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Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas: Wooing the Globetrotting Indian

February 2003
Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas: Wooing the Globetrotting Indian


The three-day ?Pravasiya Bhartiya Divas?, organized by the Indian Government in collaboration with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), from January 9 had little to show by way of achievement except the announcement of a scheme for ?dual citizenship? for persons of Indian origin (PIOs) settled in six countries (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore). The rest of the Indian community abroad had to remain satisfied with a pat on the back by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, his deputy, L.K. Advani, and assorted Cabinet ministers.

The fact that dual citizenship was granted to only a chosen few of the flock abroad attracted the charge of ?dollar and pound apartheid?. For the over four million Indians working in the Gulf, who have contributed in no mean way to the present burgeoning foreign exchange reserves of $72-odd billion, all the PM had on offer was a compulsory insurance scheme for workers migrating to that region.

Critics were quick to pan the Government?s half-hearted moves to ?woo the NRI community?. ?The Times of India? said that the Vajpayee Government had ?pulled out yet another non-existent rabbit out of its political hat?. It is ?a strange citizenship?, it noted, that ?confers no political rights on its recipients? and said that the new status just amounted to a glorified version of the PIO card. It would only obviate the need for pravasis to stand in queues for visas before homecoming.

Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani was, however, quick to spell out the reasons for restricting the offer of dual citizenship to NRIs from just six countries. He said on the second day of the meet, ?One of the primary factors guiding our decision was the simple requirement that the host nation should also have a law granting dual citizenship.?

The meet started off with a hiccup in the first place as several Indians in the US decided to boycott it to register their protest against the presence of the Vajpayee Government-appointed ?ambassador-at-large? in the US, Bhishma Aghnihotri. Agnihotri, it may be recalled, besides rubbing many of his brethren in the US the wrong way, had tread on a lot of corns in the Foreign Office by purporting to advise Indian envoys abroad about how they should conduct their business. In any case, the establishment in Washington had cut him to size by denying him diplomatic status.���

On the NRI investment front, which should have been the prime focus of the Government and FICCI, there were the usual exhortations about the need to step up the flow of funds from abroad but very little by way of concrete action or any assurance that the current infrastructure bottlenecks would be removed. ?We have ambitious plans for airports, ports and railways?We are building world class highways?Our telecom facilities are as good as anywhere in the world?, asserted the Prime Minister, but few NRIs were willing to buy this.

The move to spur direct investment by NRIs was probably inspired by China?s example, which receives, on an average, as much as $30-40 billion annually from its expatriate community by way of direct investment (the sum last year exceeded $50 billion). By contrast, persons of Indian origin account for a mere 9 percent of total investment flows into India, and only 4 percent of foreign direct investment, with the Reserve Bank?s figure for NRI direct investment in 2001-2002 being put at a miniscule $35 million and that for investment in acquisition of shares of Indian companies at $881 million.

It is no surprise that well-heeled NRIs in the US and Britain are unwilling to invest in India, as economic conditions are just not conducive to such investment. The Government has still to wake up to the fact that it is not just loyalty to the motherland that will fetch it funds from persons of Indian origin but a stable and secure climate and a decent rate of return on investment. The constant saber rattling against Pakistan, for instance, has led to many investors of other nationalities parking their funds in China and countries in the Far East. The Indian software industry too has, of late, started hedging its bets by setting up offshore sites as a backup facility just in case there is instability in the country or conflict with Pakistan.

But the jamboree was not totally a lost cause. There were learned discussions on tapping sectors like bio-informatics, nano technology and distance education by the likes of Information Technology Secretary R.R.Shah, NASSCOM President Kiran Karnik and Xansa CEO Saurabh Srivastava.

Deputy Prime Minister L.K.Advani warmed the cockles of the heart of members of the Indian diaspora in the US by acknowledging the great role they had played in improving Indo-US relations and bringing about a sea change in Washington?s perception of India. ?Be it Pokhran, Kashmir or issues of cross-border terrorism, Indians living in the US have lobbied hard to develop a better appreciation of India?s viewpoint?, he said.

The PM too had unstinted praise for the pioneer spirit of the NRIs, their never-say die approach and ?can do, will succeed? attitude in foreign climes. He held out their achievements as an exemplar. ?The benchmarks of success which the pravasi community has set are a challenge for us in India?They prod us to create a business, investment and economic climate that is as conducive to success as anywhere else in the world. We are fully committed to creating such an environment in India.? o

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