Interview : J.C. Sharma

Interview with J.C.Sharma 
Author of the High Level Committee report on the Indian Diaspora

“The figure of 25 million is exaggerated”

J.C. Sharma was the originator of the idea of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. He was also one of the prime architects of India’s diaspora policy. As member secretary and author of the High Level Committee (HLC) on the India Diaspora that was chaired by the late L.M. Singhvi, Sharma had to travel across the world to bring in valuable inputs that would shape India’s vision and engagement with its diaspora. At the time he retired from service, Sharma was a secretary in the Ministry of External affairs, and had also served as ambassador of India and been posted at important consuls like Vancouver and Chicago. Even today, he is a part of every diaspora forum, and is regarded widely for his knowledge and insight in this area. He spoke to India Empire Editor Sayantan Chakravarty:

We do not have an exact count of the number of Overseas Indians in the world. Figures vary from one Pravasi Bharatiya Divas to another, even from session to session. Sometimes it goes up to 30-35 million, sometime it comes down to 25 million. In your report you had mentioned 20 million. What in your opinion should be a fair estimate, and how do we arrive at that figure?
I would consider 25 million as over-exaggerated. I feel it is more likely to be about 20 million with 10 per cent on either side. That is after accounting for half a million in the USA, and another half a million in the Gulf. It is with a lot of reluctance that we’d accepted a figure of 2.5 million PIOs in Myanmar. The figures based on which I had gone by during the compilation of the report were sourced from our embassies. We had asked them to relate the figures to the local census and local publications. Very good census statistics are available in the USA, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand. You can reach fairly accurate figures on the basis of those. At the most, we can add another 2 million to the figure we’d come up with in the year 2000. There has been a tendency to grossly exaggerate these figures at various public events.

One of the objectives of setting up the HLCID was to acquaint the Indian public with the depth, variety and achievements of the Indian diaspora. Is one PBD enough to achieve this objective?
PBD is not the only event in which everything can be packed in. The HLC’s vision was that following deliberations at the PBD, more specialized round table events and conferences could emerge. The PBD would, of course, provide the platform for other such events to take off. PBD provides the networking. The idea was to leverage the skills of the diaspora in specific areas in an institutionalized manner. The PBD was not meant for just bilateral dialogue, it was meant to bring at one place all components of global Indians together. 

It needs to be ensured that all sections are represented. When we organized the PBD there were eminent members from the opposition, and some well-known critics of the Government who were in different panels

7 PBDs have now been held. Are you satisfied with the end result?
Well, I’ve not been associated in any manner with the recent PBDs, except as an invitee at the 3rd and 4th one, and as an organizer at the 1st and 2nd ones. After that I’ve had no direct feel of the event. I’ve, however, had perspectives on the event. Certainly, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that the concept of the global Indian family has been established. The PBD event is responsible for establishing this idea. The Indians are way better informed now about the Indian diaspora. And the diaspora is way better informed about India than ever before. PBD may not be the sole factor, but it has no doubt played a very important role in this process.

The HLC recommended the PBD be held on January 9. Do you think that this is a good idea when majority of Overseas Indians return to their countries of domicile by end of December?
I do not know if they return at that time. It would be an internal survey to do, to determine how many would be discouraged by the opening of schools. We had chosen the dates because you’ve good weather then, there is holiday season, and there is the symbolism of January 9 (return of Mahatma Gandhi from South Africa in 1915). 

Most schools open around January 5 or 6, so we are asking people to stay back just three or four days beyond that. When I was CG in 1999, I’d proposed the holding of a Pravasi Divas and had also recommended January 9 as the date. This was in a paper I’d submitted on India’s foreign policy and the role of its diaspora. Today, for the next several years, the dates of the PBD are fixed in everyone’s calendar, including those of the Indian Prime Minister and President. The Indian Science Congress also takes place around the PBD dates, and now even the Vibrant Gujarat and other state level events take place. We’d also estimated that at least about 50,000 families of overseas Indians are present in India around this time.

How did you arrive at the figure of 50,000 overseas Indian families?
This is a figure that can be easily cross-checked from immigration records. Our estimate was based on the level of difficulty in booking tickets to India around December. In my estimate, the figure should have gone up significantly by now, given increasing travels to India.

And how do you ensure that the numbers attending the PBD go up?
Well, for one give ample time to the diaspora to plan. There is no logic, no legitimate reason for announcing the venue of the next PBD so late. The venue for the subsequent PBD should be announced on the concluding day of the previous one. Then we should make a conscious effort at making this an event of India, and not an event of the Govt. of India. It needs to be ensured that all sections are represented. When we organized the PBD there were eminent members from the opposition, and some well-known critics of the Government who were in different panels. The session on culture was chaired by Ms Nejma Heptullah, at the time she was with the Opposition Congress party. There were others like I.K. Gujral who chaired a session, and women like Kapila Vatsayan, Shabana Azmi, Ila Bhagwat, all known critics of several Government policies. Every possible effort was made to ensure the presence of the then Leader of Opposition, she did attend a reception. Overseas members, regardless of any affiliation of any kind, were asked to speak at panels. The panel on youth at the second PBD was chaired by Jyotiraditya Scindia, an MP from the Opposition at the time. Harsh Mander, another known critic, was at another NGO panel. That kind of pan-Indian presence is missing. To not invite someone like the late L.M.Singhvi, the chair of the HLC, is according to me unfortunate. It did not go down well with delegates, anybody who came in thought that it was singularly unfortunate as well.

If you were given the freedom to change things, what is that one thing you would change?
Let me focus on the PBD. Ours was a conscious decision to take the PBD beyond just another regular conference. The idea was to conduct a unique event, at a higher level, on a different plane such that the diaspora could see India at its best, go back charged with a sense of pride after being showcased the best in terms of logistics, cultural programmes, entertainment, cuisines, artists. We wanted it to be memorable, and grand, and it was. The coming together of three music maestros, all Bharat Ratna awardees, provided the nostalgia that the diaspora is looking for. We were also able to showcase India as a huge tourist destination. We need to question if the same intent and intensity are there now.

Besides, I’d like to know why it has taken five years to come up with the Pravasi Kendra. It should really be expedited. It should become the focal point of diaspora-related activities and turn into a storehouse of data, and information.

While the Ministry has done well in dealing with the Gulf, mostly along the lines recommended in the HLC report, there is a great need to pay equal attention to all segments of the Indian diaspora. Special efforts for non-English speaking diaspora must be made.

The promotion of the event can be done more professionally. If the venue is announced for the next few years, then the embassies, our field offices, can be activated. The embassies will drive the PBD in the coming years. People from headquarters can move accordingly to promote the event, and publicity exercises can be timed with big dates like July 4, Indian Arrival Day, Girmit Day.

You mentioned the role of the embassies, can you elaborate?
The Ministry’s interaction with field offices has to be very intense. You cannot deal with the diaspora without the support of the missions. It is in no way any reflection on the competence of the present incumbent or my colleagues in the IAS who are very distinguished, but I need to emphasize that in future the post of the secretary in the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs needs to be given to an officer from the Indian Foreign Service. There is no more need for coordination than between the ministries of External Affairs and Overseas Indian Affairs, and an Indian Foreign Service officer is best positioned for this job. He would have had field experience in dealing with the diaspora and can engage with them more meaningfully since they’ve already worked closely with them during foreign postings. He’d be better able to deal with heads of mission and would have developed personal rapport with the members of his own service that is critical to working smoothly and easily. He’d be aware of the strengths within the ethnic Media. To engage with the diaspora, you are totally dependent on embassies. Of course some nodal officer in the Ministry should be there for coordination and can be drawn from different services.

What role will education and knowledge play in ensuring greater engagement with India?
We need to imaginatively work out programme credits with universities. The biggest tool of promoting relations is education. I had conceptualized with MEA a one-semester exchange programme. MASA of Israel has a USD 100 million scheme, essentially a 50:50 partnership between the Government of Israel and the diaspora worldwide. It helps connect the diaspora to its mother country.

If we have programme credits in place, at any point in time 15,000 – 20,000 students can be in India. Two to three good universities are running high quality Indian study programmes in consultation with academicians. These programmes should be able to provide the fulcrum for more PIO students’ interaction with India, and they should be adequately funded. The other area of connect is in science and technology. I don’t see the Ministry’s initiative very much here, it is more of an individual enterprise. We had identified internal security as an area of cooperation with the diaspora with the help of joint groups that had clear focus and measurable objectives. Areas like cyber data mining and explosive security are important to India.

The diaspora is here to stay?
The diaspora is a fact of life. The engagement is here to stay. The challenge is to keep things positive..

April 2009

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