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India rolls out red carpet for its diaspora
By Siddharth Srivastava

NEW DELHI - It began last year as a gargantuan task to bring the Indian Diaspora back together, to bring the Great Indian Family back home to Mother India.

The second annual Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas (PBD) under way on Friday is an attempt - and more than symbolic - to bring the 20 million-strong Great Indian family spread across the globe back to their native land, physically, emotionally - and financially.

More than 1,200 people of Indian origin from 55 countries are expected to attend the three-day PBD - a combination of seminars, consciousness-raising and problem-solving. And while financial investment from Indians abroad is important and sought after, organizers emphasize that what is most important is not riches - but the richness of the experience of Indians living abroad.

Indicating the importance of the event, among those attending are Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, fresh from his successful visit to Pakistan, and Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani, who has been at the forefront of granting dual citizenship to Indians abroad.

Over 2,000 people of Indian origin worldwide are converging on the capital. They include Noble Prize laureate Sir V S Naipaul, management Guru C K Prahalad, economist Jagdish Bhagwati, entrepreneur and philanthropist Lord Raj Bagri and business magnate L N Mittal, both of Britain, and veteran West Indies cricketer Rohan Kanhai. Leaders of Indian industry will address the assembly, including Mukesh Ambani, chairman of India's largest conglomerate, Reliance Industries, and Sunil Mittal, chairman of Bharti Telecom.

Highlights include a session with Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha on policies for productive engagement among Indians worldwide and a discussion with opposition leader Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress Party. Finance Minister Jaswant Singh speaks on globalization, the Indian economy and the Indian Diaspora; Advani speaks on "India and the Diaspora: Vision for 2020".

Other subjects of discussion include personal international law and the Indian diaspora, international trade - diaspora hubs and the global market, knowledge-based industries, networking for global leadership and tourism and branding strategies for India. Round table discussions on making India a competitive destination in healthcare, voluntary sector and development and finance are on the agenda.

"The first PBD last year set into motion the task of bringing Indians from every corner of the globe under one roof and for the first time created awareness about the achievements of the Great Indian Family. The second will take this effort further and not only enhance the belief and power that this family possesses but also deal with the issues and concerns faced by them," said J C Sharma, secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, a member of the organizing committee. The Indian government is closely involved, since the event is being hosted by India's foreign ministry in association with the leading industry body, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

More than airing grievances
Indeed, as the past year after the first get-together has proved, the event has turned out to be much more than just an occasion of plenty of talk and airing of grievances. There has been follow-up action.

Dual citizenship, a long-standing demand and main concern of the Indian diaspora in developed countries, has been made a reality. The draft bill was introduced in parliament on May 9 last year, to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955, and the act stands amended. This was a response to calls made by the first PBD in January last year.

For those Indians with foreign passports, the granting of dual citizenship will remove the obstacles in travel to and from India, removing the multiple visa requirements. The move will foster cooperation with powerful elements of the People of Indian Origin (PIO) settled in industrialized countries. While strengthening emotional bonds, it should also facilitate contributions to India's social development and buttress links with the younger generation keen to keep in touch with their roots.

"The fervor and passion elicited at the first PBD was very heart-warming and marked the beginning of a new chapter," says former diplomat L M Singhvi, who heads the organizing committee.

Based on feedback from the previous gathering, the Gulf nations insurance scheme, which had been pending for quite some time, is expected to be formalized. In order to protect the interests of blue-collar Indian workers in the Gulf region, a compulsory insurance program will be put in place, a plan that can be extended to other countries as long as the system of recruitment is through proper channels. A welfare fund for Indian workers in the Gulf is also expected to be established.

Another major amendment set in motion by the first PBD was the Foreign Contribution Act, an attempt to ease or remove the bureaucratic, financial and other impediments encountered by people and institutions in undertaking voluntary work in India. The act is expected to be amended soon.

Taking the process of systemic changes further this year, a special forum has been dedicated to air grievances and propose possible solutions.The gathering is attempting to engage the younger generation of the Indian diaspora by offering conference internships. There will be a session on the ethnic media, which plays an important role in keeping Indian communities connected and informed of India. A handbook is being published for Non-Resident Indians and PIOs, which will give them rules and guidelines on taxation, property rights, special programs offered by state governments and other issues.

Seeking riches - and richness
Indeed, the great Indian get-together is now being seen not only as a dip into an investment-centric relationship with the powerful Indian community abroad, but also an attempt to leverage the abundant talent and abilities of their diaspora in various fields. As Vajpayee said at the inaugural gathering last year: "We do not want your [Indians abroad] riches, we want the richness of your experience."

The financial power and influence of Indians abroad is significant. Their money-power speaks for itself. The US Census Bureau has pegged the Indian American median family's annual income at US$60,000, compared with the national average of $38,885. Despite the recent recession, the dotcom bubble burst and the tech meltdown, the estimated annual buying power of Indian Americans still stands at $20 billion. However, observers maintain that the event is not only about money.

"Today investment is not quantifiable in money terms only. There is a realization among Indians living abroad that our destinies are inter-linked even now. If India is seen as the emerging country, or as the growing economy, people will pay much more attention to people of Indian origin in various parts of the world. On the other hand if our diaspora are seen to be doing well, it only goes to enhance India's prestige,'' says organizer Sharma of ministry of external affairs.

The sentiment is echoed by others. When the Indian economy performed well in the 1990s, despite recession elsewhere, there was more attention to Indian communities aboard. They were seen as links to reach India's emerging markets. Another example of this change is the information technology sector. Indians excelling in Silicon Valley have revolutionized India's image within five years in the US.

Indians began to be associated with software and computers rather than elephants and snake charmers. Indians now want this success replicated in sectors like healthcare and biotechnology through a technology and knowledge leap so that the world sees India and Indians as a superior source for human capital. The Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas is a another way to send this message.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.

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Jan 10, 2004

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