Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Visa woes

The US State Department recently announced new visa rules whereby various categories of workers will have to travel to American consulates abroad to get their papers renewed. Nearly 50 per cent of the visa-holders likely to be affected will be Indians, particularly investors, traders, journalists and corporate workers. Will this affect the outflow of Indian professionals to the USA? Gaurav Choudhury checks out.

THE grass appears to be greener across the Atlantic. Or so it seemed to Indian engineering and software professionals, who keep eyeing the USA as the ultimate job destination. In this respect, the Indians have relegated even the Chinese to the second spot. As against 70,000 Indian students who landed on the US shores in 2002-2003, only 60,000 Chinese students made it to American universities and institutes.

From the point of view of the USA, imparting professional education to overseas students is big business. According to the Open Doors 2003 annual report on international education published by the Institute of International Education (IEE), overseas students contribute nearly $ 12 billion to the US economy. About 75 per cent of the international student funding emanates from family sources or sources outside the USA. In fact, estimates suggest that higher education is the country's fifth largest service sector export.

While the number of Indian students travelling to the USA for higher education continues to swell each year, it is the Indian professional who makes the difference, both at home and abroad. Needless to say the engineers and the techies are at the top of the pack.

In recent times, however, as the US economy went around the bend, skilled Indian personnel have faced the wrath of the jobless. The backlash that greeted the BPO industry is a case in point. While many would like to believe that the backlash is more of political posturing in a presidential election year, the facts suggest that despite the outrage the number of Indian firms engaged by overseas companies for backend work has actually gone up.

Industry estimates suggest that as on March 31, 2003, there were 1,40,000 seats in call centres across the country. A year later, the figure has puffed up to more than 2,00,000. Industry observers say that this reflects the robustness of the Indian BPO industry.

Across the shores, at the core of America, the Indian whiz kid is in the forefront of the technological change that is sweeping the world. Top Indian IT companies - Infosys, Wipro, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and Satyam - generate more than 90 per cent of their revenue from onsite projects of elite Fortune 500 companies, primarily employing Indian professionals. The TCS, for instance, employs over 28,000 IT professionals located in 32 countries. Of these, a very high proportion are Indians - born, bred and educated domestically and drawn from among the three lakh engineering and 2.40 million college graduates which the country adds to its workforce every year.

Many of these are working and staying in the US as visa-holders under various categories - E (traders and investors), H (professionals, nurses, training workers), I (journalists), L (corporate workers), O (people with particular skills) and P (entertainers, artists and athletes).

The US State Department has recently announced new rules for all these major categories of working visas. Under the new rules, the visa holders will have to travel to a US embassy abroad, where they will be fingerprinted before their visas are renewed. In the earlier regime, visa holders were able to renew their visas by mail. The measures have been taken partially to tighten security post-9/11. Nearly 50 per cent of the visa holders who are likely to get affected will be Indians.

The domestic industry, however, does not feel that the new visa rules will act as a deterrent to movement of people from India. "We do not foresee any major adverse impact, except on account of the time and cost overrun. We can understand the compulsions of security. The new rules will mean that people will have to come home more frequently than they earlier did to renew their visas. Over a period of time, the process will smoothen out," President of the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM), Kiran Karnik, told The Tribune.

At the same time, Karnik feels, the new rules could only stay in force for a short period. "At least, I would like to think so. But given the general security scenario, I am not very sure", he said.

Whatever the case, the world cannot do without the Indian whiz kid. Gartner, a reputed research organisation that tracks the IT industry, in a report earlier this year projected that worldwide spending on IT services will grow from the present $ 5353 billion (2002) to $ 727 billion by 2007. And there is reason to believe that despite the new visa rules more Indians will travel abroad to keep the technology boom afloat.