The Non Resident Indian

[This post is by no means a criticism on the NRI community. Like you see in life, you meet all kinds of people and one cannot just generalize.

There are NRIs who are positively engaged with situation in India and do a considerable work to help the country while living outside. Kudos to them. But then such individuals are not really many and most NRIs behave in a way that I have narrated in this “story”.

So here it goes… ]


The NRI was in anguish when I met him at an International Conference on Waste Management. We met in the coffee break.

“Are you from India?” he asked me – taking a good look.

“Yes, I am” I answered. I was aware that sometimes its hard to distinguish between an Indian, a Sri Lankan and a Pakistani.

“Why are you attending this conference my friend?” The NRI quipped. “There is simply no use attending. It is a sheer waste of time and resources”

I was stunned with his remarks as he was a participant himself.

He continued.

“Indians have to first learn how to segregate the household waste. Segregation is something so basic. Unfortunately, despite all promotions and levying of penalties, people in India don’t segregate.  They throw away the waste without understanding the impact on health and environment.

While they keep their houses clean, they shamelessly litter around. I would like to see a responsible behavior first – and until this is done nobody should be given an opportunity to attend waste related international conferences.

I want to see the action, a real change and less of talk. In the country I live, we follow the three-bin segregation system meticulously – and this system is followed by everybody in the city. We are basically responsible citizens and not like Indians. I feel really bad for India”

NRI’s voice was raised with anger. He seemed rather weary.

“Are you a speaker here by any chance?” He asked.

I didn’t know what to say. So, I kept shut.

The NRI bent down and looked at my delegate batch.

“So indeed, you are one – and that too a plenary speaker!” he had a smirk in his voice.

“I am sure you will speak about some good stories or successes on waste management in India to impress the participants. But look, I don’t want to offend you, most of these stories you will tell won’t be true – at the most half-truths. The reality on the ground would be quite different.

I have seen this myself. People post pictures of beach clean-up activities – before and after. And when I follow up a week later, the beach is once again with all the filth and plastic.  So, the hype lasts just about a week and somehow makes a breaking news! Someone like you portrays this beach cleaning as a great citizen initiative and talk about it in international conferences. Shit.

Whom are we fooling?

In the country I live, this does not happen. All the citizen initiatives are well supported and recognized by the Government and the Private sector to ensure sustainability.

Indians are never serious enough or consistent about what they do. And that’s the problem”

The NRI sounded quite cynical about India.

“Do you work for the Government?” He asked

I said “No”

“Oh, thank God you are not. The real problem in India is its awful Governance. We have all the policies and regulations in place and these are seemingly well written – but when it comes to enforcement, there is so much corruption!

I was told that if you want to be an authorized waste recycler then you have to cough up a bribe of 100,000 Rs. That’s simply disgusting!

For a waste management contract, contractors operate a “ring fence” and bid with an “understanding”. There is no room for a company that has merit if it is not a part of the “ring”. In the country I live, there is so much transparency that such lobbying will never happen. Only meritorious companies get selected and so the waste management solutions are delivered as promised”

The NRI then said in a hushed tone

“Do you know that out of 24 Waste to Energy (W2E) plants in India, only one or two plants work! Many W2E companies in the country I live, are interested to do business in India – but I discourage them. I don’t want them to cut a sorry face”

I realized that my NRI friend was rather bitter about the situation in India.

I asked him when did he last visit India.

“Oh, I visit every year to see my old parents. Each time I go, I see the situation worsening. I would blame the politicians and the bureaucrats for this mess.

Waste management is just not on Government’s agenda. The landfills are like dump sites, slums have poor sanitation infrastructure and the sewerage system is inadequate with open nallahs (drains) crisscrossing over the city”. The NRI said this while picking up a coffee.

I thought of defending. I said

“You must be aware of the massive “Swatch Bharat Abhiyaan” (Clean India Mission) launched by our PM Modi.  This national mission is the largest in the world.

India hosted this year’s World Environment Day on banning of the plastic. Plastic is now banned in 18 of the Indian States. More than 11,000 kms of Indian roads are built with plastic waste.

This April, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs hosted 8th 3R Forum of the United Nations at Indore. Indore city won cleanest city award consecutively over last two years. You should visit Indore next time when you will be India”

The NRI did not show much interest. He seemed rather indifferent. So, I continued

“Under the ‘forum of cities that segregate,’ started by Center for Science and Environment, 26 cities from 14 States have come together to ensure that they adopt 100 per cent source segregation and become the pioneers of waste management in the country. I am sure that in the course of next 2 years we will achieve nearly 90% segregation in these cities”

“Well, to me all these are again stories –  Reporting on the progress of Swatch Bharat Abhiyan is more of marketing and a political gimmick. And conferences like 3Rs don’t help. All they produce are wastes (e.g. food wastage in the lavish lunch breaks) and GHG emissions (during international travel). Such events do not lead to any concrete actions although they do make impressive declarations” The NRI sounded very critical.

I still didn’t want to give up.

“Waste management and economics in India are quite different from many of the developed countries. You cannot apply the same yardstick” I protested.

“Waste-pickers play an important role in the Indian circular economy. This informal sector provides livelihood to millions of people. 3Rs like Repair, Refurbish, Remanufacture are practiced and there is so much innovation out there.”

But the NRI wasn’t impressed. He pointed about that health and safety of the informal waste pickers has been a serious issue with unsafe reuse and recycling of biomedical and electronic wastes. Children work on the mountains of garbage. There are no regulations on the standards for the recycled goods so many of the upcycled goods can pose risk to the consumer. Who checks?

“India’s response to the challenges in waste management has been rather knee-jerk, reactive and not addressing the root cause”. He summed up.

“Oh, in that case why don’t you return to India and help our country” I ventured to ask this simple question

The NRI kept shut and put the coffee mug on the table.

He then said “Let us get inside the auditorium now. Else people will think that Indians have no sense of time”. He was perhaps right.

I ensured that I got a seat far away from the NRI and decided to skip the next coffee break.


Cover image sourced from

http://www.panjabilok.net/mudda/2017/08/11/nris-and-india/


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2 thoughts on “The Non Resident Indian

  1. As said by you, without any correlation, people arbitrarily measure everything by using the same yardstick with their own assumption. A country like India, with 132 crore heterogeneous population, it needs more and more resources with an extraordinary bribe-less human effort to attain it.

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  2. For all you know, the sentiment of the NRI may also be arising from desire to ensure that his old parents get the same quality of life for which he had to abandon and restart elsewhere. I have come across many such NRI’s and even foreign partners with far worse and severe criticism of India and always defended our case.

    But the honest fact is that when the world reset and rebooted itself at the same time ( post war 2), we were just too burdened with survival issues that civic issues were not a priority. Why waste disposal, water management and energy management did not get equal priority is a question we need to ask ourselves. 70 years later we are still trying to clean Ganga (one of our lifeline river), a PM has to pick a Jhadoo to run a Clean India campaign (which has now turn into a photo op), till date the concept of waste segregation is not implemented at household level, we have movies like Toilet, Padman to promote basic health & sanitation. Most initiatives never trickle down and hard;y have impact because they are top – down and not bottom – up. I can understand his frustration ( and yours too). But i’d say, if devil is in detail. ‘jugaad’ and ‘detail’ are a divorced couple who cannot ( and willnot) see eye to eye.

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