THE SHASHI THAROOR COLUMN
A pravasi forum
Why do NRIs matter to India and what would be gained by continuing a `pointless jamboree'?
MY column (on January 30, 2005) on the third Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebrations in Mumbai has generated an intriguing number of responses from readers, not least to my insistence that the occasion be maintained as an annual event. They have raised two broad issues I would like to address this week: why do NRIs matter to India and what would be gained by continuing what one correspondent calls "this pointless jamboree"?
Readers of my original column will not be surprised to know that I am astonished by the former question, but that does not mean it doesn't deserve to be asked. "These NRIs have left the motherland and gone off to make their fortunes elsewhere," writes A. Mukesh. "They have abandoned India. India does not owe them anything. Indeed, it is they who owe the country that has educated them and given them the opportunity to better their lives abroad." To Mr. Mukesh, "the money spent on celebrating the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas would be better spent reconstructing the fishing villages of Tamil Nadu".
Now with the greatest of respect to a faithful reader for that is how Mr. Mukesh describes himself I would like to take issue with him (and the other readers who have, in whole or part, echoed his arguments) on several points. First, I was not suggesting that India "owed" its NRIs anything, other than an occasion to affirm their Indianness. Second, while it is a fact that many, perhaps most, of the recent wave of Indian emigrants have benefited from a subsidised education in India before going off to make their living elsewhere, that is not true of many of the pravasis in attendance, who are descended from earlier waves of (often forced) emigration to the far-flung outposts of the British Raj a century or more ago, and who return unburdened by any reason for guilt. Third, the reconstruction of fishing villages is, if I may be pardoned the metaphor, a red herring. The choice is a false one: the NRIs are as committed as any resident Indian to tsunami relief, and have raised a great deal of money for the purpose. The expenditure on the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is not diverted from more worthwhile national causes, but is rather raised specifically for this purpose from sponsors, notably the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), which bears the organisational burden entirely.
Do pravasis matter?
To turn to the core question, then: why do NRIs matter to India?
Simple: as a source of pride, as a source of support, and as a source of investments. It is entirely natural for Indians to take pride in the successes of their erstwhile compatriots abroad. I once remarked rather cruelly to an interviewer that the only country where Indians as a whole did not succeed was India. That is fortunately no longer the case, as signs of Indians' increasing prosperity are increasingly evident everywhere one travels in India, but Indians abroad have certainly given us all a great deal to be proud of. One recent statistic from the U.S. shows that the Indian-American family's median income is nearly $71,000 a year, the same as Japanese-Americans, but nearly $20,000 higher than the figure for all American families. That kind of success is not merely at the elite end of the scale: in England today, Indian curry houses employ more people than the iron and steel, coal and shipbuilding industries combined. (Many are the ways, indeed, in which the Empire can strike back.)
So we can be proud of the impact Indians have made on foreign societies. But pride is not merely an intangible asset. Living in the U.S., I have been struck by the extent to which the success of our NRIs has transformed the public perception of India in the U.S. A generation ago, when I first travelled to the U.S. as a graduate student in 1975, India was widely seen as a land of snake-charmers and begging-bowls poverty marginally leavened by exotica. Today, if there is a stereotypical view of India, it is that of a country of fast-talking high-achievers who are wizards at maths and who are capable of doing most Americans' jobs better, faster and more cheaply in Bangalore. Today "IIT" is a brand-name as respected in certain American circles as "MIT" or "Caltech". If Indians are treated with more respect as a result, so is India, as the land which produces them. Readers may recall my column on India's growing "soft power" ("The new global phenomenon", The Hindu-Magazine, September 28, 2003, p.3). Let us not underestimate its importance in our globalising world.
Support for India
The presence of successful and influential NRIs in so many countries also becomes a source of direct support for India, as they influence not just popular attitudes, but governmental policies, to the benefit of the mother country. And I haven't even mentioned NRI investments in India from the remittances of working-class Indians in West Asia that have transformed the Kerala countryside, to the millions poured into cutting-edge high-tech businesses in Bangalore or Gurgaon by investors from Silicon Valley. But we shouldn't get carried away overseas Indians still invest a lower proportion of their resources in India than overseas Chinese do in China. Encouraging them to do more and giving them reasons to do more is certainly a worthwhile task for the newly-established Ministry for Overseas Indian Affairs in New Delhi.
Which brings me back to the second issue: my case for maintaining the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas event as an annual affair. Some object to it altogether, but they are a small minority; an influential sector of opinion, however, wishes to scale it back, perhaps to once every two years. I argued last time that this would be a mistake. Perhaps the fear is that, with dual citizenship granted, there is not enough new for the Government to offer the pravasis each time. But that is, in my view, beside the point.
The interactions I described last time are worthwhile as ends in themselves. No doubt this will mean putting up with new demands from NRIs voting rights, for instance (India, shamefully, is one of the few democracies that denies the vote to its own expatriate citizens). But so what? A Government that seeks the allegiance, support and money of its diaspora should also be willing to be accountable to it. Hosting a forum once a year where the pravasis can make their views known seems to me a very small price to pay indeed.
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