|CURRENT ISSUE DECEMBER 27, 2004|
|THE GLOBAL INDIAN: NRI DO-GOODERS|
Having achieved financial success, first-generation expatriates are looking to their origins. No one perhaps more visibly than Budh Singh, who went to Canada in 1960 and now owns a million-dollar construction firm. In the past two decades, the 79-year-old Sikh has mobilised Rs 40 crore from over 15,000 NRI families to build a 250-bed, multi-speciality hospital, a nursing institute and a school at his village Dhahan, near Nawanshahar in Punjab. Budh Singh now spends much time managing the institution. "It is like a place of pilgrimage," says Gurpreet Kaur, a second-generation, US-born person of Indian origin visiting her ancestral village.
One reason why Budh Singh's mission deeply impacts the Punjab-origin diaspora is that the hospital is providing quality, highly subsidised healthcare to their kin back home.While most NRI-funded hospitals in rural belts are ailing for want of doctors and management staff, Budh Singh has ingenuously roped in the North American Sikh Medical and Dental Association which lends 15 experts to the hospital on a rotation basis. On the anvil are plans for a Rs 6 crore trauma centre, a cardiac care centre and a medical college. "It is a mission until death," says Budh Singh.
It is the same zeal that derives M.I. Sahadulla. The 57-year-old doctor returned to Thiruvananthapuram after 27 years in Saudi Arabia to build the Kerala Institute of Medical Sciences (KIMS), arguably the largest NRI-supported super speciality hospital in the country, three years ago. Nearly 65 per cent of the 500-odd shareholders of the Rs 55 crore project are non-resident Keralites and about 100 of them doctors. "This is a doctor-owned hospital and hence professionalism gets overriding importance," says Sahadulla, chairman of KIMS.
In Punjab, three premier but fund-starved institutions-government-run medial colleges in Amritsar and Patiala and the Christian Medical College and Hospital in Ludhiana-have turned the corner, thanks to cash-and-equipment donations by its foreign-based alumni. But US-resident K.B. Chandrasekhar has put his alma mater Anna University and Madras Institute of Technology in Chennai at the cutting edge of research in the spheres of biometrics, medical diagnostics and sensor network. As CEO of Exodus Communications, one of the most successful IPOs in the US with a $25 billion market capitalisation, Chandrasekhar, 43, launched his pet project Anna University-KB Chandrasekhar (AU-KBC) Research Centre in 1999 and has pumped in Rs 10 crore.
Chandrasekhar's goal is to build intellectual property to create entrepreneurship. "That is the way to generate wealth and boost the economy of the people and the country," says Chandrasekhar, who made a humble beginning from Kumbakonam in Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu and is now a software magnate in California. Chandrasekhar, who spends three months in Chennai every year, has lately pitched in with Rs 1 crore grant for nanobiology research. Chandrasekhar's colleague and co-founder of Exodus Communications B.V. Jagdeesh, a California techie from Bangalore, has taken a different route to make a difference. He put Rs 4.5 crore in a trust to support the municipal-run schools in Karnataka's capital.
While Chandrasekhar and Jagdeesh are young enough to see their ambitious project through, age has not dampened the enthusiasm of another California resident, Lajpat Rai Saini, to do something for his ancestral village Bajwara in Punjab's Hoshiarpur district. At 88, Saini has left the comforts of American life to nurture his dream projects: an institute of information technology and a 200-bed hospital in the backward Kandi area. He has so far ploughed Rs 16 crore into his project. As the largest pistachio-grower in the world with a $30 million turnover, Saini has left the thriving business to his two sons and made Bajwara his home.
Implicit in many NRI initiatives to build social infrastructure is a desire to provide a mooring to their foreign-born second and third generations. "Involvement in community projects at our native village has given my children an anchor to their roots," says Anant Pal Singh. Also, the trend among NRIs to send their children to Indian schools has led to the NRIs' craving for high-quality education. Kumar Malavalli, another Karnataka-born NRI who made it big in the US as innovator of fibre channel technology, funded the 40-acre Indus International school in Bangalore which imparts world-class education. As a member of the Indus Trust Board, Malavalli is not content with being a donor. He advises the school on the latest education trends in the US and facilitates student-exchange programmes with the best schools in the US.
The trend among NRI do-gooders is to focus on comprehensive development in their hometowns. In Punjab, for instance, hygiene and sanitation are the underlying goals of the Village Life Improvement Foundation initiative. The Foundation has tapped $60,000 aid from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) as seed money. NRIs are also bringing high-efficiency, low-cost technology. Though most states are yet to have a policy framework to bolster NRI participation in community projects, Punjab has revived its dollar-for-dollar grant policy for expatriates' substantive projects. The Amarinder Singh Government has earmarked Rs 5 crore to encourage NRI initiatives in rural infrastructure.The economic spin-off of the NRIs' philanthropic investments is all too obvious. In Punjab, for instance, the figure is pegged at Rs 100 crore in the past decade. As NRIs pitch in with more passion-and planning-to do what is expected of the governments, the local people can salute the generosity of their overseas sons to make a difference in their lives.
-with Uday Mahurkar in Ahmedabad, Stephen David in Bangalore, M.G. Radhakrishnan in Thiruvananthapuram, Sandeep Unnithan in Mumbai and Anand Natarajan in Chennai