Protests by Indian taxi drivers in Melbourne, Australia, have two sides. The young Indian drivers, mostly Punjabis, have a genuine reason to be angry: one of their mates was stabbed by an Aussie passenger and is now in a coma, fighting for life. Every night they are taunted, insulted and sometimes beaten by white, and usually drunk, Aussies on their way home; and sometimes not even paid for their services.
The other side of the coin has not been reported in the Indian media: the resentment among local Aussies against the behaviour of these taxi drivers who are actually students trying to earn their fees and stay on. They do not know the English language to communicate adequately, do not know how to behave properly with their passengers, do not know local geography before they start working, do not dress according to Aussie norms, use unfair practices and tricks to extort more fares, and have started touting for passengers - a practice unknown in Australia.
These semi-educated Punjabi 'students' who cannot speak English properly go to Australia, ostensibly to study. They enrol for TAFE or Tertiary and Further Education - a layer between basic school and university. Many join a TAFE college for cookery, childcare and other basic technical courses that allow them to apply for residency.
After paying their fees in advance and showing proof of funds for the first year, they land in Australia. Studying part-time, most of them work as cleaners, waiters at Indian and other restaurants or as attendants at petrol stations. Others work in farms where there is an acute shortage of fruit pickers; or as taxi drivers and security staff. They generally work extra hours to pay their fees, buy food and pay rent. Some of them end up breaking laws. Up to 10 of them can stay in a scrappy room, share rent and live in terrible conditions. Australians, of late, have been refusing to rent rooms to Indians. When they talk among themselves on the streets, they seem to be shouting.
"These uncouth students are an embarrassment to us and spoil the name of India for professionals like my husband," says Kiran Gupta, an Australian Indian housewife in Melbourne.
Immigration laws are not strictly followed, perhaps due to labour shortage, and so they stay on. Now the norms for TAFE colleges and English language requirement are being tightened.
But, clearly, the image of India and Indians is changing for the better in Australia.
The number of Indian students in reputable Australian universities is small. Actually, the number of the entire Indian community is small in Australia. It is estimated at around 200,000, mainly in Melbourne and Sydney. They originate from Punjab, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and, of course, from Mumbai and Delhi. In addition, Fijians, South Africans and Kenyans have also migrated to Australia.
Like NRIs worldwide, Aussie Indians socialise around their religion. A sudden growth has been seen in Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras in every major city. In Melbourne and Sydney, many new worship places, including temples and gurdwaras, Sai centres, Art of Living centres and Baba Ramdev centres, among others, have come up. In Blackburn Gurudwara, during Wednesday evenings and Sunday lunches, sometimes over 5,000 Indians dine. In addition, people come for Saturday and Sunday breakfasts after the morning 'Asa di Var'. On weekdays and all Sikh religious festivals, thousands come. Students are seen helping out with volunteer services so that cooking and serving have become easier. They also stay on to help in cleaning. Thus the temples are delighted with the high growth of the Indian community.
For India-Australia business relations, India is known for its IT services and many local companies are getting their back office tasks done in India. Some banks and large companies have set up their call centres in India. Infosys and Satyam are well known and others are also in the fray. Indian sports goods and handicrafts are popular. Indian shops import the full range of groceries and spices, even rice and flour. More than one Indian shop is found in all major suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne. Some Aussies also buy from there. ANZ Bank plays 'dholak' or soothing Indian music while you wait on the phone.
Says Shan Gupta of Melbourne, "Almost every day, all newspapers and TV channels report IPL. Channel Ten is showing all matches live, although in the middle of night, when not many cricket fans are awake.
"India has never been in the news for any good reasons. Despite the negative picture of India because of the TAFE Indian students, the perceptions about Indians and India in Australia are changing fast.
"All along, Australians viewed India as a poor country; now this is changing. I see more opportunities emerging for Indians and Indian companies here. Last week, headline ABC radio news said that an Indian company is setting up a software centre in Melbourne that would employ 700 Australians."
He added, "Now, that makes me an Aussie-Indian, proud of my roots."
(Kul Bhushan previously worked abroad as a newspaper editor and has travelled to over 55 countries. He lives in New Delhi and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org)