Home > News > Columnists > Ashok Mitra
Passport to Privilege
February 17, 2003
A young woman, an American citizen, but who was of Indian descent, perished along with six other astronauts even as the spaceship Columbia was trying to re-enter the atmosphere of the earth. It is a sad event, but is not this nation overdoing its festival of sorrow? Officialdom arranged a memorial meeting in Parliament House attended by the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition. On top of that, the Union Cabinet met and passed a special resolution of condolence.
Perhaps this excessive aura of mourning for one who was indubitably a foreign citizen, is a spin-off of the desperate efforts currently on to ensnare the Indian Diaspora: please, please, come with your money and invest into the future of what was once your native land. The recent conference in New Delhi, where non-resident Indians were worshipped for three or four days running, was quite a unique event. The highlight of the proceedings was the prime minister's announcement conferring dual citizenship on those NRIs who are settled in 'white' countries, such as the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and so on and a smattering of other non-Islamic lands. NRIs living, for example, in the Gulf countries are not to be granted that prerogative. The blatantly sectarian character of the gesture will perhaps do India more harm than good.
Cheesed off by its grossness, some former citizens who would otherwise have contemplated returning home with their hard-earned earnings from the Gulf countries will now decide otherwise. Which would be quite a mishap. Scan the statistics of the past ten years. Remittances by NRIs have in fact been steadily dwindling over this period: by far the major portion of this shrinking amount is however the contribution of poor Indian migrants, mostly Muslims from Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, working in odd humble jobs in the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere in the neighbourhood. These people will now have legitimate ground for asking themselves where they belong and whether they and their savings are really welcome in India. Once their mind is made up, they might stop sending whatever modest sums they had been remitting.
Contrast the treatment meted out to these working class Indians toiling overseas with what is accorded to their vastly better off constituents of the Diaspora resident in the US or Europe. They are offered inordinately high interest rates for money they keep in Indian banks; the interest earned as well as the principal are repatriable overseas at the shortest possible notice. This species will henceforth carry an Indian passport along with an American or British or German one. They will receive special consideration in the allotment of land and housing in urban concentrations. Various tax privileges will be dangled before them. It will almost be no exaggeration to say that treated as heaven-born, they will be permitted to get away with murder.
There is not the slightest indication till now though that the Diaspora are at all interested in risking their capital in any long-term ventures in their erstwhile motherland. The recent big do in the nation's capital has actually led to developments which will not add to, but reduce, investment on Indian soil: Indian capitalists will, up to a point, be henceforth allowed to invest abroad and resident Indians will be permitted to operate dollar accounts. Such measures will drain the quantum of foreign exchange held by the country, and not augment it.
Idol worship has nothing to do with objective reality. Here is already an NRI, who has made his pile in god's own country, who has been designated the country's second ambassador to the US. He is not officially recognized by the American administration, so what. As far as the Government of India is concerned, the medium is the message; the Indian Diaspora living in the US are being told that their interests are always kept at the fore by authorities back home, the government has actually appointed a special ambassador to look after these interests and would not they, therefore, condescend to make some long-term commitments to the cause of Indian economic growth?
Let us be fair. Not that our foreign exchange reserves have not been going up, nor that the Indian community resident abroad have not made their contributions towards that purpose. Our reserves have reached unprecedented heights, and currently exceed $70 billion. But there is a flip side to it; in a sense these reserves are hardly of much use to the country.
The bulk of the inflowing funds loiter in the share market, in search of quick returns. Since current account transactions are at present fully convertible, these inflows, together with killings made with their help, are repatriable overseas. A sizeable portion of our exchange reserves has to be earmarked to ensure instant repatriation of this nature. There are, besides, NRI deposits with our banks, which too are equally repatriable. Foreign exchange has to be earmarked to cater to that requirement as well.
In such a situation, our foreign exchange assets are as much a liability and not available for long-range investment in the country. Nor can they be used to redeem a part of our long-term external debt, amounting close to $100 billion.
Since the accumulated foreign exchange reserves are not deployable for any fruitful purpose, it would not be altogether amiss to designate them as belonging to a category of non-usable assets. The only benefit hoped to be derived from these reserves is to provide assurances to foreigners who come to India with their money to seek a fortune either in the stock exchanges or from bank deposits; should things start going wrong, the country's exchange reserves stand guarantee that foreigners, including the NRIs, would be enabled to reclaim, in foreign money, the funds they brought in.
That is neither here nor there. The Indian Diaspora, the record says, are a hard-headed lot. Sentiments for a country that they have left behind barely stir them. The authorities over here, desperate because of growing investment famine in the country despite globalization, continue to be on a dream binge. Mumbled half-promises from NRIs, and ministers and bureaucrats are bowled over. Half-promises are, however, like memoranda of understanding; no binding commitment is involved. But, then, with nothing else to go by, half-allurements offered become the staple of dreams.
Manifestations of such dreams can reach ridiculous lengths. Dyed-in-the-wool West Indians, such as Sridhath Ramphal and Vidia Naipaul, were offered free passage and hospitality to come to the New Delhi Diaspora meet. Both gentlemen possess credentials: once was once upon a time secretary general of the Commonwealth secretariat, and the other one is a Nobel Laureate in literature.
Automatic membership of the Indian Diaspora was, therefore, thrust upon them, not bothering about the fact that their ancestors left their hearth and home in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh a couple of centuries ago under most miserable circumstances, as the wretchedest of the earth, Dalits and untouchables, hounded by society. The forefathers of Ramphal and Naipaul -- and, for that matter, of Rohan Kanhai and Shivnaraine Chanderpaul too -- did not mind an uncertain future as indentured labour in new settlements 12,000 miles away as long as there was some prospect of respite from home tyranny.
Neither Ramphal nor Naipaul turned down the invitation to come; after all, the weather was mild and pleasant in India during the season. But that is quite different from working tirelessly for the cause of India. Ramphal is an extraordinarily busy person, severally occupied. Naipaul is a certified anti-Indian; what is more, he loves to flaunt the certificate. Let us not, therefore, go gaga over Kalpana Chawla's death. Let us, also, mourn the deaths of our air force pilots who go down regularly with ever-crashing MiG planes and for all those thousands who are direct and indirect victims of 21st century American folly.