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Managing expats: A booming business

February 20, 2008 08:38 IST

Recently, a Japanese family living on the outskirts of Chennai was seen stacking a large number of drinking water bottles outside its farmhouse.

Perplexed neighbours called the agency that had helped the Japanese move in. As it turned out, the expatriates were using packaged or bottled water for everything, including the less-demanding chores.

Asked, the head of the family complained that the taps in the bungalow were always dry. He was then told that the water pump had to be switched on at least once a day to get water through the taps.

Such incidents involving expatriates are neither uncommon nor isolated. With more and more foreigners moving to India to work with companies, the social and cultural challenges faced by them have thrown up a significant business opportunity here.

Initially, the service providers offered only limited assistance -- they advised on travel or helped in finding accommodation. However, Chennai-based Global Adjustments saw a greater opportunity in the business and started offering end-to-end service solutions to expatriates.

Today, the company makes life easier for some 350 expatriate families every year. For all the diversity and culture shock India can offer, GA's business model is fairly simple and is captured in its tagline: easing your passage to and from India.

The first service GA offers to its clientele is an induction programme that provides a glimpse of India. This includes moving around the city and classroom sessions that initiate the expats into the Indian way of life.

GA also offers a host of other services like finding a place to live in. Given the "dollar income" the expats manage to earn in India, monthly rentals that meet their needs start at six digits.

Rajeshwar Balasundaram, the chief operating officer of GA, says there are always three or four housemaids waiting at his office reception to be interviewed.

These are mostly people who can cook international cuisines that can satiate the expatriate taste buds. "They also know that their salary will be many times what they can expect from Indian families."

On their part, among other things, the traffic comes as a major shock to most expats. Mats Larsson, director with Sony Ericsson, who availed of GA's services when he moved to India, says, "Chennai is very different from Sweden, where we live in a town with a population of 300,000. The biggest difference that hits you is the traffic, the number of people everywhere and the dirt. It is hard to walk around the city."

He says that the European cities, even the bigger ones, can be discovered on foot -- something that's not possible in Chennai.

Mike Eliseou, a director with the footwear component maker Texon India, agrees. "Traffic is a big shock at first. It used to take five hours to travel between Chennai and Ranipet in an Ambassador. But now it takes two and half hours. So things are changing."

Unlike Larsson, who has been in India for only six months, Eliseou, 63, has been visiting India since 1983 and living here for eight years. He says India has kept his passion for photography alive and he loves Indian food.

A chart hanging in the Chennai office of Global Adjustments depicts the circle of life beginning with Kautuka/Bhayanaka (curiosity/fear), moving on to Adbutam/Hasyam (wonder/myth) and four other stages before ending with Karunam (sorrow). The stints of expatriates in India, says Balasundaram, have the same end.

S Kalyana Ramanathan