Thursday, January 20, 2011

The 9th Pravasi Divas - Signs of Diminishing Shine

The following article appeared in the online publication South Asia Post, Issue 127 Vol VI, January 15, 2011

THE Bharat Pravasi Divas(PBD) - the annual Kumbh Mela of Mother India’s children scattered all over the globe - was conceived and designed by the AB Vajpayee led NDA government to cater to the aspirations of India’s Diaspora Community for a renewal of cultural ties and playing roles in the feasible areas of mutual benefits. A lot of enthusiasm was generated during the two meets in 2003 & 2004.

Then the BJP faced an unexpected electoral reversal when people of India refused to be convinced of the slogan of 'shining India'. The UPA-1 Government was quick to create a Ministry of NRI Affairs - not a very thoughtful nomenclature which had to changed soon to Ministry of Overseas Indians Affairs (MOIA). The choice of Shri Jagdish Tytler as the first Minister was also to prove controversial and he was replaced by Shri Vaylar Ravi with the rank of a cabinet Minister. The experienced hands of Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) strongly feel that the new MOIA, grossly handicapped as it is in terms of both resources and expertise, is not an ideal arrangement - and that the MEA with an Overseas Indians Department can handle the matters of the Indians living abroad in a more competent and holistic manner.

The 9th Pravasi Divas held in Delhi from the 7th to 9th of January had all the standard ingredients of the previously set patterns. The events in India preceding immediately before the meet do cast a light or shadow over the deliberations during the conference. If the terrorist attack on Mumbai had its impact in 2009; return to power by the UPA-2 had defined the atmosphere in 2010. It might have been the whispers of recent spate of scandals of corruption filling the corridors of the PBD conference this time. The ‘feel good’ for Pravasis-Pardesis - could be as good or as bad as the Desis feel! The region of North East of the country had been show cased as the theme of the 9th edition of Pravasi Mela.

Before the formal inauguration of the meet the next day, there were series of seminars on 7th Jan for sectors of Education, health, Diaspora role models for the North East of India, initiatives by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). Minster Kapil Sibal said that the gross enrollment ratio of children joining colleges has been set to increase from 12 to 30 by 2020 and that it would require 1,000 more universities and 4,500 more colleges involving an investment of $150 billion. He further informed that the Foreign Universities Bill would be passed very soon. The MP from Canada Ruby Dhalla talked of opportunities to be made available for adoption of schools and classrooms by overseas Indians. The Pravasi participants sought more slots/scholarships for their children. The super technocrat and PM’s advisor on Education & innovation, Shri Sam Pitroda, addressing participants in discussions on, ’Engaging Young Overseas’ asked, citing example his own daughter, them ,’to discover opportunities and meet challenges of a complex and chaotic land’.

The seminar on engaging diaspora in public-private partnership in the sector of health was addressed by the Representative of World Health Organisation in India who pointed out that India, with 17% of world population, carried 21% of burden of diseases, many avoidable, causing an annual loss of $54 billion. Dr Ramesh Mehra, secretary general of the Global Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (GAPIO) informed that there are around 300,000 doctors of Indian origin working abroad and that they are keen to work in a variety of ways in India, including voluntary work, support in collaborative research and medical education. He further mentioned that 40.000 doctors of Indian origin work for National Health Service in the UK. A further 10,000 are retired and 15,000 are under training and that many look for opportunities in India - a scenario of reversal of brain drain. He also referred to the scope of research for cheap drugs but cited ‘bureaucratic obstacles...even in simple things.’ He drew attention to the issue of recognition of foreign medical qualifications. The discussions on Diaspora Philanthropy brought out interesting points. It was observed that while ‘charity’ was a gift of heart, ’philanthropy’ was ‘an act of head’ to make a sustainable change in the minds of people. Sh Sanjay Sinha ,President American-Indian Foundation, referred to its setting up of American-Indians Foundation in the wake of earthquake in Gujarat for people to people cooperation and that it has made investment in projects worth $65 million.

The discussions on investments by the PIOs/NRIs became livelier when the soft spoken Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission Montek Singh observed that India was not after their money if it was not profitable for them to invest here. It was mentioned that the figure for the FDI by Indians abroad was a meagre $26 million out of $ 27.2 billion. The remittances for 2009-10 remained impressive at $55.12 billion. The raising of references to Havala/black money caused raising of many an eyebrows!

The discussions pertaining to areas of Information, Communications and Entertainment(ICE) highlighted the range of enormous possibilities of building new bridges between India and her diaspora. It was noted that the emergence of digital connectivity has been a revolutionary factor in fostering power of social media. It has to be recognised that as the communication landscape gets denser, more complex, the networked population is gaining greater access to information, public discourse and coordinated action. The relevant organs of the Ministry of External Affairs, Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) and other agencies have to upgrade their digital interaction with the diaspora.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pritabha Devi Singh Patil said what they were expected to say. PM’s announcement about the Right to vote by the Indians abroad, according to to perceptive insiders, is more of a tokenism involving a long process. The much mentioned ‘dual citizenship’ has been caught in a complicated debate over legal/security implications. Minister Ravi has rightly diluted it to the new Overseas Citizen of India(OCI) card. The plight of workers in the Gulf countries has been put into focus in the wake of several high profile criminal cases including those of death sentences.

The Chief Guest of the 9th Pravasi Divas Sir Anand Satyanand, Governor General of of New Zealand eminently deserved the honour bestowed upon him, being the only example so far of a person of descent of India rising to such a position in a predominantly white country. He narrated how his ancestors had departed from India four generations ago as indentured labour to Fiji from Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh respectively and how pursuit of education changed the destiny of his family. I had the privilege of a closer interaction with him as High Commissioner during 2001-03 when he was Ombudsman of New Zealand. There were a dozen more of Pravasis conferred ‘Samman’ for their for their contribution in community work and professional excellence.

Apart from the CMs of the North-Eastern States and CM of Haryana, Deputy CMs of Bihar and Punjab actively interacted with the diaspora and the media. Sukhbir Badal underlined the need for for an agreement with Canada to bring to book ‘the exploiters of NRI girls for marriages’ and cited a figure of 25,000 such cases. He also referred to the complaints of NRI’s ‘treating their parents like servants’. He announced that Punjab will set up a Commission for the NRIs-the first state to do so. The social engagements of the visiting high profile Punjabi NRIs made interesting page 3 reports.

The Pravasi Divas has, perhaps, over the years been evolving to assume the character of an annual Lohri Mela or even a fashion show for ‘pushy-high-heeled Indians lying abroad for their own gainful choice’. Time would seem have come to consider whether ‘annual hardy event’ should be made a biennial if not triennial exercise to be a more looked forward event reflecting a more rigorous and focused agenda. An old film song seems appropriate:

Ghar Aaya mera Pardesi, pyas bujhi meri akhiyan ki!
Darling one from distance, has come home
Thirst of awaiting eyes, has been quenched!

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