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'Only Election Commission can decide on online voting for NRIs'

Last updated on: January 13, 2012 13:42 IST
After the 10th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas held in Jaipur, Priyanka asks Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi some tough questions about voting rights, investments, and other issues faced by Non-resident Indians.

The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas provides a platform to facilitate the Diaspora Indians with their skills, expertise and financial resources to partner with India. Could you give us three examples of this partnership working somewhere?

Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is a kind of a get-together for the overseas Indian and there are different categories among the attending delegates -- they could be Non-resident Indians, Persons of Indian Origin or the (Indian) passport holders.

We understand that they might be facing problems or they might want to have a more active connection with India… Let me clarify, the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is just a platform for them to express their suggestions and put forward their views of what they want. For example, earlier the Indian overseas who had an Indian passport had no voting rights. We know that their number runs into a few millions. But the Election Commission deleted the names from the voters' list, which it does if the voter does not reside within the area for more than six months. So, there was a demand made to provide voting rights. The legislation has been approved by the Parliament.

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But apart from expressing their problems, does the platform not also provide a partnership so that Diaspora Indians can offer their skills, expertise and make financial investments?

First of all, it is not an investment meet. It can be done as a part of it. If they are looking for an opportunity to invest in India, we will give them a window. Unfortunately, it has been described merely as an investment meet. This year, 1,900 delegates came to India. Do you think all of them are millionaires? No, they are not. But there is an opportunity for the small, medium and big investments, and the chief ministers hold conferences to update them about investment options.

Within these conferences, could you cite examples where investors have come forward and a partnership to invest has been formed?

I never do that. I am not a broker. I am not sitting here for brokerage. My ministers and I never get involved in the process of dialogue. We leave the forum open for the NRIs and the state representatives. It is a wrong concept created by the media, saying that it is an investment meet. No, it is not. But opportunities are there. The chief ministers of different states have a separate meeting, the people can go and meet them and the state representatives can tell about the resources and investment opportunities in their respective states.

So, you are not aware how much the Diaspora Indians are investing?

I am not involved, I never ask them. As I have already said, I did not organise an investment meet.

Only a few states participate. Why can't we have more states participating?

Personally, I write to all the chief ministers. Some of my party chief ministers also didn't turn up. Hence, there are no political reservations here. I wrote to all the chief ministers, six, seven agreed and some of them backed out. But I am not bothered about it. My concern is about the overseas Indians, about the overseas participation. I am happy if the chief ministers are able to attend, but if they don't then also it is okay.

The PBD is almost always held in a Congress party-ruled state.

No, that's not true. It was organised in Chennai also.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has suggested that the meet could take place in Gujarat in 2015. Are you considering it?

We will consider it at that time, not today. At that time, I might not be the minister or Modi might not be there. So, we really can't say anything now. And there is no such thing that the meet can take place only in Congress party-ruled states. We initially wanted to organise it in Delhi. But Delhi has already held two consecutive meets -- it is not because Sheilaji (Dikshit) is the chief minister here, it is because it is more convenient for the prime minister and everybody else.

Who takes the final call on where the meet will happen?

I decide and then I take permission from the prime minister. I inform him about my decision and if he agrees the venue is okayed. The decision to hold PBD 2012 in Jaipur came by accident, not because Rajasthan is a Congress party-ruled state. While I was in New York, (Rajasthan Chief Minister) Ashok Gehlot appealed to me to have it in Jaipur. I agreed and asked the prime minister for his permission. He also said it was okay. That is how PBD came to Jaipur, and not because it is a Congress party-ruled state.

There has been a lot of angst among Diaspora Indians about the new laws regarding India visas, surrender certificates, etc. What is your ministry doing about it?

There is law, though it is not implemented properly. When you become a national of another country, you are required to surrender your passport. Many of our people have not submitted their Indian passports, but they got the new citizenship. Recently, the home ministry issued an order saying that for all those who want to take new citizenship, they must submit their old passports. So, there was a little of problem, but I intervened and sorted it out.

How?

Many Indians living abroad said they never submitted their passports because they were not asked to; many people keep the passport as a record. And the passport department is not under me. I sorted it out.

What is the final verdict on NRIs getting to vote? How will they register to vote? How will they vote?

The NRI voting rights have been decided by the government. They have to register their names with the passports they hold or with the immigration clearance passport they have. That is the proof (required) for registration. They have to register (at) their area of residence in India where their family stays and casts votes, say at a particular village, with the respective embassies. But that is very difficult -- we are aware of that -- mainly because people are scattered and we have to discuss so that they are allowed to register online. So, registration is a problem; people cannot go all the way to the embassy for it. We are now going to hold talks with the EC and discuss how to make it possible.

Once they register, how do they cast their vote?

To cast their vote, they will have to come to India. There would be no voting from that side, because there are a lot of problems of bogus voting and all that. Such decisions on voting are not under my ministry, it is the EC's decision. Today, the law says that they will have to come to their local booth areas in India and cast their vote. The decision to change it lies with the EC. Also, whether they can be allowed to vote while sitting abroad, and online, only the EC can decide

How many industries, schools, hospitals have been started by NRIs who attend the PBDs?

NRIs are not doing anything in India through my ministry. They are doing many things in their own states in whatever way they can. That is why we created the India Development Foundation. Our idea is that millionaires can invest easily, but the rest -- there are engineers, doctors, at some places there are five to 10 families of the same village living together abroad. To begin with, we have identified two areas of work -- primary education and healthcare. At many places in India there are no school buildings. So, if somebody comes forward and gives us a letter, giving us a plan how they would be working on building a small hospital or a health center or a small school, we will help them.

Which problems frustrate you the most in your ministry?

Nothing frustrates me! However, it is irritating sometimes when the ministry of external affairs tags a 'no' certificate to our work. I am very cordial with them but since everything has to be approved by the MEA, sometimes at the officers' level they create bit of issues, but most of which are sorted out later.

Frankly, if I say no, we don't have problems, then that would be a lie. Sometimes I feel the MEA cannot reconcile to our ministry. But the attitude is changing now, and the Indians overseas see it much today. They feel that it's their own ministry. But I will get full cooperation from the embassies, and ministers. Especially in the Gulf countries, many of our people live in pathetic conditions. I had issued letters to chief ministers and asked them to arrest many fraud agents who offer jobs and employment in exchange of money. These people who migrated ended becoming illegal migrants later. I think it has changed now. Now, very limited complaints come.

Also, at one point, housemaids were made to accompany people staying abroad. I made sure that one needs to submit $2,000 (approx Rs 1.02 lakh) in advance, fix a wage for the housemaids and also provide her with a cell phone. So, work is getting streamlined.

What are your plans for the overseas affairs ministry for 2012?

We have already started work on the India Development Foundation. We want it to spread out to different countries and each would be having their committee members and so on.

How come the PBD sees no participation Sri Lanka, 10 per cent of whose population originated from India?

No, I met a delegation of Sri Lankans. About 30-35 came here and had tea with me. They have problems, and they asked for government help. The Sri Lankan government has decided to take over unused land, about 30,000 acres of the South Indian (inhabited) area, which means many Indians will lose their jobs.

What did you do?

You tell me what I could have done. Send an army? I have conveyed this to the Government of India and they are going to take it forward in a diplomatic manner. It is a diplomatic-level dealing, I will tell the prime minister. Openly we can't strain the relations; it has to be dealt with at a diplomatic level, not publicly.

Any plans for streamlining PIO or OCI?

We are thinking now of merging the two categories -- the PIO or the OCI -- and they could have a lifelong visa. It would ease out many things. We are considering it and the legislation is in the Parliament.

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Priyanka