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NRIs: Fair-weather friends?

Last updated on: January 16, 2008 20:03 IST

The sixth Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebrations concluded in New Delhi last week. It is a national conclave for non-resident Indians or persons of Indian origin, who are now settled in different parts of the world. It was a pet project of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The National Democratic Alliance government, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, launched the annual conference in 2003 with great enthusiasm. The Congress has not given up the project and the United Progressive Alliance government, led by Manmohan Singh, has been dutifully organising the annual NRIs conference since 2005.

It would, therefore, seem that the idea of staying engaged with the Indian diaspora has received support from India's leaders belonging to a large number of political parties with different ideologies.

The creation of a ministry for overseas Indian affairs and the grant of dual citizenship to NRIs in some countries in addition to a special passport-like identity card to all NRIs to facilitate their travel to India and enjoy other rights and benefits (barring of course the right to vote) are just a few among the many decisions taken in the last six years that are indicative of the NDA and the UPA governments' belief that there are political and economic benefits of staying connected with overseas Indians.

Yet, it would be naive to believe that the sixth edition of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas had the same excitement that was witnessed in the previous five conferences. The duration of this conference was reduced by a day.

Yes, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated the conference, but there were no major announcements. Contrary to expectation, there was no launch of the much-trumpeted fund to channel NRI contributions for social sector development. The prime minister only talked about a proposal to examine this in his inaugural address.

Several high-profile NRI names were mentioned as the star attractions of the conference this year, but the attendance and the participation were nothing to write home about. The number of countries that the thousand-odd delegates represented at the conference was lower at 35, compared to 50 and 56 countries at the two conferences held in 2006 and 2007, respectively.

And, decidedly, the focus of the conference had been diluted somewhat when the organisers announced that the theme was to build social and emotional bridges with the Indian diaspora and how NRIs could be encouraged to invest in India's social sector development.

It is important to recognise this shift in the focus of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebrations. Implicit in this shift are the reasons for the slackening interest and excitement of the Indian diaspora in such conclaves. Equally important is to recognise that an idea generated in a certain context may no longer remain as relevant once the context changes.

The Indian diaspora may not like this. But the context has changed quite comprehensively in the last six years and the manner in which India and its people look at the diaspora has also changed. Undeniably, the "India Shining" story propagated by the BJP in 2004, the BRIC report, again in 2004, hailing India as one of the four top emerging economies of the world and India's average annual economic growth of 8.6 per cent in the last four years have a lot to do with this.

Note that all the three developments cited above took place after the launch of the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebrations in 2003. More significantly, they changed the way Indians began looking at themselves and the world. Thus, the environment in which the first NRI conclave was held was not the same when its sixth edition was conceived.

Today, Indians are not looking at the NRIs to seek their help. The Indian diaspora is still seen as a community that has done well for itself. But the last four years' scorching pace of growth and the promise of a speedier development on all fronts have made Indians in their own country more confident and assertive.

Thus, instead of the Indian government showing its eagerness to offer more incentives to the NRIs to invest their wealth in India, it is the diaspora that is seeking the Indian government's help in lobbying with foreign governments to provide it protection there against racial discrimination. It is the diaspora that now wants more avenues in India to invest its wealth because it realises that parking its disposable income in India will yield it a higher return.

Now that India is likely to shine even more in the years to come, the Indian diaspora seems to be realising that it must reconnect with India. In this changed context, it is not surprising that an annual conclave like the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas has lost a lot of its original sparkle.

NRIs have shown through their behaviour over the years that they are fair-weather friends. They were among the first to withdraw their high interest earning deposits in India in 1990-91 when India faced its worst balance of payments crisis, and pushed the country closer to a financial collapse.

Today, they are eager to reconnect with India because India is a growth story and it makes good business sense. The Indian government and its political leaders should realise this changing equation and nobody should be allowed to moan over the declining interest in the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebrations to be held in the coming years.

A K Bhattacharya