How Indian Americans can contribute to India’s development: Impressions from a US trip

What India needs to do is to create an enabling ecosystem to make these scientists and engineers feel welcome and perceive that their work can have a major impact in India. 

Anil K. Rajvanshi Jul 07, 2024
Indians in America

I came to the U.S. after a gap of seven years. Having studied in the U.S. in the early 1970s, I have been coming periodically to this great country for the last 50 years.

The US is endowed with beautiful National Parks. One of the primary reasons of coming to US since last 10-15 years have been to visit my daughter who works and lives in New Jersey and also visit the beautiful National Parks. I and my wife have visited, mostly with my daughter and son-in-law, about 14 National Parks. They are world treasures and worth visit any day. 

This year we visited Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. The sights were amazing and the weather was beautiful with bright sunny days and cool nights.

Besides the National Parks, the US visit allows us to meet our American and Indian friends. Lately we have been meeting mostly our Indian American friends who are of our age group and have been staying in the US for last 40-50 years.

Hearts in India

Talking with them one gets the feeling that their hearts are still in India. One gets a feeling that as they grow older the insecurities of their skin colour and other things become great and their Indianness provides a pillar of psychological support. Most of the Indians I have met in last 20-40 years during my visit have spoken about it.

In 1987 I gave a talk at Mississippi State University (MSU), Meridian Campus. After my talk an elderly Indian American professor came to me, held my hand and started weeping. I was taken aback and started wondering what I had said in my talk to make this professor so emotional.

He had come to the US in mid 1950s, had an American wife and just wanted to tell me that after his death he wants his ashes to be immersed in the Ganga. I was touched by his sentiment. I also guess his young memories and ‘sanskars’  all came back to him when he saw that I had left a lucrative carrier in the US and went back to India.

However, I have also met few middle age Indians who criticize India heavily. I guess they too are attached to India, their families and everything else and their anger that they somehow could not return to India to help it is reflected in their criticism of India.  They always carry that guilt and externalize and rationalize it by criticizing India and justifying why they left it.     

All these things gladden my heart since I see that no Indian losses their feelings for India. Yet none of these Indians want to return to India.  And it is fair enough.  After all they left India to improve their life, have lived an American dream of owning a big house, cars and other creature comforts but their partial unhappiness with life in the U.S. and their longing for India grows as they grow older.

Desire of NRIs to help India

Quite a number of them want to help India but do not know how to do it. So, they are looking for causes where they can contribute financially since providing money is an easy way out. However, I feel a better thing would be to utilize their knowledge. Many of them are doing very well professionally and have produced wonderful inventions and technologies. Thus, their valuable contributions to India can be done by their staying in the U.S. and interacting with organizations in India via internet or physically when they periodically come to India for family and other visits.

During World War II a large number of great scientists and engineers came to the U.S. with nothing else but their knowledge and they created technological revolution in US in large number of fields.  I dream that a similar thing can be done by U.S. Indians.

When they do not find ways to help India, some of them channelize their energies by getting involved in setting up and running temples, gurudwaras, and other religious organizations. I saw a huge Swaminarayan temple, claimed to be one of the biggest such temples in the world,  in New Jersey. The temple is still under construction and will be completed in 2-3 years. There are thousands of volunteers, mostly Gujaratis, who help run the temple and also help in its construction. It is a loves labour and by being attached to the temples, gurudwaras, etc. these volunteers get a feeling of belonging and psychological support. Talking to these volunteers, most of them said that their efforts have doubled because of the BJP rule!

NRIs more religious 

Another peculiar thing I have found is that quite a number of Indians who were not very religious or rarely went to temples, gurudwaras, etc. when they were in India, suddenly find a new love for Indian rituals. So, Diwali, Dusshera, Holi, etc. become a great time to socialize, follow traditions and help bring Indianness into their lives. All these events provide a great pillar of psychological support, reduce loneliness since their extended family and other people support system available in India, is not there.

They cannot think deeply about these issues because of their fears and anxieties in a foreign land. In fact, I have seen otherwise rational people follow some of these rituals blindly and even more than their Indian counterparts in India. Fear makes one do some very funny things!       

These issues have been perennial in all the ancient societies like Chinese, Italians, Jews etc.  The citizens of these societies become even more ritualistic when they come to the U.S. since it provides them with a cultural identity, bonding with their fellow citizens and pillar of psychological support.

The first-generation Indians have these insecurities but most part it is their own making.  They do not mix very much with Americans and mingle only with other Indians for various reasons. I have always felt that when you are secure in the knowledge of your Indianness then you can also be a good American. The security of your values is reflected in understanding other people’s values. Most Indians do not know their own great culture and other higher values of India so go into the shell of rituals and religion.

Classical case of Swami Vivekananda comes to mind.  He taught Americans in late 1890s and early 1900s the great traditions of India’s lofty spiritual thought.  That could only happen because of his supreme confidence in his knowledge of the highest spiritual thought of India which was a celebration of mankind and was not confined to any ism, caste, race, nationality etc. 

This is what I feel India can give to the U.S. and to the world. On this line of thinking I feel that technology guided by spirituality should be the mantra of development of the world. For more than 20 years I have been writing and propagating this theme.   

One would have thought that Indians would try to learn and imbibe the great spiritual thought of India while in US. However, it is very difficult to remain or be spiritualistic in the US. There are too many temptations. Hence an easy way out is adhering to rituals and religion.

The first generations Indians may have certain insecurities but the second-generation ones do not have them but then their parents pressurized them to follow their traditions and rituals regarding language, festivals etc. and these pressures confuse the children.  No wonder they are called ABCD (American born confused desi!)

However, if the parents teach their Indians kids about the history and greatness of those traditions (about which they will have to know themselves first) then the children will be proud to share them with their peers, etc.

How NRIs can help India

There are many places where Indian Americans can contribute to the development of India. They are doing very well in the U.S. in all different fields. Hence U.S. Indians can provide their knowledge in various high-tech industries in India.

However, I feel that providing high-tech knowledge in agriculture field has the ability to impact maximum to the growth of the country.

After all we will eat food, not nuts and bolts or software. Thus, technological innovations to provide reasonably priced wholesome food to poorer Indians is the biggest challenge. Also high tech in agriculture can help double or treble the income of Indian farmers. This will be an even bigger challenge.

The use of Artificial intelligence (AI) in agriculture; the development of small and autonomous machines for small farms; development and use of electric farming machines; developing technologies to produce electricity to power these machines are all great challenges that Indians working on these technologies in the U.S. can help in. 

What India needs to do is to create an enabling ecosystem to make these scientists and engineers feel welcome and perceive that their work can have a major impact in India. We need to copy the American model during the World War II where these foreign scientists were welcomed with open arms and helped US in nuclear development and space exploration.

That will help make Indians truly world citizens where they, while still staying in the U.S., can change 1/5th of mankind.

(The writer, an IIT and US-educated engineer,  a 2022 Padma Shri award winner, is the Director, of Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute, Phaltan, Maharashtra.)    

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