Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Indian Americans - Ambassadors of Hope

Consul General Katherine Dhanani distributing loans to beneficiaries of a local bank 
Since I arrived in Hyderabad, I’ve been amazed by the number of Indian-Americans I’ve met and by the tremendous contributions they’re making.  They tend to describe their own odyssey humbly, suggesting that now that India is transformed, it’s natural that they would bring back and invest in their birthplace the rewards they accumulated during decades in the U.S.  But that greatly understates their accomplishments.  It’s not easy to make a living in the U.S., and even harder in one generation to save a substantial amount.  And the investments they are making in India are certainly not passive, secure or easy.  Many of them have created companies from scratch that now employ thousands.  The same ingenuity and entrepreneurial intelligence that helped them succeed in the United States is at work here in India.  I greatly respect their undertakings.
During my visit to Vijayawada I got an up-close look at two undertakings where Indian-Americans are investing with a philanthropic side, supporting the communities from which they came—and which may end up proving to be good investments as well.  One involved a shareholder’s insistence that the local bank he chaired should make microfinance loans at low interest rates.  I blogged about the results of that for the borrowers last week; it has also turned out to be a good, though modest, business for the bank. The second is the NRI Medical College and Hospital. Some thirty Indian-American doctors from the Vijayawada area each contributed a million U.S. dollars to establish this new institution.  It is now providing top notch medical education for students and low cost state-of-the-art medical care for villages outside Guntur. 
I’m proud that my fellow Americans are remembering their roots and changing the lives of so many Indians.  I’d like to think their actions reflect what they learned in the United States but I know that their Indian roots have influenced them just as much.  Whatever has influenced these philanthropic individuals, both India and the United States have benefitted. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Challenge of Inclusive Growth

During my recent visit to Vijayawada I was struck by how beautiful and prosperous the city seemed, despite serious crop losses following the late and heavy rains last year. During my visit to self help groups (SHGs) on Thursday I found out why Vijayawada had triumphed: a lot of hard work.

Interacting with weavers from Atmakur. 
I met groups of women who had borrowed micro loans (between Rs 8,000 and Rs 15,000) from Costal Local Area Bank. (Coastal lends directly to the SHGs and is able to charge just 13 per cent, much less than the micro finance institutions.) Some of the women used the loans to buy buffalos, some for tailoring supplies and a few others to open small shops including a telephone. But they all had one thing in common, they worked long hours every day to build a better life for themselves and their families.

In the village of Atmakur, weavers showed me how they made the beautiful silk and cotton sarees for which the region is famous. I even had a chance to sit behind a loom and try to add a row of thread myself.  Its clear that this is hard, physical labor and I could not imagine how tiring it would be during summer, when the temperature rises as high as 49 degrees. But the weavers were proud of their artistry and independence. Their self help groups had given them pricing power and they had forced buyers to increase what they paid significantly. I can’t wait to have the cloth I bought made up, and I will think about the loom at which I sat and the women I met when I wear this cloth.

The older women I met spoke proudly of their children and many younger women said their earnings were dedicated to educating their sons and daughters. There were mother of several engineers, an MBA graduate and numerous IT workers among the women I met.  In one village, I met a daughter who was visiting her family.  She was employed by a major bank (I didn’t have time to ask her about her employer’s microfinance activities.)

Interacting with women from Self Help Groups

I feel as though the one day I spent in Vijayawada area gave me a greatly improved understanding of how the less privileged are dedicating their energy and initiatives to improve the lives of the next generation. This helps build my confidence that India can meet the challenge of inclusive growth.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Orissa Calling

A diplomat’s life is not just a series of meetings and weighty discussions, as my first visit to Bhubaneswar demonstrated. I went to Bhubaneswar to introduce myself and to begin to learn about Orissa—now included in our Hyderabad consular district. I had a number of meetings with state government officials and NGOs that were very useful and informative. The most energizing elements of the trip, however, were three opportunities for exchanges with young people.

 The first was at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) where I had a chance to interact with students participating in the English Access Microscholarship Program the U.S Government supports. I was very impressed with how much English they had learned – one even told a joke in English, something I have a hard time doing myself. The teenagers asked me about a wide variety of subjects, including the differences between the U.S. and India, what they could do after learning English and about U.S. culture and traditions.

The visit to KISS was also a memorable visit because I addressed the assembled student body – some 12,000 children from tribal communities throughout Orissa. I have never spoken to such a large audience before. Even if most of them didn’t understand my words, they responded enthusiastically when I told them that just as President Obama broke barriers by becoming President of the United States, I was sure that the day would come when a tribal would become President of India.

Later in the day we visited a children’s library run by the NGO Bakul Foundation. Bakul is entirely staffed by volunteers, mostly students, who sat down to chat with me about volunteering, careers and how their generation has the confidence to try new things, adopt new lifestyles and embrace change.

My third interaction with young people was at Xaiver Institute of Management, where I shared some thoughts on the transformation in U.S.-India relations. The questions the students asked showed how their education at a Jesuit business school has broadened their minds.  Their interests ranged from global human rights principles to civil nuclear cooperation to outsourcing.

When I conclude an encounter with young people, I come away invigorated. So while by the calendar I aged three days during my visit to Bhubaneswar, I feel as though I came back years younger.