A new rule regarding employment visas was implemented on November 1, 2010. It stipulated that any foreign national who wishes to attain an employment visa to work in India must be paid a salary of no less than US$25,000 – approximately Rs 1,100,000 at today's exchange rate.
With one stroke of a lawmaker's pen, my personal living situation was invalidated and corralled towards an abrupt and premature end. Upon my current visa's expiry date – July 6, 2011 - I will be required to quit my job and quit India. It will bring to a close three years of nurturing friendships, community bonds and a professional reputation. It will end my ongoing study in cross-cultural understanding that has taught me a great deal about what it means to be white and what it means to be Indian. In short, I still want India, but it no longer wants me.
I propose that this law change was driven by three governmental goals. One, to ensure that only skilled and qualified foreign nationals come to India to work and, more to the point, to prevent unskilled workers from entering. Two, to set aside all lower-paid jobs for Indian nationals in a bid to boost employment rates. Three, to benefit from the added national security such a rule imposes, in line with recent Indian immigration policy (see also the India tourist visa rule changes of January 1, 2010).
Let me try to address those three points quickly. In India, a salary of Rs 11 lakh p/a is high if you live in a large city and astronomical in provinical areas. Such salaries are generally confined to IT-sector jobs or management roles. As such, far from imposing a reasonable floor that will discourage low-level immigrants from coming and taking jobs that should rightly be filled by the aam aadmi, the rule limits employment visas to only elite and highly qualified workers (who, incidentally, could probably make the same money anywhere and thus aren't likely to stay long).
As for the notion of added security, a negligible percentage of foreigners who enter India do so with the intent of causing terror, and if a terrorist wants to enter India they will likely find a way to do so, strict visa regulations or not.
Assuming that the above reasons are the basis for the rule, it would appear as though the Indian government assumes that money is the sole purpose of employment, and possibly the sole purpose of breathing in and out. Those who come to India to work will supposedly only do so if it offers a positive financial opportunity (putting aside all the non-monetary attractions that this vast, varied nation offers). The extra taxes won't hurt the nation's coffers, either, even if they'll barely make a dent in India's trillions of dollars of national debt.
Money isn't everything, though.
Medical transcription admittedly isn't the most glamorous (or high-paying) industry. Still, I didn't come to India from Japan for the money or the prestige. I hoped to experience a culture outside my comfort zone, learning from and hopefully contributing to it whilst living and working within it. To my pleasant surprise, I've also discovered much about the world directly through the work I've done for two and a half years. My employers, for their part, took a chance on me and got a worker who learned the trade quickly and offered native speaker expertise that they couldn't really get from anyone else. I've been told that I contribute unique value to the company.
So, rather than investing in an exponentially better financial future for myself, I have made an emotional investment in Kerala, and in India - and I have reaped so much from it. My purpose in coming here, which I half expected to crash and burn within weeks, brought me untold riches. I've forged new connections with wonderful people both in person and, once I caught on, through Twitter. If that weren't enough, I've developed a set of new connections and knowledge in my brain that will inform the way I live far into the future. On top of it all, being in India – far from sending me back into the dark ages – actually led me to this platform with The NRI from which I could communicate and share with thousands more people than I might have otherwise.
Then there's the life I've made in the Varkala community, a small seaside town not given to welcoming or trusting outsiders for longer than a tourist-sized stay. It's taken a lot of time and effort, with attendance at an untold number of kids' birthday parties, weddings and funerals (which, thankfully, I never seem to get sick of). I believe that my presence in the neighbourhood is enriching not only to myself but also to those around me, and I try to live with an awareness of the ambassadorial responsibility that comes with living in a society which is both very foreign to me and in which I am an outsider representative of far-off lands.
Overall, the return on my emotional investment has been staggering. But that emotional investment, and the cultural capital I have accrued through these years of interaction, has wound up as collateral damage in an ill-defined war against forces that have very little to do with me. (There have been rumblings online that the ruling might be geared towards discouraging the influx of Chinese businesses and cheap Chinese labour. If that's the case, the war has absolutely nothing to do with me.)
As Incredible India forges ahead with its globalisation agenda through colourful tourism advertisements and increasingly high-stakes multinational corporate ventures, it seems that the government sees only the financial benefits of globalisation. The idea of a global community, in which people from different cultures understand each other better and work to communicate more effectively, is to my mind the human value that underpins the whole globalisation concept. It's sad, then, that with legislation like the 25k rule, India is effectively making the statement that the only foreigners they want to talk to are those that bring money. The idea of a culturally globalised India, one which better understands foreign perspectives and which is in turn better understood by outsiders, appears not to be a priority.
As the world turns and India (along with the other major developing nations Brazil, Russia and China) occupies a larger role in the global politics, its leaders, potentially on the cusp of a new age of prosperity, can choose to give that prosperity a global context by including outsiders in its cultural development. An intensive focus on finances, as demonstrated by the 25k rule, will insulate India from other cultures and necessitate the building up of a culture so strong that it can stand virtually apart from the rest of the world, influencing many and influenced by few, much as the United States has done for the past century. I struggle to see how that would work long-term, given India's present reliance on more affluent nations and its growing national debt. It might create an economic bubble, but not a lasting foundation for long-term economic success.
That foundation can, I believe, only be laid with a holistic approach. If you ignore an outsider's perspectives and insights and instead aim solely for their pockets, you disregard not only their multifaceted value as a human being but also your own. You betray yourself as single-minded. If, on the other hand, you keep an open mind when dealing with an outsider and allow yourself to consider all that they can offer, you both become considerably more appealing to them and have a better chance of creating a lasting connection, financial or otherwise.
Recently, I went on a day-long houseboat tour with a group of friends from work. We sailed around Akathumuri backwaters telling jokes, singing songs and sharing stories. Ultimately, I am an anomaly and my impact on the culture and society of Kerala and India isn't nearly as great as its impact on me. But on that day, and on many other days like it over the past two years, I truly felt like I belonged. It was a pure and unconscious cultural exchange in which no conditions were set and, in spite of varied skin colours, religions and languages, no individual was set apart from the rest. If I am unable to return to India, it is those days with cherished friends that I will miss the most. Such days are worth so much more than $25,000.