The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas concluded on January 9, leaving in its trail plenty

 of possibilities and a few questions

“Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools.”
—Salman Rushdie

India’s engagement with its diaspora is an engagement with its mind, its heart and some wouldn’t deny, even its currency notes. The Indian diaspora is more often than not straddling two cultures, as author Salman Rushdie so aptly puts it. The diaspora wins its bread in distant lands, but can hardly ever afford to forget its roots. And yet, cautiously must it tread when it engages with its mother country.

It is to find out how much caution it must exercise, how much of its heart it must give, how much of its currency notes it must deposit, that the Indian diaspora returns year after year to the annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. Some do not, of course, return, for this conclave of mini India leaves them with more questions, than answers, and the energy to find those answers they have simply run out of. And yet, some others, the long-distance runners, return, those who are optimistically looking to partner India in the years ahead, and build its status into a world power once more after centuries of living a crushed existence.

There is no doubt that the Diaspora movement that India started in 2003 through its carefully crafted engagement policy through the PBD has become known, both in India and overseas. The PBD is now seen as a place to exchange ideas about India, its growth and direction with the Overseas Indians who have a far-reaching stake in it, intellectually, financially, culturally and emotionally. The idea of the PBD is here to stay. The engagement, here on, can only get bigger, better, and brighter.

Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India inaugurates PBD 2013 in the presence of Chief Guest, H.E. Rajkeswur Purryag, President of Mauritius (right), Mr Vayalar Ravi, Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs (second from right) and Mr Oommen Chandy, Chief Minister of Kerala
The Gadar stamp being released by Prime Minister in the presence of H.E. Purryag, Minister Ravi and Governor Hansraj Bharadwaj
Dignitaries pay respect to India’s national anthem during the valedictory session (left to right) Minister for NORKA K C Joseph, Union Minister of State K V Thomas, Kerala, Kerala CM Oommen Chandy, Mauritius President Purryag, President of India Pranab Mukherjee, Governor Bharadwaj, Union Minister Ravi and Union Minister of State E Ahmed
President Mukherjee decorates President Purryag with the PB Samman Award

These sentiments are also being echoed from the highest levels of the Indian Government. Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, inaugurating the 11th PBD at Kochi on January 8 said, “I believe that the overseas Indian community should be a vital partner and participant in India’s social and economic development. Whether you wish to invest or share your knowledge, technology and skills, whether your enterprise takes you to the cities, or your compassion brings you to a remote village, I assure you of our continuing effort to support your endeavours.”

The naturally enthusiastic tone of those words lends itself to many possibilities, multiple opportunities, and a raft of doors being opened to Overseas Indians. The PM himself chairs a meet on a Global Advisory Council that he set up some years ago, and picks on the best brains in the Indian Diaspora once a year. This year, too, the G.A.C. met, discussing the implications of key international issues on India, including the global economic situation, developments in West Asia and the Gulf, trends in the Asia Pacific. Among those who attended were Lord Karan F. Bilimoria, Mr Swadesh Chatterjee, Ms. Ela Gandhi, Lord Khalid Hameed, Dr. Renu Khator, Mr Kishore Mahbubani, Mr L.N.Mittal, Lord Bhiku Chotalal Parekh, Tan Sri Dato’ Ajit Singh, Mr. Neville Joseph Roach, Mr Yusuffali M.A.

Taking off from where the Prime Minister left, Commerce and Industry Minister, Mr Anand Sharma said what is significant is that the Indian economy has kept growing, even if the pace has fallen, at a time when the large economies of the world have struggled and faced crises. He expressed confidence that the country’s GDP would rise in the coming years. Minister for Urban Development, Mr Kamal Nath, said the challenges before India were many and none more than in the area of infrastructure. While 430 million reside in cities today, in the next decade the figure would rise to a very large 600 million. The number of cities would have gone up from 53 at present to 72, each one with a minimum population of a million.

More and more exhibitors flock the PBD each year, jostling for space, and looking to showcase their best products and services. The bankers book the largest exhibition stalls, and it comes as little surprise because, after all, the remittances of the Indian Diaspora (at USD 70 billion) now outstrips that of the Chinese, the Mexican and the Filipino diasporas. They also far outstrip the FDI remittances coming into India.

State Governments form the second largest group of exhibitors now, with several states vying for NRI time, attention and money. Financial advisory firms, jewelers, real estate groups, luxury hotels and spas have also shown a growing inclination to tap into this market. In the words of Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, Mr Vayalar Ravi, “the PBD is succeeding in its aim of becoming a forum for global Indians to engage with India, and to generate ideas on the mutually beneficial India-Diaspora engagement.”

The PBSA winners with President Mukherjee and Minister Ravi

 Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Mr Vayalar Ravi (second from right), Kerala CM Mr Oommen Chandy (centre), Kerala’s Minister for NORKA Mr K C Joseph and Secretary, MOIA, Mr Rajiv Mehrishi (left) at the inauguration of the Exhibition Area at PBD 2013
Kerala CM Chandy welcomes President Purryag during the cultural evening and dinner hosted by the Kerala Government in Kochi
Prof Harish Puri (second from right) who delivered the PBD Oration on the Gadar movement seen with GOPIO International Chairman Mr Inder Singh (right) and Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Mr Vayalar Ravi (second from left) among others; Minister Ravi addressing a key session related to Indians in Gulf
Another release moment, also seen is Mr Yusuff Ali, M.A., business baron and NORKA Vice Chairman (second from left) A view of delegates who attended the inaugural session

President of India, Mr Pranab Mukherjee made the final appeal during his PBD valedictory address. He called upon NRIs to invest in India, stating that a revival of high investment rate in the country would be an absolute necessity if the economy were to regain its 8+ per cent growth levels. Indian Diaspora could help by investing in Indian companies and establishing new ventures.

He spelt out that the Indian capital market for Qualified Foreign Investors (QFIs) had been opened for investment. Initially, QFIs were permitted to invest in Indian Mutual Funds and on January 1, 2012, in a far-reaching decision, doors for equities were opened to them to invest directly in India. The Corporate Bond market was also opened to QFIs. India has also set up a friendly regime to enable Indians abroad to remit money to the country. NRIs can deposit money in the country under the Non Resident External Rupee account scheme, Non Resident Ordinary Rupee account scheme and Foreign Currency Non Resident account Banks scheme. These schemes have been welcomed by the Diaspora, and it had responded by depositing close to US$ 67 billion at the end of October 2012. The net private transfers from abroad during the first half of 2012-13 was close to US$ 33 billion.

The PBD attendance figures remain at 2,000, indicating that only the influential, those who can find speakers’ slots or are able to fly to India at significant costs, are able to attend. True, there are regional PBDs to address regional concerns, but for an event that has been pitched as truly global, and has both Prime Minister and President of India welcoming delegates, the numbers need to go up. One can look at the timing of the PBD, and figure whether the second week of January, i.e. post holidays in December—when majority NRIs are making their way back home—is the best time to hold the event.
Clearly there are two diasporas. The I.T. specialist in California or the mall owner in Dubai—considered new immigrants—have different expectations from their engagement with India than say the fourth generation professor from the Caribbean, descendant of sugarcane workers who left the country about 150 years ago. Year after year, these descendants of sugarcane, tea and plantation workers, or even those of traders whose ancestors moved away from India over 100 years ago, attend the PBD in large numbers. They even come from remote Francophone islands in the Indian and Atlantic oceans, mostly unable to utter one full sentence in English, but wearing their love for India on their shirt sleeves. Their expectations from engaging with India are of a different kind. The two diasporas need different attention, different focus, and different interactive modules. May be the sessions need to be tailored as such.

All in all, the PBD is an idea whose time has come to propel itself to the next level. An event that has the Prime Minister reaching out in such earnest to India’s extraordinary diaspora, deserves that.


February 2013

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