The Elusive “Good” Indian Travel Agent

Travel to India from the US means purchasing tickets from travel agencies run by people of Indian origin in the US.  These folks clearly give you the best deals for whatever reason. The flip side though, is that customer service is virtually non-existent. Its almost impossible to get a call back from these folks.  I suspect this situation also has a lot to do with us, the customers.  Many of us are ruthless bargain hunters and would contact so many travel agents for quotes and haggle till the cows come home before deciding  on a deal. So these folks are eternally suspicious that you are about to dump them in favor of the next travel agent who is willing to give a tenny-weeny break on the price.  So its an interesting tussle, with the agent on the one hand, aggresively going for the close, while the buyer on the other, desperately heading for the door so they can evaluate “all” options before they can make the call.   The result is that the agent calls you back maybe once or twice before they determine if you are a good prospect for their business.  If you make the cut, then you might receive another call or two, else you are out of luck until you decide you want to make an actual purchase and call and explicitly express your sincere intentions.  

I suspect that the money in this business is in volumes. This means, you are likely to get a little more attention if you are purchasing tickets for a family rather than the one off ticket.  So single ticket buyers are certain to be at the bottom of the rung for already pathetic service. Of late, some travel agents have started to communicate via email. While this certainly helps, there is no doubt that the poor customer service in this business is unparalleled and almost endemic, and unlikely to change until market monopoly of these outfits is challenged by some newcomers. After over a decade of experience in dealing with these outfits, my self-learned conclusion is as follows:  They are all equally bad, stick with one agent and your loyalty is likely to be rewarded with some reasonably decent customer service!

Techies Beware: Immigrating to America Ain’t Easy Anymore

During the 1980s and 1990s a number of engineers and other professionals routinely immigrated to the US.  After your undergraduate degree in India, go to the US, complete your Masters degree, pick up a job, get your green card and settle down in the US, this was the norm for a number of professionals.   This tried and tested path has started to get harder for several reasons.

Globalization and Outsourcing, driven primarily by technological advancements, have caused several new trends to emerge among the Indian expatriate in the US.  Firstly, a number of Indian professionals who moved to the US during the Internet boom days have returned to India due to the lay-offs that followed the dramatic downturn.  Many of these individuals were on H-1B visas and hence potentional immigrants whose aspirations were prematurely ended by the downturn.

Secondly, a number of mid to senior level professionals (some out of choice and others due to circumstances)  have started to return to India to work for American Corporations at their India centers.  These include green card holders, and others who had taken up American citizenship.  While its hard to predict, its highly likely that a large number of these individuals who have re-located to India are unlikely to return or even if they desired to, the return path is bond to be difficult and challenging, both professional and financial.

Thirdly, it has become extremely difficult for fresh undergraduates and graduates, to find jobs in the technology industry, in particular. The downturn in the technology industry in the US being the main reason for this trend. Corporations don’t have the time or the resources to hire and train fresh graduates. Instead, they need more experienced individuals who can be productive from day one. In a market where unemployment is at its peak, experienced individuals are relatively easily available.

A big part of the immigration is the processing of the green card by the employer.  Over the last two decades, American corporations routinely processed green cards for their employees, many of whom joined the workforce after their Master’s degrees with little or no work experience. In fact, it was so common that the green card generation machine worked like clock work as immigration lawyers churned out applications in almost assembly line fashion.   However, lately, multi-national companies have become very stringent about processing green cards for their employees.  Very often, employees of Indian origin are being encouraged to return and work at their Indian centers. This is understandable, since it is a very cost effective option for companies with established centers in India.  Its highly likely that US corporations will hire less number of graduate students (with a Masters and no work experience) in the US, than ever before, with each passing year, because its far cheaper to hire graduates in India and other countries.  In fact, American corporations might choose to hire in the US and post the individual in India on Indian salaries.

The good news about globalization and outsourcing is that over time, where employees are located is likely to  matters less and less to businesses. Instead, efficiency, productivity and overall ability for quality work are likely to be of greater importance than mere location. As a result of a large number of multi-nationals establishing operations in India and the small to medium sized businesses likely to follow suit in order to remain competitive (and viable!), attractive and exciting opportunities are likely to continue to evolve in India, particularly in the technology business. For example, the venture capital community has become very tuned to the fact that an operation in India or some other cost effective location where talent is available, is no longer “a nice to have” but a “must have” for businesses.  In fact, a number of venture capital firms have started to focus specifically on companies with a presence in both India and the US.  The bad news about outsourcing and globalization is that, the traditional road to America for Indian professionals is not very viable anymore.

So what does this mean, for example, to an engineer  graduating from one of the leading institutions in India and aspiring to head off to the US like many of his/her predecessors? Unfortunately, its a very different paradigm today from a decade or two ago where immigrating to the US was a tried and tested path.  In fact, these days you have foreigners seeking internship and sometimes jobs based in India!  So, if the engineer does not have genuine interest in pursuing specialized advanced studies (like a Ph.D), coming over to the US as a student might not be a very good option especially if immigration to the US was the ultimate objective.

India Update

Urban India Shining, Common Man Suffering, BJP Reeling, Cong Surviving And Some Trivia

Urban India Shining: Its a hot job market in the IT sector, call centers and other areas driven by the sharp influx of multinational companies. Employee turn over is as high as 50% and salaries are growing by the day. Large Western Style malls have started to appear in the big cities. Forum and Bangalore Central are two such examples based in Bangalore. Large US style apartment complexes, packed with US returned families is common place, particularly in Bangalore. Unlike in the past, you can now see a number of foreigners (not tourists) on the roads of Bangalore. Almost everyone carries a cell phone these days and this market is here to grow. City roads are full of flyovers almost like going over speed breakers in school zone. Traffic congestion is a nightmare in most leading cities, particularly Banglore and Bombay. Kolkata was congested even before the IT boom. 🙂 Internet connection in India now easily available. Dial-up connection takes less than 5 minutes to setup and costs about Rs. 20 per hour. There are hordes of Internet cafes and cable/DSL is readily available in most leading cities.

Common Man Suffering: The general cost of living has gone up quite a bit, leaving the common man in the midst of a severe cash crunch. Rents have more than doubled in the past few years, cost of power, labor, travel etc has all gone up. On the one hand you find restaurants that charge hundreds of rupees for a single dish, packed with people, on the other you have farmers committing suicide because they are unable to meet their expenses and the monsoons have failed to turn up.

BJP Reeling: The former ruling party is in the midst of serious crisis. The party is acting like it was hit by a “fierce Jeff Thompson bouncer”. In other words, its wobbling around looking for something to hang on to. Vajpayee wanted to fire Modi and lead the party overall into a more moderate persona. However, the threats from RSS, VHP and other hardliners within the party forced the leadership to sway more towards its roots — the so called Hindutva platform. Given Vajpayee’s inability to dump Modi and to prevent the push for a hardline hindutva platform, the aging Vajpayee seems to clearly be on his way out. If the current govt. lasts beyond 6-8 months it might be curtains for the veteran BJP leader and former PM.

Congress Surviving: The Congress led by Manmohan Singh from the outside and Sonia from the inside, is managing to survive. This inside-outside formula, if this govt. survives, could actually develop into a new dynamic in Indian politics. An ideal arrangement is one were the party President is extremely powerful and deals primarily with other coalition partners, while govt. and public policy is set and executed by more knowledgeable individuals (a la Manmohan Singh, Chidambaram, Natwar Singh etc.)

The next BIG thing for the govt. is the new budget which is due to be announced this month. The contradictions within the coalition are yet to create any major tensions. Ironically, what is likely to keep these coalition members together is not so much their love for one another but their dislike for their common enemy — BJP. Most people I talked to seemed to think that this govt. is unlikely to last not more than 6 months to a year!

Lastly, our cricketers are everywhere from the TV to the billboards, you can’t miss them. Tendulkar, Dravid and Sehwag being the most commonly seen faces. A new season and the associated craze is scheduled to begin later this month. Euro cup was actively followed and with cable TV this telecast is reaching out to more people in India than ever before.

Dinner at a friend’s place

Went over with family to a friend’s place for dinner last nite. Had a quiet relaxed evening. My son had a slight fever and went off to sleep a little after we got there. The food was awesome — pure vegetarian gourmet stuff. Had some interesting discussion regarding the “institution of marriage” and how celebreties in India get away with anything and everything.

….Dharmendra and Boney Kapoor married leading actresses while still having their first wives around; Javed Akthar-Shabana Azmi never married but have had an ongoing affair; Amitabh-Rekha, apparently still a hot couple; Jayalalitha has a kid but was never married. It was well known and accepted that MGR had a constant new female actress/companion every few years. Sachin Tendulkar married someone much older to him.

And today I saw some gossip about Aamir Khan Oh well…

Jagmohan and Mona’s wedding reception

Last night I attended Jagmohan Singh (junior of mine from IIT KGP) and Mona’s wedding reception along with my wife and kids in San Jose. Met a number of KGP folks from the bay area. The food was excellent. Everyone danced to some jivy Punjabi and Hindi music. We had a wonderful time. We reached the party at around 8.15 pm. When I looked at my watch to find the time it was 11.45 pm and my kids were still awake and having a good time!

The venue Dolce Hayes Mansion is definitely worth considering for anyone looking for a place to get married or have a reception.