As the 14th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) Convention, the Indian diaspora flagship event, is about to open its doors at the end of this week, indications are that it is not likely to attract the kind of participation it used to receive in its early years. The number of participants from abroad has reached about 1,300. The projected participation of 4,000 will consist mainly of local residents.
This is the first biennial Convention after the Modi Government decided that the event would be held in different parts of India every two years and smaller events would be held in Delhi in alternate years. The PBD 2016 was cancelled and a conference of Pravasi leaders was held in Delhi in 2016. Since PM Modi attaches special importance to the welfare of Indian diaspora, this change and the abolition of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) were surprises.
The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs was formed in recognition of the importance of overseas Indians. It had established itself but it was handicapped by the fact that MOIA had to depend on the machinery of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and MOIA had no say in Consular matters. The consolidation of overseas India affairs under the MEA with the designation of a minister of state was a logical step. Making the PBD a biennial event was on account of the flagging interest in having it every year. But some have reacted emotionally to the changes.
Vayalar Ravi, former MOIA minister for several years, said that PBD provides an important platform for engagement with the diaspora all over the world and should not be scrapped. “People of Indian origin and non-resident Indians are an important and integral component of India and have often received a great deal of respect in the countries that they are in. They don’t really want anything from us but still have a strong emotional connect with India. PBD has been a very important channel for the Indian government to find out what their issues are and reach out to them in a better way,” he said.
“The cancelling of PBD has certainly come as a big surprise to all of us who have been involved in it right from the start. The date January 9 has a lot of sanctity attached to it because it marks the anniversary of the return of Mahatma Gandhi to India from South Africa. Besides, the high level committee on the Indian diaspora, which was set up in 2000, had, in its recommendations, suggested starting the event as a part of the Indian’s government’s outreach towards global Indians,” said a retired Indian foreign service officer.
The BJP, however, reassured the overseas Indians that there was no loss of interest in the matters relating to the Pravasis. “The Indian community overseas is very energised by PM Modi’s policies and programs and would like to contribute towards them in a big way. Through the PM’s diaspora events we are trying to work out a mechanism through which the Indian community overseas can contribute towards India’s development. We are more concerned with moving forward to build on the goodwill and euphoria among the Indians abroad over the PM’s policies rather than deal with policy issues, which are dealt with by the MOIA,” said Dr Vijay Chauthaiwale, a BJP ideologue.
The Bengaluru PBD will be the first test as to whether the revamped PBD will be more effective than the previous ones. There was expectation that the new format, in which interaction was only with 150 invited representatives, would mark a new chapter in India’s dialogue with the diaspora and could translate into more tangible agenda and action to be implemented. But an activist observed that that the evolution of the PBD or the new format Pravasi conference was a work in progress. “The diaspora organisations feel it is important that the interaction that started with the creation of the MOIA must be pursued and scaled up. The embassies/missions could benefit from an officer of MOIA, who must liaise with the diaspora and be able to translate that into enhancing the links of India with each country,” he said.
Having attended a large number of PBDs, my sense is that the overseas participants are treated as an audience to be addressed by Indian political leaders and officials. They are happy that the president and the prime minister speak to them, but even the smaller sessions and discussion panels are dominated by the hosts. The Q&A are too short to accommodate expression of views by the participants. A large number of Indians register at these conferences to pursue their business and networking interests. Some of them, who come as representatives of various associations, are unable to satisfy their clients. The sessions will do well if they become participatory. The participants should be asked to choose their subjects of interest and present views or even chair the sessions.
Another issue is the varying interests of the various components of the diaspora. The Indians in the Gulf, who are Indian citizens, demand much more from the Government and their issues are of no interest to the more prosperous Indians from the US and Western Europe. These competing interests are being taken care of by organizing separate sessions for different groups. But most of them remain unsatisfied that the agenda is often hijacked by certain groups. The regional PBDs held in different parts of the globe were useful in this respect. In the PBD itself, meetings of the regional groups should be held.
The Government has announced that the Bengaluru Convention will focus on social innovators. “20 social innovators will be highlighted. There will also be a contest of innovators and the winner will get an award of Rs.1 lakh,” said Dhyaneshwar Mulay, secretary, Overseas Indian Affairs in MEA. He also indicated that the sessions would be in Plenary format and would be interactive, which will allow delegations from overseas to convey their suggestions to the Government directly. These are helpful steps, but the award money is so low that no significant innovation is likely to be unveiled.
Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, awarded every year to more than a dozen achievers, is very attractive for overseas Indians and there is great lobbying for them in the missions and in the Ministry. The criteria for these awards were skewed in such a way that truly meritorious Indians could not be considered. For instance, the awardees had to attend the PBDs and engage in social service activities in India or abroad. Many overseas Indians, who did not have time to attend PBDs or to be socially active got excluded in the process. Consequently, many of the winners were rich Indian businessmen, even from the Gulf. Rarely did grass roots level social workers or other activists win these awards. There are reports that the criteria have been revamped and that some Pravasis have been included in the jury for selection of the awardees this year.
A day devoted to the young Pravasis will be a special feature of the Bengaluru PBD. Several programs were initiated to enable young people to establish their roots and links. They will be encouraged to connect to India, celebrate India and contribute to India. The problems of Indian students abroad and the Pravasi students in India should be addressed at the Convention. So far the participation of youth has been insignificant. Participation costs may be a factor that inhibit young people from coming in large numbers. Travel grants to student groups may encourage greater participation.
Karnataka is making a major investment in the Bengaluru PBD in the hope of getting more remittances and investments as a major IT destination. It has earmarked Rs. 20 crores, much more than the amount being spent by the centre. The Government has revived the NRK Forum and appointed Arathi Krishna, who was an MOIA official in Washington as its vice chairman. This is likely to benefit the state in many ways.
The Bengaluru PBD is being held against the backdrop of many ominous changes in the world, particularly, nativism. Donald Trump as the president is expected to reduce foreign workers in the US and this will be a challenge to the Pravasis. In other countries also, the tendency is to reduce foreign workers and to entrust the jobs to the local people. Though the threat is not imminent because the local people are not competent to replace the Indian nationals, a situation may arise in which many will return to India. The PBD will do well to understand their fears and design programs for the eventuality of massive return of technically qualified Indians. A general discussion on this, including the plans of the Government to meet the situation will be much appreciated.
The main benefit that India gets from its diaspora are the remittances as well as the political support they are able to get for India from their respective countries. It is only fair, therefore, to offer them facilities for their welfare in return. Happily, the consensus among the political parties is that the diaspora should be cultivated and protected.
(The author is a former diplomat who writes on India's external relations and the Indian diaspora.)