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NRIs Day Out

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February 2004
NRIs Day Out

The Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas celebrated its second anniversary with a huge mela in Delhi with over 1500 PIOs and NRIs congregated under one roof. As far as unifying attempts go, this one was greatly successful.

By Siddharth Srivastava

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It was billed as a one stop-shop for business networking and some friendly socializing and barring a few glitches this is exactly how the second Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas (PBD) turned out.

Nearly 1,500 people of Indian origin (PIO) and non-resident Indians (NRIs) from 55 countries attended the event. The meet was organized jointly by the Government of India and leading industry body, The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee set the tone of the meet by unveiling several programs aimed at turning Indian business global. Besides this, he also announced several sops for NRIs and PIOs. Lauding the role of PIOs/NRIs and their contribution to the economies of their adopted countries, the Prime Minister pointed out that it amounted to over Rs 55,000 crore.

Emphasizing that India had come a long way since he inaugurated the first PBD, Vajpayee said only last month India's foreign exchange reserves had crossed the $100 billion mark and the country was pre-paying its external loans. India recorded the fastest growth in 2003 and had started attracting the best of the talent back into the country?a remarkable achievement when compared to the longstanding problem of brain drain faced by the country.

Mr Vajpayee affirmed that the Information Technology (IT) sector had established India's technological superiority the world over. "India had become a preferred destination for IT enabled services companies", he said adding that outsourcing to India was a "win-win situation" for India and the sourcing countries and fears of job losses in these countries were baseless. It was natural for companies to use technology and human resources available in the international arena to enhance their efficiencies.

Mr. Vajpayee who is on election mode, with the electoral dates likely to be decided soon, announced several measures for the NRIs, especially for those living in the Gulf countries. He offered benefits in the areas of education, insurance and welfare, and also said provisions were being made in the law to treat the NRIs in the Gulf at par with Indian residents.

Also, while announcing major benefits to the Indian Diaspora, he said that corporate bodies have been allowed to make overseas investment up to 100 per cent of their net worth. Industries too have been permitted to go global in the agriculture sector. Indian corporates will be permitted to make overseas investments, whether through an overseas joint venture or a wholly owned subsidiary. "The current restrictions, including a ceiling of $100 million are hereby being lifted", said Mr. Vajpayee.

He said the existing restrictions on Indian corporates to undertake agricultural activities abroad, whether directly or through an overseas branch, is being removed. "This will enable Indian companies to take advantage of global opportunities and also to acquire technological and other skills for adoption in India."

He also announced the setting up of a Pravasi Bharatiya Kendra in Delhi with a Rs 25-crore grant from the union headquarters.

Lauding the efforts of the Indian Diaspora, Mr.Vajpayee said, "Who would have thought that the average income of an Indian American would be 50 per cent higher than the national average in US, especially since most of the Indian emigrants who went there in the '60s and the '70s had less than $10 in their pockets."

"I am happy to inform that Indian workers in the Gulf and South East Asia, who have had to leave their children behind in India, would now enjoy the facility of one-third reservation out of the 15 per cent supernumerary seats across different disciplines in educational institutions. Further, children of NRIs in the Gulf would not be required to pay NRI fees", said Mr. Vajpayee.

Explaining the union government's stand on dual citizenship being granted to only 16 countries, he said, "These 16 countries were chosen because their legal systems were compatible with the concept of dual citizenship, and there is a strong representation of people of Indian origin in these nations. In nations where we could not grant dual citizenship, we have compensated by insurance benefits that have already come into effect."

While giving away the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Awards to 12 NRIs, including astronaut, the late Kalpana Chawala, Mr. Vajpayee said "In honoring the individuals with the award, we do honor the entire Indian Diaspora." Remembering Chawla, he said, "Her journey from Karnal (Haryana) to the cosmos will continue to inspire young Indians and the young all over the world."

However, despite the sops and the promises, all was not as well as projected. Nobel laureate V S Naipaul did not turn up, nor did West Indian cricketer Rohan Kanhai. Two of the 12 who were being conferred the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman this year were not present to receive the honor?Shashi Tharoor despite being in India and Miriam Chisti from Kuwait. At least five of the ten who got the award last year, didn't turn up this year. Last year there were over 2,000 participants, this year it is down to 1,200. There was some explaining by J C Sharma, secretary in the foreign ministry and a member of the organizing committee, who justified the reduced number by saying, "The first year's response was spectacular, it is impossible to equal that."

But nobody could deny that there were grouses. Though the government kept its promise of dual citizenship for NRIs in select countries, the Lok Sabha passed the Dual Citizenship Bill only on the very last day of the last session of the Parliament. Many who attended the meet said that this is an indication of the overall ad-hocism when it comes to dealing with problems of Indians abroad. Granting dual citizenship selectively to some countries has caused a lot of heartburn, especially among the Gulf NRIs who have been excluded. There is a feeling that only dollar and pound NRIs and PIOs have been given this privilege. Some lamented that the demand for ?NRI' to be stamped on passports that helps in dealings with various Indian departments, had not been granted.

Another key announcement last year was reservation of seats in academic institutions for children of expatriates. Though implemented, there were not enough takers. American and British NRIs did not apply and Gulf NRIs could not afford to pay the NRI fee slabs. Some of these reserved seats were reportedly given to wards of influential Indians paying from NRI accounts. The PM's announcement that Gulf NRIs would be exempted from the NRI fee slabs and treated at par with resident Indians is a major sop though probably not big enough to compensate for not being given dual citizenship.

The Bharat Shiksha Kosh constituted with much fanfare last year, is a great opportunity for NRI's to invest in India's educational development but this has had virtually no takers. The government is now trying to wash its hands off it. "It is a separately registered body, we have nothing to do with it", said an official. The few thousand dollars that have trickled in are for the Indian Institute of Indian Technology (IITs) and that too only because the government had made it mandatory to channel funds for IITs through the Kosh.

Foreign direct investment by NRIs and PIO, despite solemn promises of partnership and collaboration are nothing to write home about. The PM said Rs 55,000 crores had come from NRIs. But more than fifty per cent of this is remittance to families from Malayalis in the Gulf.

Why are NRIs wary of investing? Probably because, as development economist Lord Meghnad Desai said in his address: "India has an image of being a fiscally soft country." And how could things be set right? "The first thing is to create the perception that things work in India." "A machinery has to be put in place for this, before anything else," said Dipak C Jain from the Kellogg Institute.

So was the Pravasi meet all hype and no substance? Most delegates think it is an excellent forum for networking but find the pace of implementation "frustrating".

Perhaps the mood was summed up by a quote that appeared in The Times of India. "There's the danger of meeting, passing resolutions and then forgetting about it. A website which keeps updating us on the follow-up action taken by the government would help. As far as business is concerned PIOs would gladly invest in India. With a burgeoning middle-class India is a dream market, if only there was more transparency and less bureaucracy. A single window clearance is what investors want", says Mariam Kassam, diplomat and lawyer, and a third generation PIO from Uganda.

The first two PBDs have set the tone, but the pace is still to be put in place.


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