Sruthi Gottipati/The New York Times
A L’Opéra’s outlet in Khan Market, Delhi, one of the preferred hangout spots for expatriates living in the capital.
It’s movie night at Thomas Mehwald’s house in the Indian capital of Delhi and he’s showing a Rainer Werner Fassbinder flick to his eclectic group of friends. The film is perhaps the only German import at his Gulmohar Park house – besides Mr. Mehwald and his family. The 33-year-old economist, who’s been living in India for the last two years with his wife and son, has embraced the country since he first set eyes on it.
‘‘You discover in this chaos there’s order, which I still haven’t understood,’’ said Mr. Mehwald, 33, with a laugh and a swig of his Kingfisher beer, a ubiquitous brand in India. Although the chaos contrasts starkly to his life in Germany, he’s been able to find his footing here; he recently negotiated with wily brokers to rent a new apartment without getting ripped off — a surefire sign he’s acclimatized.
Mr. Mehwald is an advisor at Sa-Dhan, a nonprofit that works to build community development finance, which is at a critical stage in India. He said his job is a terrific learning opportunity he didn’t want to miss.
‘‘The future is here,’’ said Mr. Mehwald, who talks with a strong Indian cadence in his voice when he speaks in English. ‘‘I know they’ll be many innovations coming out of this country.’’
Mr. Mehwald is part of a growing number of expats flocking to India in the last few years eager to tap into the opportunities the country has to offer, witness its rich transformation and sample a way of life often very different from their native countries. Foreigners, of course, have flocked to India for centuries, as colonizers, missionaries, volunteers and escapees from persecution in other countries. This new wave is made up mostly of well-educated migrants from wealthier, more developed countries, leaving behind slow economies in search of job prospects and opportunities they can’t find at home.
‘‘I thought it would be a good adventure,’’ said Shannon Lee Zirkle-Prabhakar, 27, an American photojournalist who moved to Chennai last April with her husband. She said she had visited India once before, in 2005, but doesn’t remember seeing as many expats then. ‘‘I notice more now.’’
Although government agencies weren’t able to provide figures for the total number of foreigners in India, the Ministry of Home Affairs offered numbers that paint a stark portrait.
At the Indian consulate in San Francisco alone, the number of visas granted to Americans to work in India almost doubled, from 23,085 in 2009 to 47,929 in 2010. And those numbers don’t include Americans of Indian origin who have applied for special visas. In the same period in Beijing, there was a 51 percent jump to 32,932 Indian work visas granted. In the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, that increase was 27 percent to 20,550; in Shanghai, a 30 percent rise to 24,382.
Other countries across the globe reflected the same trend. The number of Indian work visas issued in Singapore soared by 33 percent from 21588 in 2009 to 28650 in 2010. In Europe, the Indian visa office in Paris doled out 41 percent more work authorizations in the same period, while Berlin saw 48 percent more Germans clamor to work in India, granting 49,104 visas.
Analysts attribute the relative strength of India’s economy and foreign companies continued interest in India, for some of this rise.
‘‘There’s been a lot of development in the last three years. India was one of the very few countries insulated from the economic crisis,’’ said Dr. Soumya Kanti Ghosh, director, economics and research, at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the nation’s premier business lobbying group. He credits strong external demand and robust growth for investors to see potential in the market.
Not all who come to India intend to stay for long periods of time. For instance, in Seoul, where the number of visas granted to South Koreans to work in India tripled from 10,030 in 2009 to 31,440 in 2010, officials say that many only make short trips just to manage their business interests.
Still, most expats are here to stay – at least for a while.
Those who plan to live in India for more than six months need to register themselves in the country with the Foreigners Regional Registration Officers. While 35,973 U.S. citizens (not including those eligible for special visas available for Americans of Indian origin) registered in 2008, 41,938 did so the following year, according to the latest figures available with the Ministry of Home Affairs. Expats from Britain, France, Germany and Korea contributed to a similar rise.
‘‘There’s a definite change,’’ said Francis Wacziarg, 69, a Frenchman who moved to India in 1970 and has been living here since, and who’s seen a surge of foreigners over the last few years who aren’t all tourists. ‘‘Now it’s more people who want to settle down and work either for a company or set up their own business.’’
When Mr. Wacziarg first came to India as the commercial attaché of the French embassy, he said there were hardly any foreigners living here. When he tried to set up a consultancy firm advising foreign companies on buying exports from India in 1978, he approached government officials in Mumbai and Delhi to make a case for himself because foreigners weren’t allowed to work in many fields or set up business in the country at that time. That changed with the liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991 and India gradually warmed up to foreigners.
Mr. Wacziarg today owns an export agency, a nonprofit music foundation and is co-chairman of the Neemrana hotel chain.
One of the other areas that has seen an influx of expats is the media world. In journalism schools in the US, graduates are encouraged to come to India because of mushrooming media organizations, vigorous newspaper circulations and a relatively free press. Many professionals with a nose for adventure looking to leave saturated Western markets are attracted to India.
‘‘There’s really been a sense of limitless horizons. There’s very little to restrain you. People’s ambitions are set very high and rightly so,’’ said Rodrigo Davies, 29, who moved to Mumbai two years ago to work as GQ’s online editor after seven years as a journalist in London.
‘‘In terms of opportunities, London is always innovating. But the number of businesses, publications opening there is a fraction of what’s opening here. A lot of companies here are going digital straight away.’’
With the soaring number of foreigners, Mr. Davies describes what seems almost like a thriving expat subculture in India. He said there’s a new restaurant or high-end boutique opening every other week in Mumbai and once a group of expats start talking about it, word spreads through the community quickly.
Belgian chain Le Pain Quotidien, The Table, which serves international cuisine, and French crêperie Suzette, are some of the eateries in Mumbai that are familiar to expats, said Mr. Davies.
‘‘You would see a disproportionate number of expats in these places.’’
Last year, French Tuesdays, an international club, reportedly drew scores of expats when it held its first event in Mumbai.
Meanwhile in Delhi, a moderated Yahoo group used by expats called Yuni-Net is rife with postings on topics ranging from available apartments to pleas to figure out India’s notorious bureaucracy.
It has yet to be seen whether the number of expats pouring into India will continue. The slowing economic expansion in the country this year, as well as new rules introduced by the government could serve as dampeners.
Foreigners must now earn the equivalent of $25,000 per year in order to be considered for employment visas, which they say is often an unrealistic figure, particularly if they don’t have much work experience or have a job in low-paying fields like India’s huge non-profit “industry.” Some, as a result, have to work for free, which limits their ability to stay in India.
The earning requirement is perhaps also a reason why recent immigration to the country has been mostly from the educated, higher economic bracket. India also has poorer immigrants, mostly undocumented, from countries that border it such as Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Expats might stick on though, irrespective of the new regulations. Real estate prices have shot up in Delhi neighborhoods widely considered magnets for expats. In Defence Colony, a South Delhi locality, multi-storey apartments cost 26,884 rupees per square foot in 2010, compared to 19,222 rupees in the same period in 2009, according to the property Web site magicbricks.com.
In the more exclusive area of Jor Bagh, that number rose from 37,541 rupees to 48,561. And apartments which cost 22,978 rupees per square foot commanded a 20 percent higher price tag in Vasant Vihar in just the span of a year.
This may be because there are still many factors that keep India an attractive destination including the prevalence of English and a culture where most people on the streets are willing to be helpful to the bumbling expat.
Mr. Mehwald, the German economist, said he’s even found himself becoming more gregarious than he was back in Berlin.
The trick to live in India, he said, is to ‘‘take things as they are.’’ That and not to trust brokers too quickly.
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