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NRIs' return to India puts auto R&D in top gear

Chanchal Pal Chauhan  |  New Delhi 

As part of Ford Motor Company's crack research and development (R&D) team, he helped the US car maker launch its popular hybrid car Excape.
But after working for nine years in Ford's Michigan R&D centre, Arun Jaura packed his bags and came to India to join Mahindra & Mahindra two years ago. His job: to launch the country's first bio-diesel vehicle under the Scorpio brand and a Mahindra tractor.
With two patents and over 26 research papers under his belt, the vice-president of Mahindra & Mahindra's R&D is now working on a combined battery and diesel sports utility vehicle (SUV).
"The rich experience gained in the developed world helps in avoiding the mistakes the US and the European Union made and could turn India into a 'Brains Trust of Asia'," Jaura said.
Jaura is just one of the growing number of top automotive engineers and infotech professionals who are reversing the brain drain and driving straight to India's automotive industry.
According to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), there are already over 250 Indian expatriates who have returned to work on R&D in domestic automobile Mahindra & Mahindra, Ashok Leyland, Tata Motors and Hindustan Motors. SIAM predicts that their numbers will double in two years.
With investments of over Rs 100,000 crore lined up in the Indian automobile industry, and European and US car majors making an aggressive push into India, Indian car have begun to understand the significance of R&D.
Investments are small "" R&D budgets are just 1 to 2 per cent of domestic car makers' turnover "" but are expected to grow rapidly. As Jaura pointed out, Indian like Mahindra are ready to take risks and invest money in R&D to build globally competitive products.
"The return of expatriates is helping the Indian companies to overcome their human resource challenge in the field of research. The significant development of the automotive industry is now a magnetic proposition for qualified people to return and harness their knowledge," said Dilip Chenoy, director general, SIAM.
SIAM has set up a society in the US known as the Association of Scientists of Indian Origin that taps Indians working in the automobile majors there and provides access to domestic firms to identify and recruit talent in engineering and R&D.
There are numerous examples. Arvind S Bharatwaj, for instance, took a 50 per cent cut in his salary in General Motors in the US to return to India and now heads the advanced engineering unit of Chennai-based Ashok Leyland.
He has been blending the use of electronics and engineering (infotronics) in commercial vehicles to come out with new high-tech products for the company. "Besides the satisfaction, it gives me a great sense of pride to develop innovative technologies for a native company," Bharatwaj said.
Pawan Goenka, Jaura's colleague at Mahindra, also returned after a 14-year stint with General Motors' global research and development centre in Detroit. He now heads the automotive division in Mahindra and has been the force behind the introduction of Scorpio, the most successful SUV ever launched in India. He has also prepared the blueprint to sell the Indian SUV in the US.
V Sumantran, who was closely associated with GM's futuristic EV1 electric cars project and then played a key role in Tata Motors' small car before he quit, now advises Ashok Leyland on developing battery-operated hybrid trucks and buses.
Raja Pant left the design development facility of Ford Motor Company in the US and is now with the body fabrication business of Tata Motors.
And Sudhir Rao, who was with General Motors engine development operations in Detroit, now works with Avtec Engines, a unit of Hindustan Motors, which supplies engines to Mitsubishi Motors and General Motors India.

First Published: Thu, May 10 2007. 00:00 IST