An angry India pops the expat ‘bubble’ in Delhi
Posted January 8, 2014 by Ben Arnoldy & filed under Asia, Emerging, India, Regions,South & Central Regions.
The US-India diplomatic row continues to worsen in ways that could affect the ability of multinationals to send their more able staff to India.
Some years ago in India, I found myself in a casual conversation with the US ambassador at the time on the grounds of the American Embassy School in Delhi. He remarked that maintaining the quality of the school had become a concern after executives impressed on him the school’s importance for keeping expatriate workers based in a country that many find difficult.
Now, the school and other expat infrastructure are coming under pressure as the Indian government reacts to the arrest and fast-approaching indictment of its diplomat, Devyani Khobragade. Indian officials are now enforcing the letter of the law with respect to the US presence in Delhi as a show of reciprocity. That means calling out any visa infractions among school staff and reexamining the tax status of the foreigners working there. (The school’s foreign staff has enjoyed some Indian income tax exemptions, and the school also pays generously compared with other international schools in order to get teachers to relocate there.)
In the latest move, India on Wednesday called for the closure of an American club on the US embassy grounds. I took my share of dips at the club’s swimming pool during Delhi’s long March to October scorch. The club boasted eateries with harder-to-find fare, such as Western espressos and beef hamburgers. The place was relentlessly – and reassuringly – middlebrow: a patch of home with kids in strollers and golden retrievers by your feet after you’d heard one too many honks, endured one too many stares from the people everywhere, or blew the black soot out of your nose for the umpteenth time.
The club, the school, and the entire diplomatic compound come under plenty of criticism for encouraging people to live in a bubble. But let’s be honest: Life in India is among the most different from the Western experience. That’s part of its draw for some, particularly the young and adventurous, and those who persist in romanticizing the country as “spiritual.” But for mid-tier Western professionals with kids, it’s often seen as a bit of a hardship post – which “the bubble” ameliorated.
In recent years, the country’s reputation in the US has improved. A move to India for work suddenly looked like a savvy way to skip some rungs on the corporate ladder and be prepared for the new century.
But India’s reputation took a serious downturn in late 2012 following global headlines about gang rape in India. Suddenly, women in particular were telling me they would never travel – let alone live – there. Foreign tourism fell by a quarter in the aftermath. The country’s cooling economy and difficulty of doing business have also dimmed international hopes that India will be the next China. Mutual disappointments andawkwardness between Delhi and Washington also diminish the chances anytime soon for more big state visits with business delegations in tow inking deals.
That all happened before Ms. Khobragade’s arrest and its ugly fallout. Building international business ties with India through expatriate exchanges just got that much harder.