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Obama win and BPOs: Can we talk of self-respect?

November 08, 2008 12:28 IST

The headline 'Will Obama take away Indian jobs?' made me cringe. Not because I question the epochal breakthrough of America's 44th presidency, but because it doesn't seem to me that outsourcing earnings are anything to be especially proud of.

I would place remittances from abroad and H1-B visas in the same category.

Even George W Bush's frequent pledges to help India achieve what he called its ambition to be a world power seemed to me to impinge on national self-respect.

If this seems ungracious, pause for a moment to consider reversed roles. Think of the US asking India for an assurance that we will throw piece-rate jobs in the way of Americans at home.

Would Germany seek India's promise of visas to German workers? Or Manmohan Singh encourage Barack Hussein Obama with a paternalistic pat on the back that India will help him to realise his aspirations?

Undoubtedly, India would be hard hit if both sources of jobs and revenue were cut off.

But if last year's $27 billion overseas remittances led the world, it only means that Indians take up jobs abroad that no one else -- certainly not the host countries' natives -- will deign to do.

About 40 per cent of the $27 billion came from 'unskilled and semi-skilled' workers in West Asia.

Those who have seen the encampments in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and elsewhere where these labourers live in the scorching heat, witnessed the long and tiring shifts they endure and read of the protests that erupt from time to time and are quickly suppressed know this is blood money.

The 4.5 million Malayalis, Tamils, Telugus and Punjabis in West Asia are not potential migrants. Those sheikhdoms do not bestow citizenship on foreigners whom they employ for short periods at a time and keep at arm's length while they are in the Gulf.

Holders of H1-B visas, introduced under the 1990 Immigration Act specifically to import specialists in the hi-tech industries for short periods, are a little higher up the social ladder but are not qualitatively different.

If Obama concedes the Indian hope of the cap of 65,000 being raised, it will be only because the US needs more cheap, short-term experts, not because young middle class India yearns for the American Dream. Bill Clinton announced 115,000 H1-B visas in 1998 with the stipulation of reversion to the old number after 2001.

But the shortage of skills forced him in 2000 to set a 195,000 target over three years to Indian jubilation.

Recipients knew the visas were non-immigrant and transitional, but that did not prevent heartbreak when the time came to return for those whom Norman Matloff, professor of computer science at California University, called 'indentured servants'.

It gave me no joy to read a New York Times story on that trauma headlined, 'Thanks for Coming, Now Go'.

Matloff wrote in the Washington Post that new economy firms 'seem to be awfully fond of the old economy of 200 years ago -- when indentured servitude was in vogue.'

The remote service industry is a rung lower, employing those who couldn't make it to the US and have to disguise their identities with phoney American accents and false Anglo-Saxon names to serve callers from all over the world.

Yes, I know that 43 per cent of Tata Consultancy Services' earnings come from outsourcing, the figures for Infosys and Wipro being 34 per cent and 24.5 per cent respectively. But I am not writing about corporate profits.

I am writing about human dignity, the equality of man and national self-respect. An article in the International Herald Tribune wrote: 'Full of English-speaking graduates who are desperate for work, India is rapidly becoming a magnet for service jobs ranging from the mundane to the cutting-edge.'

It quoted a McKinsey consultant in New Delhi saying, "There is no reason some guy in the US should be sitting in a warehouse keypunching data for $25 an hour when you can pay someone here to do it for much less."

That doesn't say much about India Shining.

I am enthused by the new dawn that Obama's historic achievement promises the US and the world. I wish 2.6 million Indian-Americans full joy of contributing $30 million (5 per cent of the total though they comprise only 0.9 per cent of the population) to his campaign fund.

But for Indians and India, just the dribs and drabs that fall to the lot of minnows swimming in the wake of a shark cannot compensate for a completed economic revolution at home.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray