Sunday, January 10, 2010

Of cooks, barbers and Australians (January 10, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta
For an emerging international player, the Ministry of External Affairs should have an iconic status. In the past weeks, the MEA has, unfortunately, acquired an image of frivolity with its junior Minister constantly getting into scrapes over his Twitter-ing ways and the senior Minister being mocked for being more preoccupied with his appearance than his charge. The perceptions may well be unfair but they have contributed to an overall feeling that South Block could do with an injection of gravitas.

There are times, however, when flippancy may serve an unwitting purpose. Last week, SM Krishna made a telling comment on Australia’s education industry and what he thought was Indian gullibility: “One can understand students going there (Australia) at the university level, at the IIT level or at the level of some other institution of excellence. When I went there, I was shocked to see so many students in courses they don’t need to go to Australia for — such as learning hair-styling or doing facials.”

Krishna needs to be complimented on his belated discovery that the 66,000 Indians who went to Australia last year on student visas aren’t exactly interested in rocket science and that they are unlikely to be short-listed in future for the Nobel Prize. Australia has cleverly used its education industry for two strategic ends. First, to earn itself a whopping Au$ 15 billion, of which the largest share comes from India, each year; and, second, to use bucket shops (masquerading as institutes of ‘higher education’) as a primary point of immigration. The Minister would have been surprised to learn that hair-styling, which he ironically looks down on, and commercial cookery were two of the recognised vocations for converting student visas into residence permits. Australians, it would seem, were short of barbers (or hair stylists if you prefer) and cooks (or chefs if you so like) and were glad to facilitate their entry into the country. The country had the additional satisfaction of knowing that the bulk of these preferred immigrants have paid for the privilege of meeting the manpower shortage.

Australia must be congratulated for evolving a unique, revenue-generating immigration model. It is qualitatively different from that of the US which doles out generous scholarships to the best and the brightest students from India and allures them into the American dream. The US has believed that a particular type of immigrant enhances the creative and competitive thrust of its economy; Australia has used education to cope with basic labour shortages — and not merely in hair-dressing saloons and restaurants. What has made Australia attractive to India’s less academically-inclined students is the fact that studies are at a serious discount. The students pay a whopping fee to an institute and then devote themselves to earning money driving taxis or working as shop attendants in retail establishments, particularly those that are open late into the night. Australian universities, an unnamed academic is quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, “used to be a place of learning; now they are a place of earning.”

I don’t know why Australia persists with the fiction of issuing student visas: These are short-term work visas with a steep entry fee.
This is not to mention that all Australian education is an eye-wash. There are well-regarded universities in the country, maybe even in Melbourne too. The question is: How many of the one lakh plus Indian students are enrolled in them?

It is pertinent to point out the grim reality of what passes for education, particularly in a city such as Melbourne, to disabuse ourselves of the notion that Indian ‘students’ are being targeted by Australians. It is not a town versus gown clash that has made Indians the favourite whipping boys of every disgruntled lout emerging from a pub. Those who are being targeted are Indian workers, the reserve army of potential immigrants.

This doesn’t make the attacks any less heinous. If Australians are repelled by the growth of Indian ghettos in the suburbs of Melbourne and disgusted by the curry smells and Hindi film songs, they must realise that it is a problem of their own creation. It is they who wanted cheap labour and there is a social price to be paid for this luxury.

There is a social problem that is affecting Melbourne and whether Australia likes it or not, it has a strong racial dimension. The crime statistics suggest that Indians are 2.5 times more vulnerable to attacks than others in Melbourne, and yet Australian authorities pretend that crime is colour-blind. The argument is patently disingenuous.

Australia won’t lose brownie points if it honestly admits that the State of Victoria has a serious problem of race-related crimes. It is not going to take away from the fact that the country has travelled a long way from the ‘Whites only’ immigration policy it pursued until the 1960s. Nor will India question the right of Australia to cut down student visas in future because MEA has already recognised that most of the courses aren’t worth spending hard-earned money on. But Australia cannot expect India to sit by idly as its citizens are set upon by goons and harassed and even killed.

The Ku Klux Klan analogy of an Indian tabloid may be an exaggeration (and it certainly wasn’t very funny) but the response to Indian shrillness is not stone-faced Australian denial. Nor does it lie in shrill Australian indignation over the sheer effrontery of India calling someone else racist.

The point which Australia has recognised insufficiently, and which Indians don’t seem to have recognised at all, is that India means something quite different to what it meant 30 years ago. If the race attacks don’t cease, it would be worth the MEA’s while to make the travel advisory more stringent and, as a final resort, advise the Reserve Bank of India to stop all fresh money remittances to Australia for ‘education’ purposes.

Sunday Pioneer, January 10, 2010

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