into current best practices for a particular department or discipline;

• advise students on how to not only survive their degrees, but to build world-class academic careers here in India that can compete on a global stage; and

• enlist help to publish or present their own work in thoughtful Indian forums, bringing it into dialogue with the work of Indian scholars in similar fields.

Such exchanges would, of course, strengthen the foreigners’ scholarship and enrich their experiences as well.  Veterans of U.S.-India cultural relations joke that at one time, the only research allowed in India was whether the statues at a particular temple in a particular century faced left or right, and what that might mean.

To the Indian government’s credit, permissions are being given now for a much wider array of topics.  Feminism, development issues, critiques of the tourist industry, social disparities, and the mixed impacts of economic growth itself: Today, all are on the research agenda.

It is time for NRIs to enter the field of cultural exchange and ambassadorship more fully, not just as visitors or cultural mediators, but as catalysts for change.

Minal Hajratwala (www.minalhajratwala.com) is a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Scholar based in Mumbai and the author of Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents, the only narrative nonfiction history of India’s diaspora.

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