It’s been a busy few days in India; the U.S. consulates I’ve been visiting have kept me busy visiting colleges, meeting with journalists and giving talks to business and civic groups. Add the jet lag thanks to the nine and a half hour time difference from the U.S. East Coast and the torpor that comes from eating large helpings of irresistible Indian food at every meal, and I hope readers can understand why it’s been hard to blog the trip from day to day.My first stop was Hyderabad after an overnight in Delhi; as part of a plan to increase its presence in India the U.S. only established a consulate here a couple of years ago. Hyderabad is the fourth largest city in India with a population roughly the size of New York’s, and it is the capital of Andhra Pradesh, the fourth most populous of India’s 28 states. This one Indian state has a larger population than any member of the European Union; with more than 85 million people, it has a few million more inhabitants than Germany and almost twice the population of Spain. The State Department is trying to shift resources to countries like China and India where U.S. investments and trade are growing and where citizens are increasingly eager to study and do business with Americans, but there is a long way to go. Many Indian states and Chinese provinces with populations larger than most European countries have no U.S. diplomatic representation at all. Congress will soon have to decide whether to meet our growing diplomatic needs in developing countries and emerging markets by severely cutting back our representation in countries like France, Italy, Greece and the UK, or to increase spending so that the State Department can more effectively represent the U.S. in a challenging world. (Via Meadia view: modest cutbacks in the Old World, large increases in the emerging countries, and use technology to the max to supplement the work of on-ground staff to stretch the money as far as possible.)One reason the U.S. has established a consulate in Hyderabad: the city is second only to Bangalore as a center for Indian IT. Microsoft has a huge facility here; companies like Facebook and Google also have a presence. Among other things, that means a lot of visa applications from Indians wanting to travel, work or study in the U.S.Junior officers in the U.S. foreign service on their first overseas tours often get slotted into “consular” posts—that is, they spend eight hours a day five days a week for two to three years interviewing people who want to visit America. On the basis of a quick interview that usually lasts only a few minutes, they have to figure out whether the applicant is a “good risk”—that the person is unlikely to stay in the U.S. as an illegal immigrant or otherwise be a problem for law enforcement.As an American traveling around the world, you are likely to hear a lot of complaints from people overseas about how our visa system works. Tens of millions of people would like to move to the United States and many more would like to work there temporarily or visit; the young people—mostly twenty-somethings—who handle the visa work have a tough job. The U.S. wants everyone who has legitimate business to be able to visit—but we don’t want illegal immigration and we don’t want criminals or terrorists slipping through. These kids working in the consular service have to make decisions based on written applications and short interviews, and they have to do it day in and day out for months and years. I’ve been impressed over and over again by the dedication and the professionalism these young Americans show in embassies and consulates I’ve visited all over the world; at the same time, as they will be the first to tell you, this is a hard job and nobody can ever be sure that they make the right calls 100 percent of the time.For foreign nationals and not just in India, the process of getting a U.S. visa can be incredibly stressful, and the stakes are high. Failing to get a visa can drastically limit your educational and professional prospects, and it can also be embarrassing—like getting blocked by the doorman of a popular nightclub when all your friends are getting in. There are books and websites that give you advice on how to “pass” your visa interview; in most places around the world there are a lot of urban legends about what you should or should not say when you get your ten or fifteen minutes to state your case before the 25-year-old junior American diplomat who has your fate in his or her hands.Getting visas to countries in the EU and to other desirable destinations (like Australia, Canada and Switzerland) can also be tough; most Americans have no idea how the inequality in this process shapes the way people in other countries see the world. American kids who want to take a year off from college and bum around the world, sleeping in youth hostels and maybe teaching a few English lessons to earn some money can basically get up and go. So can young people from Germany, Italy, the UK and Japan.But if you are from Turkey, or India, Pakistan or scores of other places, your world has a different shape. Twenty-year-old kids from developing countries taking a year off from school are not necessarily welcome in the EU and the U.S. The world that looks so open and inviting from the U.S. or the EU is filled with fences and barriers for people from other countries.We like to talk about our “borderless world” or the “flat” world that globalization has created, but the reality is that some passports are much nicer than others. It’s not wrong for countries like the U.S. to police their borders or restrict entry; it’s a fact of life that we have to do it. (And ask people in India whether they think they should offer unlimited travel and immigration rights to people from Bangladesh. It isn’t just the rich countries that want to control their frontiers.) But it’s also a fact of life that for no fault of their own, most of the people in the world today are something less than first class citizens, fenced in by an international system that favors some people over others.For obvious reasons rich and successful people in other countries have an easier time getting visas to the U.S. and other first world countries than regular citizens. If your poppa is a plutocrat, you are pretty much guaranteed a visa to anyplace you want. Americans don’t worry about a huge crush of billionaire illegal immigrants. This makes sense, but it often means that our visa system aligns us with the rich and the powerful in countries like India. Ordinary citizens see celebrities and famous people scampering off to New York and Los Angeles whenever they want, while they can’t get a visa for the trip of a lifetime. That can’t help but rub off on the way ordinary people around the world feel about rich countries in general and the U.S.—seen everywhere as the chief upholder of the existing world order—in particular.This is just one example of the kind of thing that diplomats need to understand in order to represent the U.S. effectively abroad; they have to understand how other people see and don’t see us and they have to learn how to get our message across the cultural, economic, and political divides that separate the various countries of the world. Managing America’s relationship with other countries and cultures is a complicated, sometimes frustrating, but vitally important business; regular Via Meadia readers know that “support our diplomats” is one of the themes I often stress on this blog.Be that as it may, if your goal was to get an introduction to India and you could only visit one city, Hyderabad might just be the place to go. It’s really three cities in one: the Old City with its historic mosques, palaces and forts, its narrow streets and bazaars; the new city with the crowds and hustle of a typical Indian metropolis, and what locals call “Cyberabad”, the new, high-tech city where companies like Microsoft and Infosys have build glittering towers and pristine campuses in what was recently the quiet countryside.The three cities aren’t all that far apart physically, but the people in the Old City and Cyberabad don’t see all that much of each other. In Cyberabad people tend to stay in their air conditioned, high tech bubble; you could almost be in the United States—and there are quite a few Americans working there. In the Old City people are also wrapped up in a self contained and inward looking world, many making their living in ways that have not changed all that much since the last of the Nizams (the local rulers) reluctantly gave up on maintaining independence and agreed to join India almost seventy years ago. (The last Nizam was reputedly the richest man in the world, said to have dozens of mistresses and to have used a $75 million diamond the size of an ostrich egg as a paperweight.)Most people in Hyderabad live somewhere between the two extremes of tradition and hyper-modernity, and both geographically and culturally they move between the two worlds. You will find people who wish the country could go back to the old pre-reform days of the License Raj, when the government regulated everything. You will find young people eager to get the kind of education that can be their ticket to the new jobs opening up in Cyberabad or even farther afield. Those Indians—the software engineers, the managers, the consultants—become citizens of the world. They get the visas, the study opportunities, the jobs with world class firms that allow them to leave the traffic, the noise, and the pollution of urban India far behind.I didn’t get to stay in Hyderabad as long as I wanted. I would have liked to spend a night or two walking through the Old City as it came alive after sundown and the Ramadan crowds filled the streets. I wanted to try haleem, a famous local dish. (I’m not sure how much I would like it; somebody described it as tough and rubbery meat cooked in spiced butter for hours—”spicy mutton chewing gum” is what they compared it to.) What I really like when I travel is to stay in a city for a few weeks, long enough to have my favorite walks, restaurants and coffee or tea shops and get into the rhythm of the place. That’s not the way this trip is going; a few days each in Hyderabad, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Delhi, and Srinagar will just give me a taste of what each has to offer. After decades of traveling all over the world the one thing I’ve truly learned is that the world is too big, too wide, too rich, and too diverse for any one person to get to know it in the depth it demands.To visit Hyderabad is to see the glory of what was and to have hope for what can someday return. Right now, the city is in a kind of awkward age. Rapid growth and an exploding population have stretched the city past capacity. Its once beautiful waterways and lakes, those that haven’t been filled in, are polluted and have lost some—though by no means all—of the beauty that once made this city celebrated in literature from Turkey to Indonesia. Many of the buildings of the period when this was the capital of an independent state or under indirect British rule survive, and some have been kept up, but others have fallen into disrepair.Hyderabad was probably more picturesque and appealing fifty years ago than it is today; fifty years from now it will likely once more be a jewel as the wealth India generates is turned toward the protection of the environment and the preservation of cultural treasures. Already people are working to make this happen, and the people here take a huge and justified pride in their city.Much of the “third world” is like this, caught between the glamor of the past and the promise of the future. I have watched the citizens of Rio rebuild and renew their city over the past generation. They still have a ways to go, but every time I return they have done more to repair old buildings, restore old neighborhoods, clean up the water and the air, and improve life in the slums.Hyderabadis have the same spirit and thanks to the wealth being created in Cyberabad, Hyderabad is going to have more and more of the resources it needs to renew and restore the glory that makes it one of the world’s real treasures. But there’s something special about seeing it now as well. Fifty years from now the market in the Old City will be all polished and restored, and expensive shops will be selling glamorous items for the well heeled tourist trade. Now, it’s still a living market and if it’s scruffy and they are selling colanders, children’s lunch boxes and rubber gloves instead of antiques and designer goods, in some ways it’s that much more authentic and serious. In the meantime, if you want to find out more about the city and what U.S. diplomats are doing there, you can follow the consulate on Twitter @USAndHyderabad. You’ll also see that the consulate is putting out information aimed at helping Indian citizens get ready for their visa interviews; have your documents in order and tell the truth looks like the best advice.
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Published on: August 11, 2012Report from India 1: Hyderabad