Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs

“Our missions must be proactive when dealing with the Indian Diaspora”

Having nearly completed four years in office, Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, Vayalar Ravi, has laid the foundation for a strong dialogue with the Indian diaspora. Several key initiatives have taken place. He’s had to visit many countries to make the presence of his ministry felt. His biggest achievement is that now the Indian diaspora knows that it has a single window in the MOIA when it comes to discussing opportunities in India, and addressing queries. He spoke to INDIA EMPIRE Editor Sayantan Chakravarty while preparing for PBD 2010

What is that one thing that makes you feel that you’ve left your mark at the MOIA?
I have been able to motivate the diaspora to develop a feeling for India. I can say safely that now there is a feeling in this community that here in India, both the Government and the people look at them as close relatives. During all my visits abroad and during open house sessions in our embassies, I’ve been offering an opportunity to the Indian community to speak and express its problems. These sessions have had a very good impact among our missions too, who in any case must be proactive when dealing with the Indian diaspora. The Indian community now feels that it is being cared for, and looked after by our missions. The missions have a vital role to play. It is through them that the diaspora’s thoughts and feelings about India will be strengthened.

There are two kinds of diaspora. One made up of the descendants of older immigrants, and the other of new immigrants. Since their expectations are different, how do you deal with them…
The PIOs, whose grand fathers went to indentured labout camps all over the world, now have political power. They have become rulers, presidents, prime ministers. They look at India not only as a friend, but also a country that speaks and stands up for them. In some of these countries Indians are being harassed, political leaders are being imprisoned. Whenever these kind of issues come up, I find they look to India now.

But often the Indian Government is not able to intervene…
Yes. There are limitations. These countries are sovereign, so we need to deal with them cautiously, carefully. Our PIOs are citizens of those sovereign nations, and in the process of dealing with them, we do not want to develop ill-feelings with those countries. So we deal with such issues diplomatically, in the best manner possible.

Do you then firmly believe that India’s engagement with the diaspora is on the right track. Or are changes necessary?
I think we are clear in our approach. I think we are able to bring out the Indian-ness in every Indian, which ever part of the world he may be. Many in the diaspora look at India as a major economic power with political stability. We are applauded as a democracy and a liberal society. They acknowledge that our Prime Minister has been able to able to make India the fourth strongest economy in the world.

Indian work forces in many countries are short-changed by recruitment agents and employers. Then they are jailed. What has your Ministry done to deal with this pressing issue?
The immigrant workers in the Gulf have been ruthlessly exploited by agents. They have been suffering a lot. It was necessary for me and the Ministry to have some kind of mechanism to control the exploitation, that is why we had to come down heavily on recruitment agents. Many licenses have been cancelled. Some sponsors play mischief by taking away passports. They promise housing, returning fare and other benefits, but actually do not implement them. They want to turn these immigrant workers into indentured labour. We have signed agreements, and I must say the Gulf countries are very positive on this issue. They have expressed concern, and have demonstrated intent to look after our workers.

2009 has not been a year to remember for Indian students in Australia. They have been repeatedly attacked in public places. What has your Ministry done to assure their safety?
I am not defending what has happened, but we must first understand one thing. In five years, the number of Indian students has shot up from 18,000 to 100,000. The quality of students landing up is not good, many of them are lured away with job offers by education touts. We have raised issues at the political level with top leadership of Australia and at a diplomatic level. In the end I can say this, it is a foreign country. The options are limited, either ban students going there, or we can persuade the Australian Government to tighten things up by taking strong police measures. There have been speedy trials and convictions which make us believe that Australia is serious. I think the racial part is being overplayed, I do not think there is racial prejudice in that country.

In Malaysia the Indian community had a tough time two years ago…
I do not want to comment on that. There is an internal fight for power going on there. One group fought against the Malaysian Indian Congress. It is an internal matter, and we do not want to get in.

The regional PBDs are quite a hit. Where do plan to take it outside India in 2010?
Africa. It is a continent where we have the largest number of PIOs. 

January 2010

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