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14 January, 2014

Linking with disparate Diaspora

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

For 12 years the Indian government has been trying to strengthen bonds with the Diaspora. However, its engagement with overseas Indians remains skewed on social and economic lines.

Since 2003 the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs has been celebrating Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Overseas Indians Day) on January 9 each year. It was on that day in 1915 that Mahatma Gandhi returned to India ending life as an expatriate in South Africa.

This year’s celebrations, spread over three days, were held last week. The theme, “Engaging Diaspora: Connecting across Generations”, reflected the government’s desire to attract young people of Indian origin in other lands.

Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi said partnerships between young Indians at home and those residing in other lands in the industrial and social sectors would lead to job creation and prosperity.

About 22 million Indians, living in 205 countries, constitute the second largest Diaspora after the Chinese community of about 50 million. In 1978, the year in which Deng Xiaoping launched market reforms, Beijing set up the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office to engage with overseas Chinese who are important players in the economic life of many countries. Specific areas along the mainland’s long coast were allotted to Chinese communities in different countries to make investments.

Bharatiya Pravasi Divas celebrations were initiated by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government in 2003 at the instance of Hindutva elements in the US. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, which came to power after the 2004 elections, set up the Overseas Indian Affairs Ministry. It also instituted a scheme of honouring distinguished overseas Indians.

Overseas Indians fall in two categories: Non-Resident Indians, numbering more than 10 million, who are citizens of India living abroad for work, education or other purposes; and Persons of Indian Origin, numbering about 12 million, who, by definition, are foreign citizens of Indian origin or ancestry.

The latter category is a mixed lot which includes recent migrants in search of a better life who have taken up foreign citizenship as well as descendants of people who were shipped abroad by the British colonial regime as convicts sentenced to transportation for participation in revolts or as indentured labourers.

The Gulf States have the largest Indian community of more than 5.69 million, of whom about 1.79 million are in Saudi Arabia and 1.75 million in the UAE. All but a small number of them are NRIs who have to return home when their job visas expire. Beneficiaries of the economic boom triggered by oil price rise, most of them make modest earnings. However, among them there are also a few successful businessmen who figure in the Forbes list of the rich.

The USA accounts for 2.25 million Indians, a fair proportion of them professionals who have climbed high in corporate ladders. The UK follows with 1.5 million. Other countries with significant Indian presence include South Africa (1.22m), Mauritius (0.88m), Trinidad and Tobago (0.55m), Australia (0.45m), Guyana (0.32m) and Fiji (0.31m).

While recent migrants have carried with them regional and religious and caste prejudices from the homeland, in places like the West Indies and Fiji the Indian communities have largely overcome them through inter-marriage over a period of more than a century.

The government has failed to take note of the differing character of overseas Indian communities and devise suitable schemes to meet their requirements which range widely. India, the world’s largest recipient of foreign remittances, got $69 billion from NRIs in 2012. Nearly half of the money came from the comparatively low earners in the Gulf region who send all their savings home. Yet the government has not been sufficiently attentive to their needs. The Pravasi Bharatiya registration fee of $250 blocks their effective participation in the annual get-together.

Two years ago the government granted the NRIs’ demand for voting right. However, in the absence of facilities to vote online or at the Indian missions abroad, few are able to exercise the right.

NRIs in the Gulf region have long-standing grievances against Air India, the national flag carrier, which, they say, charges high fares, especially at times of festivals. Also, their children have to pay heavy fees for admission to colleges under NRI quota.

The political class’s involvement with nouveau riche NRIs is evident in the way selections are made for the annual awards. Critics have said the only qualification of one person who was honoured this year is that he is the son-in-law of a billionaire.

The annual Diaspora gathering needs to be saved from degenerating into a ritual. The government must devote serious attention to improving the quality of the interaction.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 14, 2013

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