Book Review

Dissecting the Indian-American diaspora

The book is colossal in its effort to understand Indians in America beyond Rajat Gupta, Indira Nooyi

Book Review

Praveen Chakravarty
January 11, 2017

Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, an annual event to showcase and celebrate the success of Indians living in foreign nations. The prime minister said “there is a new energy, keen desire and strong drive among Indian diaspora to connect more extensively and deeply with India’s social and economic transformation”. This need and desire to engage more deeply with the Indian diaspora has been echoed for the past 14 years at this event.

There are 30 million non-resident Indians (NRI) and they send nearly $60 billion a year in the form of remittances. Of this, nearly a third of NRIs live in West Asian region and they account for half of the annual remittances. Some 3.3 million NRIs live in the United States (US) and sent $11 billion in 2015 to India. Surely, India’s relationship with her foreign residents should go beyond merely the amount of money they send home every year? Do we know enough about this fraternity of overseas Indians in order to strengthen our bonds? Who are these 30 million NRIs, what lives do they lead, how many are actually born in India, what kind of status do they enjoy in their resident nation and a host of other such questions should be of interest. Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh have made a scholarly attempt at answering these questions about the 3.3 million Indians living in the US.

Sixty per cent of the 3.3 million Indians in America were actually born in India. These India-born Americans are far better educated than America-born Indians. They earn nearly twice as much as other foreign-born residents in the US. Bengali and Telugu speaking Indian-Americans are the most educated but Gujarati and Marathi speaking Indian-American families earn more. Every third Malayali adult in the US is in the medical profession while every fifth Bengali-American adult is in the field of education. The Gujaratis in the US are the most organised group while the Punjabis are the least. While Indian-Americans make a tiny fraction of the overall voting population of the US, two-thirds of adult Indian-Americans go out and cast their vote. This is twice as much as the percentage of urban, elite Indians in big cities, such as Mumbai and Bangalore, who take time off to vote in elections. Not just that, Indian-Americans also donated $20 million to candidates in the 2012 US Presidential elections.

The book is a treasure trove of such delightful insights. It overflows with data, charts and tables. It is very evident that the authors have painstakingly collated, cleaned and presented vast amounts of raw data from official sources in an organised manner. It is an outstanding compilation in 290 pages of seven chapters, with more than 80 figures and tables of data, charts and maps. It is encyclopedic in the study of 3.3 million Indians in the US. While there have been many books on the success stories of Indians in America, there have been few past attempts to understand the entire fraternity through a sociological, economic and political prism. This book fills that void beautifully.

All this also makes the book quite dense and heavy. All the sample insights and takeaways that I have outlined above were gleaned by poring over multiple charts and tables. They are not readily available, say, in a box. The book is certainly not for the casual reader interested in stories about NRIs in America. It is also unclear if the book will be readily useful for policymakers in the Ministry of External Affairs, given its volume and density. At a time when America is getting ready to usher in a new President and an Indian prime minister who seems keen on leveraging the strength of NRIs to foster a deeper relationship with the US, this book could have served as an excellent tool for policy ideas. In the authors’ laudable attempts to be thorough and meticulous in their output, perhaps the book alienates a section of readers that is not used to academic reading. This is ironic since the book does a wonderful job of documenting data and narratives of NRI entrepreneurs and their networks, which could have been of immense value for a stronger US-India relationship catalysed by investment flows.

Overall, the book is colossal in its effort to understand Indians in America beyond Rajat Gupta, Indira Nooyi, Neel Kashkari, Sundar Pichai and their ilk. It traverses the entire chain from the origins of Indian-Americans to their education, business, political, marital and other social behaviours. It is a must-read for scholars studying Indian migration to the US. I also fervently hope it will be read by policymakers tasked with strengthening the India-US relationship.

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