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INDIA IN KABUL: warmth and welcome

By Manu Pubby


From the CEO of a TV channel to a one-man placement agency, Indians are making their presence felt in Kabul. Security concerns may have restricted their social life to occasional evenings at Indian restaurants and visits to gurdwaras and temples, but attacks like the recent one still don’t deter them.


THE word ‘Hindustani’ works like magic in Kabul. It opens welcoming doors, brings out smiles and an odd hug, and even reduces the haggling cab driver to a Bollywood music show-off. For the small Indian community in the Afghan capital—mostly professionals working on major developmental projects—the respected Hindustan tag is reason enough to stick on to Kabul despite an upscale of violence.


Of course, the more than comfortable pay packages offered to Indians—more than twice what they would get in the Gulf States—also helps. Kabul is a city being rebuilt from scratch and Indians are deeply involved in its emergence as a democratic capital. Television channels, road construction companies, internet service providers, hotels, civil engineering companies, all have a significant Indian presence.


While the embassy blast on Monday sent shockwaves throughout the community, no one is yet thinking of moving back to India. They still feel safe in the capital primarily due to the warmth of the local people. However, most have not brought their families here due to lack of educational facilities or a vibrant social life.

Indians employed here are top of the line professionals tasked with setting up new businesses. When a venture capitalist decided to put in money in the upcoming television sector and take on the leading local network, he was adamant on recruiting and Indian to head it. After all, India has the most vibrant television industry in the region and Indian soaps already the rage in Afghanistan.


NAVED Sarosh, who is the CEO of this channel in Kabul, worked for over two decades in Doordarshan before deciding to move on. Roped in to begin the channel at the earliest, he is busy juggling the schedule for soap operas, news stories and movies on the network. His task, he says is “planning and execution of the complete programming of the channel” at the earliest.

“We are looking at a complete channel with news and entertainment that will cater to all sections of life. I want to showcase the new face of Kabul to the world. This is no longer a place of rockets and guns,” Sarosh says. Impressed with his way of working, the TV channel has asked him to get eight more senior technical hands from India to jumpstart the programming.

While Kabul is changing, the heavy security cover he has— including several AK 47 totting guards—underlines the ever looming threat of kidnapping for ransom that is prevalent in the country. However, Sarosh says there is nothing to fear from the common Afghani due to the traditional cultural link between the countries.

“Though Pakistan shares a larger border, their heart is with India. Kabul is a very beautiful place and with a little caution, life is good,” he says, adding that it is a great advantage that Delhi is just a two-hour flight away. “With the short flight, it is possible for me to spend weekends back home whenever I want,” he says.


SUCH luxuries may not be possible for 26-year-old Harita Sunder—dubbed as the only single Indian female working in Kabul by colleagues at the Kainaat Construction Company—but she is happy with biannual visits and the significant amount of savings she is building up for the future.

“Compared to what I would earn in Dubai, we are getting at least three times more. My parents are asking me to come back (after the embassy blasts) but now we are habituated to such incidents,” says Sunder, who is heading the IT department of the construction company.

Sunder has been in Kabul for almost two years but has not yet seen the city or roamed around the market places. The only places she visits are her guesthouse and her workplace. This, she says, doesn’t bother her much as she has friends at work and the internet has cut down distances and there is regular communication with family members back home.

Her colleague, civil engineer Vijay PSR from Andhra Pradesh, is a bit more frank. “It is just the money. Earning money is a dangerous addiction like drugs or drinks. Someone who has worked here, will always come back to earn more,” says the engineer, who works on US military camps and other projects.

Vijay, who has travelled throughout the country since he started work here in 2004, has some scary experience to share, including how he got chased by armed miscreants while returning from a project, but says that the real threat is only to government workers like personnel of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO). The embassy blast too, he maintains, is not the handiwork of the Taliban. “We get to hear from locals that this is not the Taliban but Pakistan’s ISI. They do not want us to work here.”


THE view is echoed by the Project manager of the largest Indian construction company in Kabul, which has already completed more than 500 km of roads in some of the most difficult terrains of the country. While the private company has finished projects in South Afghanistan, including the Herat-Kandahar link, it has not come under any major attack unlike the BRO, which has faced three suicide attacks this year itself.

“There is a threat perception but we have not had any major trouble,” says Rajeev Wadhawan, Project Manager of the BSC-C and C Company that has just taken on a project in Khost, near the Pakistan border. Work has just started on the 104 km project that will link Gardes and Khost near the border. The work order was won by the Indian company despite pressure from Islamabad to award it to a Pakistani corporation.

While work takes up most of the time, it helps to have an easy communication link with his family back in Delhi. Video chatting, Wadhawan says, ensures that he speaks to his two girls studying in the Indian capital at least once a day.

The Indian company, one of the first to start work in Afghanistan, has also started a diagnostic centre in the capital as a good will gesture. “We brought the first MRI scanner in Afghanistan to the capital as a goodwill gesture. The idea is to give something back to the country,” Wadhawan says.


 THE only regret most Indians in Kabul have is that their social life is restricted to house visits and the odd evening out at a restaurant. Indian food is available in a few Indian restaurants, including the Delhi Durbar and Namaste India, and most employers don’t want their staff to move around openly due to a fear of abduction.

However, this does not deter Kabul’s maverick ‘one man company’ from wandering around the streets without the mandatory ‘protection’. Col (retd) A.S. Mankotia came to Kabul in 2004 after putting in his papers from the army. A dazzling four years later, in which he juggled jobs, hit rock bottom and tried his hand at various businesses, the former army officer is running his own HAAIC consultant company that helps Indians get jobs in Kabul.

One of the most vibrant faces in the Indian community here, Mankotia is the ‘god father’ of several engineers and professionals that he has helped place in various Afghan companies. A veteran of Kabul, he knows his way around town better than Delhi where his family is based.

Afghan companies, he says, are desperately looking to hire professionals from India and are keen on recruiting civil engineers and IT experts. “Afghan employers just love Indians. They are impressed by the hard working nature of Indians and always want more. Indian companies working here are much more respected than those from Iran, Pakistan or China,” he says.

The only problem is that the demand in Kabul by far exceeds supply from India. “A company wants me to bring in 15 engineers. But with the embassy blast, it will be very difficult to convince people to work here, even though the city is as safe as Delhi,” Mankotia says.

The larger issue, he says, is the fear psychosis of people living in India who think that Afghanistan is a war zone. “If an attack happens in South Afghanistan, a person sitting in Delhi feels that Kabul is under fire,” Mankotia says, adding that attacks carried out by the Taliban or other forces are not targeted against common people but are directed at specific targets like embassies or Western convoys.

While most Indians do not have much of a social life, Mankotia makes it a point to visit the two Gurdwaras and Hindu temples in Kabul every week. The small Sikh and Hindu community in Kabul does not largely belong to the affluent class but are a strongly knit set of families practising their ancient trades of Unani medicine, cloth manufacturing and spice trading. “I learnt the trade from my father and it has been passed down for generations. Close to 25 Sikh families here practise Unani and it is very popular to cure sickness. People come from far away to get cured,” Ravel Singh, who lives in a rambling joint family home next to the Karteparwan Gurdwara in the capital.


WHILE many families have Afghan citizenship, they maintain strong ties with India, mostly through close relatives who migrated back after the Taliban came to power in the region. Some returned after the situation came back to normal after the US came in.

One such Sikh is Suraj Singh, who says he was an army commander before the Taliban came in and helped defend the hills of Kabul. He came back to Kabul last month after an 18-year exile in India. The reason, he says, is primarily the bad weather in India. “The weather is really bad and the heat is unbearable. I just love Kabul and have grown up here, playing with snow in the mountains. Ludhiana was just too hot for me,” the fast speaking ex-army commander, who also practises Unani in the Afghani Capital says.

Life is tough in Kabul—the average wage of a policeman in $50 and most government employees are paid below $100 a month besides the fact that the employment rate is very poor—but for most Indians, working in Kabul is cushy even though their social life is rather dull. “The money they get is purely for the security threat. It is the ‘danger pay’ that is most attractive,” says Mankotia.


Source: The Indian Express, New Delhi