When government of India began to win over overseas Indians, it realized one thing – that sentiment alone will not be sufficient to command their allegiance, particularly those who are foreign citizens.
The search for some form of recognition to those who have done extremely well in their respective fields brought up a scheme similar to “Padma” awards and it was named Pravasi Bharatiya Samman (Overseas Indian Awards).
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The scope of the awards got expanded when the focus of the award shifted from individual accomplishments to more tangible activities such as community leadership in their countries and humanitarian activities in India. General support to and attendance at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas also became a criterion.
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Like other awards, including the Nobel Prize, the Pravasi awards also became controversial as it began to operate. The awardees were more businessmen and community leaders rather than achievers as the former category hankered after these awards and actively canvassed for them. Allegations of corruption and nepotism were also made.
But, having been a member of the jury under the chairmanship of the vice president, I know that, while there were pressures of various kinds, the criteria were strictly followed and the decision making was transparent. In fact, the jury had very little discretion as the papers came to it with mechanically allotted marks on the basis of the nomination and the applicable criteria.
I recall that on one occasion, 14 out of the 15 awards were clear, but there were two contenders for the 15th position and it was decided not to give the that award rather than give one person some weightage to bring him on to the list of winners. Since I had known one of the two as a very active supporter of the Embassy in Washington, I tried to persuade the jury to give him the award, but it stuck to the marks given by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs. (MOIA)
The criteria for these awards have kept changing, particularly to bring in some eminent Indians, who were not involved in community activities or did not come to Delhi for any of the Pravasi conclaves. According to the latest revision, the eligibility is on the basis of better understanding of India abroad, support of India’s causes and concerns in a tangible way, building closer links between India, the overseas Indian community and their country of residence; social and humanitarian causes in India or abroad and welfare of the local Indian community and philanthropic and charitable work.
Among the additional criteria are eminence in one’s field or outstanding work, which has enhanced India’s prestige in the country of residence; or eminence in skills which has enhanced India’s prestige in that country (for non-professional workers). Also included are achievements within India such as philanthropic investments and charitable work in India and for contributions made towards India’s Development.
When the Pravasi Samman was originally conceived, it was thought that in future, the overseas Indians would not be awarded Padma awards, but subsequently, the Pravasi Samman became a stepping stone to Padma awards. The demand for Padma awards were made also because, unlike Padma awards, Pravasi awards are only of one category. Once a Pravasi Samman is given, there is no way of upgrading it, even if someone has greater accomplishments in the future.
The Pravasi awardees are, therefore, eligible for Padma awards, as stated in the orders: “With the institution of Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Awards, Non-Resident Indians and Persons of Indian Origin shall continue to be considered for Padma Awards and Padma Awardees shall be eligible for Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award.” This provides scope for the overseas Indians to win even “Bharat Ratna.”
Specific individuals and institutions only can make nominations. These include the heads of Indian diplomatic missions abroad, elected high officials of the Government of India and former awardees. Indian organizations abroad can also nominate their own members. This makes for a wide variety of nominees and the initial screening is very cumbersome. In practice, it is the recommendations of the Heads of Indian missions abroad that carry most weight. The jury itself can make suo moto nominations, according to the latest rules.
Over the years, the Pravasi Samman has become coveted because they are presented at the Pravasi Divas by the president of India. The award itself is quite attractive with a gold medallion and other accessories. The winners are invited to every Pravasi Divas at government of India’s expense. Now that the Pravasi Divas is celebrated in Delhi only once in two years, the number of the awards has been increased from 15 to 30.
Recently, there is a tendency to give awards to institutions and organizations. The Ramakrishna Mission in Fiji and the Indian Social Club in Abu Dhabi have been notable winners. A unique winner of the award was a man, who has spent many years of his life, taking care of the dead bodies of Pravasis and dispatching them to India. Most awardees so far are noted for significant achievements, though all who deserve have not been awarded. Some heads of states of Indian origin have been given these awards as a measure of goodwill.
Needless to say, the Pravasi Samman is a good incentive for overseas Indians to bond with India and to work energetically for the development of relations between their host countries and India. It is also a good instrument to highlight the Indian origin of many achievers, including political leaders abroad. As abundant precaution, provision has been also made for withdrawing the award in case some adverse information on the awardees surfaces after the award is made.
As India’s children abroad, overseas Indians are conscious of their responsibilities to the motherland, but the Pravasi Samman is considered a worthy goal for them to strive for.