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column on PBD

January 13, 2003 18:03 IST

Let us ignore accusations about it being a 'thank you' to the Non Resident Indians, who contribute handsomely to the ruling BJP's coffers.

Let us forget charges that dual citizenship is a sop being handed out to select nations just to encourage further investment not just in the party, but perhaps also the nation.

And let us overlook the fact that the finance and foreign ministers were heckled by the 2500 plus audience, including journalists and special interest groups from overseas, mostly complaining that their views were not being heard. 

To criticize it would be easy. The list of grumbles and gripes-- from both the delegates and the government-about the event is long, and most are relevant concerns.

Let us instead focus on what the 3 day prabasi bharitiya mela held in New Delhi from January 9 -11 actually achieved.

For one, it brought together 1,946 Indians living in 66 nations under one roof. From places as far away and as exotic as Martinique, Uzbekistan, and Benin. That was on day one. The delegates reportedly crossed the 2,000 mark on days two and three. Making it the largest gathering of non-resident and ethnic Indians ever.

Two, the government, at the level of the prime minister and his deputy--sent out a  message to Indians across the globe that India had decided to honour and remember the great Indian diaspora.It also emphasised that this was not a one-off thing. Both the conference and the Prabasi Bharitya Samman awards---said to be the equivalent of a Bharat Ratna--had now become institutionalised, and would be an annual feature.

Three, despite the chaos and mismanagement, it gave the delegates, or least a preferred few of them, a chance to network with the government and each other, which can only be a good thing.

Four, it gave finance minister Jaswant Singh the chance, in his own words, to announce--- rather than send out a standard press release-the substantial easing of overseas investment rules for both the private sector and individuals.

(The number of people scrambling to be photographed with the Prime Minister, the deputy prime minister, and the finance and foreign ministers was quite interesting, since there were as many resident Indians as non resident ones jostling to get in the frame.)

"I don't I think I will come again, since all I heard were boring speeches, but on the flip side, I am returning with a list of relevant people who can help me decide whether or not to invest in India," summed up a delegate from the US who had come specifically for the session on health care and pharma. 
 
This despite some sessions, like the one on 'opportunities in defence and internal security research  and development,'  which were impeccably managed and moderated,  and also allowed  fruitful debate and interaction between the audience and the panelists, proving that it can be done.

Five: If the idea was encourage debate and discussion, the government perhaps got a bit more than it bargained for, with delegates publicly accusing the Indian government of ignoring the plight of ethnic Indians, like in Fiji as well as non-resident Indians working in the Gulf and North Africa, while wooing those in the developed countries.  But again, this allowed the government to learn about, and perhaps assuage and address, the genuine concerns expressed by these groups.

Six: the media hoopla over the event also alerted and educated the resident Indian about their 20 million cousins spread over the world. This is important since there exists a lot negative stereotype images about NRIs   in the minds of many Indians.

And finally, if nothing else, it gave Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Bismillah Khan to a chance to put together a scintillating performance.

But do these benefits justify the millions spent by the government and the FICCI on this gala affair, which had the general air and feel of a mela rather than a dignified convention?

Yes.

It is important to remember that this was a first of its kind event, and provided the organisers learn from their mistakes, the subsequent ones are bound to be better and more effective.  

And even if the money spent---conservative estimates put the figure at Rs 15 crore-- was not partially recouped by the increase in tourism and hotel revenues, it should not be  written off as a  loss just yet, since the returns could take some time,  and it is difficult to put a price on intangible benefits which are bound to be spin offs.

But the government might consider setting up a donation-based corpus for subsequent events, with scrupulous and public records, of course.

The government also needs to ensure that the ideas and emotions collected during this event are collated, debated, and acted upon swiftly. 

There was a distinct clash between economic and emotional interests during this first event, and steps must be taken to see that both are leveraged to India's advantage.

Emotional bonds with the country of origin are easy to understand. The fact that  many third and even fourth generation Indians thronged the meet  put paid to the theory that these bonds fade with each passing generation. Events like these prove the clichéd adage that you can take an Indian out of India, but you cannot take India out of an Indian.

But emotions alone are not enough. People will not invest in India just because they or their forefathers left these shores years ago. It might make them think about it, but the money will come only when they are sure that they can get adequate returns on it.

And that can only be achieved by projecting a stable economic and political climate, and the continued reassurance that these investments were not subject to the whims and fancies of successive governments. 

Enter the Prime Minister, who valiantly asserted that the government was not interested in just money, but in leveraging the great talent and abilities of the diaspora, in varied fields.

Enter the home minister, who stressed on the secular fabric and traditions of India, and described Gujarat as an "aberration" never to be repeated.

Enter finance minister Jaswant Singh and his sops for Indians abroad willing to invest in specific sectors, a small but significant step, and his promise that his budget would hold other proposals and sops. 

Enter Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha, whose appeal to emulate the Jewish and Chinese diaspora went down well with the audience, though it provoked South African Fatima Meer, a Samman recipient who championed the anti-apartheid movement and has writtens books on Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, to claim that she hated the word 'diaspora.'

But all these gestures, all these efforts, will come to nought if the government does not actively ensure that the initiative does not fizzle out to become yet another annual Delhi do, where hot air rules.