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 The Indian surge in Australia can be felt in all spheres of life

By Syed Nazakat in Sydney & Melbourne

Nearly 30 years ago, Robin Chaudhury, a fresh engineering graduate, made his way to Australia and found himself an alien in Wollongong, 70km south of Sydney. A nearly empty main thoroughfare was a cultural shock for him. “Nobody’s out. No couples with babies, nobody taking a walk,” recalls Robin, who teaches at the University of Wollongong. “I was among the first few Indian settlers in this part of Australia.”

Today Wollongong, like the rest of Australia’s cities and towns, tells a different story. Over the years many Indians have embraced this beautiful coastal city, where they run restaurants and other businesses. Some of them are in the IT and management sectors. At one time, mining was handled only by wealthy Australians and Chinese businessmen. Today Australian coal sales to India are booming and Wollongong is home to Gujarat NRE Coke Ltd, an Indian mining company that owns two mines.

At the University of Wollongong, Indian students have outshone Australians in many disciplines. “I can see India dominating in Australia in the next decade, in every field,” says Robin. The country’s vast reserves, he says, have the potential to meet India’s energy needs. Australia simply cannot ignore India, its fifth largest export market. “In the next decade, this [India-Australia relationship] is going to be a big story in this part of the world.”

Says Rory Medcalf, who directs the international security programme at Sydney’s Lowy Institute for International Policy: “I’m aware of the damage the attacks on Indian students have done to the bilateral relationship between the two countries. But in the next 25 years, Australia will be one of India’s important strategic partners in the Asia Pacific. Whether we Australians like it or not, we can feel India’s heat. India is a reluctant friend, a buyer, a seller and an alien, mystic nation. It’s the face of the new global order.”

The influx of newcomers from India is remarkable. In the 1828 census of New South Wales, there was only one Indian in a population of 36,000. Today the 4,50,000-strong Indian community is the fastest growing migrant group in Australia. According to the ministry for Immigration and Citizenship, Indians are the second largest group of skilled migrants who arrive under the temporary skilled migration programme. Since 2002, there has been a 40 per cent rise in the number of Indian students.

In Melbourne, almost all courier services and 7-Eleven stores are run by Indians. Indian restaurants dot every street and every second taxi driver is an Indian. Many Indian businessmen have established security companies here.

In neighbouring Sydney, in the mid 1970s, Indian food was available only at Holy Cow restaurant in Surry Hills. Today there are over 100 restaurants serving desi dishes in the city. “I remember people used to travel a good distance to enjoy our food. But today there is such a fierce competition between Indian restaurants here,” says Ashwani Khere, who runs Holy Cow.

In the countryside, Indians are investing in real estate. Indian companies like Infotech, Wipro, Tech Mahindra, Tata Communications, Zensar Technologies and I-Flex have established their business in Sydney and Melbourne. Oswal Group has an ammonia plant in western Australia, where Aditya Birla Group has a copper mine apart from another one in Queensland. Tata Steel and Mahindra & Mahindra’s tractor division have a presence in Brisbane. RIL Australia Pty Limited, a subsidiary of Reliance Industries, has a joint venture agreement with Uranium Exploration Australia Limited to participate in uranium exploration and mining. 

Hindi is one of the fastest growing languages in Australia, which has 18 Indian newspapers. Rohit Revo, an electronics engineer from Karnataka University who came to Sydney eight years ago, edits The Indian Subcontinent Times. “I found there was something missing within the Indian community in Australia. Indians were doing pretty well in every field but somehow their voice was not heard. That is what encouraged me to start a newspaper. During the unfortunate attacks on Indian students

we made sure that our voice didn’t go unheard,” he says.

The Indian influence is growing in cities and small towns. In all states and major cities, there are Indian associations and organisations. Though the Indian surge is revamping Australian cities and towns, it has attracted little attention from the political leadership and the media in both countries.

“It is a silent success story,” says Ravi Bhatia, chief executive officer of Primus, one of the largest broadband and telecommunication companies in Australia. Recently, when he sponsored an international Jazz festival in Melbourne he was not quite sure about the response to the Indian show called Sangam. Surprisingly, the celebrated Melbourne Town Hall was flooded by Indians and Australians, who had come for Ustad Zakir Hussain’s performance.

Hundreds of music lovers gave Hussain a long, standing ovation. “While the show was going on I was thinking about the power of Indian art and culture. It can really bring people together. It is our real strength,” says Ravi, an electrical engineering graduate from IIT Delhi who moved to Australia in 1995.

“Indians have ceased to be a demonised group in Australia,” says Padma Iyer, project editor of The Australian. “The first generation was a revolutionary generation that had golden dreams. Their expectations of what they wanted to do here had to be radically adjusted, but they wanted to achieve and move forward. They have left deep footprints and have influenced the local culture.”

True. Two years ago, when the attacks on Indian taxi drivers continued despite the Australian government’s assurance, around 300 Indian cab drivers did something unique. Removing their shirts and beating their chests, they staged a satyagraha before Victoria Parliament House in Melbourne. The  demonstration grabbed front page news in a leading Australian newspaper.

Within Australian society there was a debate about this new way of protest. A month later, disgruntled Australian pensioners staged a similar kind of protest outside the parliament by stripping down to their underwear. “We were also surprised by this unique kind of protest. They simply copied something which was a very Indian thing,” says Gana Samayanda, who is manager at DENSO Automotive Systems Australia. Ask this engineer from Bangalore whether Australia is a racist country, and pat comes the reply: “I felt more racism in Britain, and then also look at what is happening to north Indians in Mumbai. We cannot pass a sweeping remark on the whole country which has embraced so many people from so many countries. Australian society is very open, but maybe the system is still somewhat closed.”

“The Indian community values education. They are fanatics about it,” says Professor Aditya Ghose, director of the Centre for Software Engineering, University of Wollongong. It is not uncommon for Indian students to attend coaching college for six hours on weekends. The objective is to improve their chances in the exam. No wonder Indian students are achieving top ranks.  “Many Indian students often figure in the top 10 ranks. That is a huge success,” says Aditya.

The Indian craze for higher education is being exploited by some colleges which have set up recruitment centres in India through Indian agents. “There are many Indian students who are brought here on fake documents by different agents,” says Jagmat Singh, a hospitality management student from Amritsar. “Many Indian students just want to come and settle here.”

Says Satinder Singh, who works at a 7-Eleven store: “Many [Indian] students get cheated by agents. I was lucky that I had my relatives here and I was better advised on how to prepare for studies and how to work to fund my education. Many Indian boys come here thinking that it is easy to make a living here. But it is really not that easy. There is fierce competition for jobs.”

Perhaps, this competition could be behind the series of attacks on Indian students. According to Sushi Das, senior staff writer at Melbourne daily The Age, the attacks against Indians are not isolated incidents. She says the far bigger problem is the long-term systemic neglect of the welfare of foreign students, many of whom are treated as cash cows by indifferent government authorities and unscrupulous private college operators. “It’s everything from the quality of the education, to lack of student services and dingy student accommodation.”

It is a fact that many colleges hire unlicensed agents to recruit students from India. The agents, who charge thousands of dollars from each student, promise abundant jobs, easily available accommodation and a fast track to permanent residency. According to Aussie officials, permanent residency is one of the main factors that attract Indian students.

Since 2001, the Australian government has allowed overseas students to apply for permanent residency while in Australia. That changed the demography of the education sector. In June 2002, there were only 1,50,000 overseas students. By June 2009, there were almost 4,00,000. Today Indians form Australia’s largest group of international students after the Chinese.

Students like Satinder have come on their own, financed by loans and their families. They are left to find their own accommodation. “This lonely exposure contrasts with the experience of students from China, who have been coming to Australia in larger numbers for more than 20 years,” says Dr Steven Slaughter, who teaches international studies at the Deakin University in Melbourne. “They live in larger groups in established accommodation and are less exposed to the nasty side of Australian cities.”

The series of attacks on Indian students in Melbourne and Sydney and a lethargic response from Canberra have strained India-Australia relationship. Canberra is now in damage-control mode. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd reassured Indians that his country was not unsafe for Indian students. The police have started a crackdown on those who attacked Indians in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland.

In Victoria alone, 45 people have been arrested for crimes against Indian students in the past 18 months. Victoria has amended its laws to allow judges and magistrates to impose tougher sentences for hate crimes. More cops are deployed to keep vigil and surprise patrols are organised on weekends. According to a senior police officer, there is increasing pressure on the police to ensure the safety of internationals students.

The Australian government has also closed down some private colleges for failing to comply with teaching regulations. Australian foreign office says that to ensure higher studies aspirants are genuine students, the visa procedures are being reformed.

The attacks on Indian students and the diplomatic failure to deal with the problem highlight how a law and order issue can overshadow the strategic relationship between India and Australia. The biggest tragedy of Indo-Australian relationship, says Medcalf, is that it has not progressed in the last five decades although the two countries share common interests as Indian Ocean littoral states. “The last Indian Prime Minister to visit Australia was Rajiv Gandhi, 20 years ago. This may represent Indian neglect,” says Medcalf. “But it also represents Australian failure.”

(July 2010, THE WEEK)

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