Editorial Articles

Issue no 41, 8 - 14 January 2022

Engaging The Indian Diaspora

Rup Narayan Das

The increasing attention and focus to study the problems and potential of the expatriate population by the home countries can be attributed to a number of factors, the most important being the irreversible and unstoppable process of globalization, breaking the physical and emotional barriers of nation states. Now the world is witnessing not only the free movement of goods and services, but also the movement of people and ideas. Although migration is not entirely a new phenomenon, integration of world economy has also brought to the fore the socio, economic and political issues having a bearing on migration and reverse migration. While it is essential to address these issues carefully, it is equally important to harness the prowess and potential of the expatriate population as a strategic asset in the economic, social and educational development of the home country.

Yet another important aspect of the potential pertains to their increasing importance as what is called 'non-state actors' and their role and clout in influencing State and Government policies of the countries of their adoption. As diaspora are mainly nonstate actors, they have to be viewed not only as minorities in the host countries, but also as important entities vis-à-vis their home countries. A telling illustration of this is the impact and influence of the Indian community in the USA in facilitating the passage of the Indo-US nuclear deal even if the impact is miniscule.

Policy and Attitude of India

It is worthwhile to recall that it was Mahatma Gandhi, who espoused the cause of Indian diaspora in an organized manner for the first time. Gandhi started his experiment of Satyagraha in South Africa to highlight the injustice and unfair treatment meted out to the migrant Indians there. He fought for their rights, dignity and self-esteem. Gandhi was concerned not only with the problems of the South African Indians but with the lot of the Indians all over world. During his prolonged sojourn in South Africa, he made two trips back to India during which he wrote the 'Green Pamphlet' and addressed the Indian National Congress, the Chamber of Commerce and other organisations to rally support for their Indian countrymen, especially in South Africa. Gandhi's persistent campaign had sensitized the travails of the Indian Community to the Colonial authorities in India and the United Kingdom. Recognizing the contributions of the Indian diaspora Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is declared on 9 January, the date on which Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa in 1915. Now the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is celebrated once in every two years.

The post-Independent era in India witnessed the exodus of qualified professionals to foreign countries, particularly the USA, Canada and the United Kingdom, Australia etc. resulting, in the phenomenon called the 'brain drain' and there was no major initiative towards the diaspora whether Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) or Non-Resident Indians (NRIs). However, with the economic reforms and liberalization which India initiated during 1990's, the Government also started a proactive policy towards expatriate population abroad, targeting the Non-Resident Indians with the goal to involve and associate them in the process of national development. It was against this backdrop that, the Ministry of Home Affairs launched the People of Indian Origin (PIO) Card in March 1999. The PIO Card Scheme was basically aimed to reinforce the emotional bonds of Indians who have made other countries their home, but who had a yearning to renew their ties with the land of their origin.

High Level Committee on Indian Diaspora

The government took a major initiative to address issues pertaining to the diaspora when it constituted a High level Committee on Indian Diaspora in August 2000 under the Chairmanship of late Dr. L.M. Singhvi, a distinguished member of Rajya Sabha and former Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

The creation of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) in May 2004 was an assertion that the welfare of the Overseas Indians needs mainstream attention. The Ministry was earlier called the Ministry of Non-Resident Indian Affairs which was renamed as the Ministry of Overseas Indians Affairs since September 2004. The emigration division of the Ministry of Labour and Employment was attached to the new Ministry in December 2004. The NRI division of the Ministry of External Affairs provided support to the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs and now functions as the Diaspora Division in the Ministry of External Affairs.

Dual Citizenship

The Committee further recommended that dual citizenship should be permitted within the ambit of Citizenship Act, 1955. It was against this background that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2003 was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in December 2003. In 2004, by an amendment to the Citizenship Act, the facility of Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) was made available to PIOs in 16 specified countries. An Overseas Citizen of India is not entitled to the right conferred on a citizen of India and will not have the right to equality of opportunity in matters of public employment and will not be a member of Parliament or of a State legislature. An Overseas Citizen of India is also not entitled in agricultural land or plantation. Nevertheless it grants a life-long citizenship status and is a kind of psychological incentive for people to relate themselves with India.

Voting Rights

The issue of granting voting rights to the Non-Resident Indians particularly from the Gulf region had engaged the attention of Parliament, the media and the judiciary for quite some time. It was against this background that with the objective of giving voting Rights to the Non-Resident Indians, the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill, 2006 was introduced in the Rajya  Sabha on 17 February, 2006. The Government was of the view that conferring such rights would enable them to participate in the democratic process of elections in the country and would also boost their involvement in the nation building. Accordingly, having considered all aspects of their demand, the government proposed to make provision through legislation to enable Indian citizens, absenting from their place of ordinary residence in India owing to their employment, education or otherwise outside India, to get their names registered in the electoral rolls of the concerned constituency of their place of ordinary residence in India and cast their votes in elections to the Lok Sabha and to the State Legislatures in case they happen to be in their constituency at the time of polls.

The Bill was passed by both the Houses of Parliament and assented to by the President. Now the Non-Resident Indians have started voting in elections in India. However, they are required to be present in the country at the time of voting. There is, however, a demand for postal voting, a privilege enjoyed by defence personnel and diplomats. Realizing the seriousness of the issue the Supreme Court on a judgment on a petition refrained from allowing NRIs to vote through postal ballot or Internet for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections saying this might open a "Pandora's box" while the electoral process was on.

Foreign Remittance by Indian Diaspora

Foreign remittance sent by the expatriate skilled and semiskilled workers in the Gulf and elsewhere in the world has been a steady source of foreign exchange earnings for India. According to the World Bank, India received $83 billion from abroad in 2020, despite the pandemic that devastated world economy. In comparison, China received $59.5 billion in remittances in 2020, as against $68.3 billion the previous year.

Yet another important aspect of the inflow of money from the Non-Resident Indians is that the NRIs have emerged as the largest overseas lender to India surpassing traditional sources such as multilateral and bilateral foreign agencies. Throughout the 1990s and early part of this millennium, multilateral organisations such as the World Bank agencies formed a major chunk of India's outstanding external debt. Since then, however, NRI deposits in India have grown manifold and it now contributes significantly to easing of country's external debt.

Over the last few years, India has been taking a number of initiatives to attract Indian research scientists studying abroad to relocate them in premier scientific and technological institutions. A flagship scheme in this regard is the Ramalingaswami Reentry Fellowship offered by the Department of Biotechnology under the Ministry of Science & Technology, Government of India. The scheme is conceptualized with the aim of attracting highly skilled researchers (Indian nationals) working overseas in various cutting edge disciplines of biotechnology such as agriculture, health sciences, bio-engineering, energy, environment, bioinformatics and other related areas. This is a senior fellowship programme, and awardees are considered to be equivalent to the level of Scientists-D. They are entitled to take up teaching and research assignments and supervising doctoral and MS students. A large number of such scientists are absorbed in the institutes where they do their research. The government is now trying to increase both the emoluments and research grants under the fellowships so as to become more attractive. The Pravasi Bharatiya Samman award is the highest honour conferred on NonResident Indians, Persons of Indian Origin; or an organization or institution run by NRI or PIO which have made notable contributions for engaging the diaspora. The Government of India has always evacuated the Indian Diaspora in distress situations abroad including during the COVID-19 period. The Indian missions abroad also comes to the rescue of Indians in distress conditions. The former External Affairs Minister late Smt. Sushma Swaraj earned laurels from trapped Indian diaspora in distress through Twitter.

India has moved a long way from benign neglect to proactive engagement with regard to its diaspora. The diaspora in return have also responded mindfully. There was a time when Indians migrated abroad for greener pasture and now there is a process of reverse migration and yearning on their part to engage with the mother country to pay back their debt of gratitude.

(The writer, a former Joint Secretary of Lok Sabha Secretariat, is currently a senior fellow of Indian Council of Social Science Research at the Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi) E-mail: rndas_osd@yahoo. com

Views expressed are personal