“We want our bonds with Overseas Indians to strengthen”
Interview with Mr Prem Narain, Secretary, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs
Mr Prem Narain joined as Secretary, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs in November 2013. He speaks to Sayantan Chakravarty, Editor and Publisher, India Empire on enhancing and enriching the engagement with the Indian Diaspora in the coming months
Please take us through your vision for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs… This Ministry is a relatively new one that was created out of the Ministry of External Affairs and some part of the Ministry of Labour. It is playing a very important role insofar as overseas Indians are concerned. There are areas of concern like labour issues, law and order, harassment of Indians for no fault of theirs. This Ministry is there to create confidence so that these people overseas who need us do not feel that they are being left out in the cold by the Indian Government. The Ministry should be able to make them take more interested in partnering in the development process of the country. We hope that with all the different schemes that we have, plus celebrations such as the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas and regional PBDs, we are able to provide a good platform for engagement with India to the overseas Indians. At the diplomatic levels we need to be more proactive, and our Ministry can do some more work in that area. We already have funds in place that may be required for any emergency operations to support overseas Indians. We have delegated powers to heads of missions. We are thinking of making the fund bigger, and more effective, and are working in that direction. I think this ministry would have a very important role in future for engagement with the nation’s own people stationed overseas in the development process in India. I think there is a lot of scope in that. Some of the Indians, for instance, have won Nobel Prizes but we have not been able to engage much with them, or take from their rich pool of knowledge and skills. Institutions that can build links with them are yet to evolve and come into place. I’d like to work in this area, it is like a personal agenda for me. We would not want the efforts of eminent Indians overseas go waste in this country. In a sense we need to benefit India from the efforts they have put in.
The numbers seeking the OCI cards are growing at a rapid pace. This could be a sign that there is a greater interest in the diaspora to engage with India. How does the MOIA plan to capitalize on this? You are right. There are about 15 lakh OCI card holders at this point in time. The largest numbers have been issued in London (about 2.5 lakh), New York (about 1.8 lakh), San Francisco (about 1.3 lakh), Birmingham and Houston (about 1 lakh each). OCI cards have been issued by about 148 countries. The number of card holders is increasing at a great pace, nearly 1,000 cards are being issued each day. This gives us the confidence that those Indian brothers and sisters who are staying outside also want to have link with the home country. That link could be economic, cultural and social in nature. We have to take advantage of that interest. For that we have a number of programmes so that the interest is maintained. For the interest to be fruitful and for getting tangible benefits, we need to keep on pumping our efforts into sustaining these activities, and into growing them. We have the confidence based on the OCI cards that our engagements can accelerate in science and technology, finance, banking, economics. These are a few fields we’d like to concentrate upon. It has to be a two-way affair because India is a big market. If international organizations can take such great interest in our markets, why should our brethren be left behind? We want that our own men must come forward first, they are welcome to use our markets such that we benefit from their knowledge, technical expertise, and new products.
How critical is the role of the OIFC—that you chair—going to be in the coming months and years in the engagement process? OIFC was originally set up as a partnership between the CII and the Ministry. It is a platform that can create more entrepreneurial interest in India, a kind of a one-stop-shop that provides handholding services. The OIFC is an e-platform that has taken various initiatives. There are already 10 lakh visitors to the site. About 50,000 subscribers receive e-newsletters. There are 11 state partners who are taking the help of OIFC to coordinate with their own people abroad. It serves a definite purpose of attracting investments and is helping overseas Indians in engaging with states. There are experts available for online help and chats.
The Global Ink and the India Development Foundation are two institutions created by the MOIA and launched by the Prime Minister. How far have they been able to fulfil their mandate? The Global Ink is an initiative of the OIFC. It aims to build a network of knowledge and bring in outstanding innovations in healthcare, education and science to India. There are 151 registered users, among them the Cardiology Society of India, the Shankar Netralaya and the Neurological Society of India. The IDF has a noble aim of attracting overseas Indian philanthropy. It is exempted from the provisions of the FCRA. We have received some funds from three or four corners which are being utilized in Assam and Rajasthan through NGOs. But plenty needs to be done. One of the requirements that is coming in the way is that the IDF can deal with only those NGOs that have FCRA exemption. This exemption is something most NGOs don’t go for, not at least in the initial stages, so that limits the scope of engagement. The process of exemption is long, we have taken up the matter with the Ministry of Home Affairs. Philanthropy should be hassle-free, otherwise people will walk away. We are looking at bottlenecks and impediments and are trying to find ways of quickly getting them out of the way.