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The Rediff Interview/Jagdeesh Chandra Sharma
'Pravasi Diwas is not a mela'
January 03, 2003
Jagdeesh Chandra Sharma, secretary, ministry of external affairs, is looking forward to the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas.
A member of the high level committee on the Indian Diaspora which recommended that the Government of India organise a three-day conference of non resident Indians beginning January 9 -- the day Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa to lead the Independence struggle.
The other recommendation was to honour overseas Indians with awards equivalent to the Padma Vibhushan.
The government not only accepted the committee's recommendations but has gone many steps forward in organising the never-before-kind of event where more than 1,500 Indians from 54 countries will attend the conference.
Sharma provided an insight into the event in an exclusive interview to Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt.
Is this event just a tamasha or a serious conference?
It is an attempt to bring Indians from every corner of the globe under one roof. We want to create better knowledge and awareness about each other. Our fundamental objective is that overseas Indian should know more about India and India should know more about overseas Indians.
We want different Indians to know each other too. Let Indians in Fiji know more about people in South Africa and experience how our collective heritage has evolved and developed.
It's just not a mela, not just a jamboree. It's a happy mixture of work and fun. During the day, there will be serious business, brainstorming and interactions. More than 155 overseas participants are speaking at either four plenary sessions or eight parallel sessions.
About 50 Indians will speak at different occasions. So 200 of the very best of India and the very best of overseas Indians are meeting on January 9. This has never happened before. This is the first gathering in history where the best Indian brains will express their views on different subjects. India will have an opportunity to listen. And they would like to hear from Indians. We will provide them glimpses into how popular culture has evolved in different parts of India.
What kind of entertainment have you arranged?
On the first evening we have arranged Sur Ek Awaz Anek. A group from the Caribbean will perform chutney music, which is Bhojpuri pop influenced by reggae and some Latino music. Trilok Gurtu and Vikku Vinayakram will also perform.
Then Malkait Singh from London will show us how Bhangra has evolved outside India because of the contribution of Sikhs in the UK.
On the second evening we will present the best of the Hindi film industry. Amongst the most recognised faces from India, barring Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru or Vajpayeeji, would be people from the Indian film industry. From Dev Anand to Shah Rukh Khan to Aishwarya Rai will be present in Delhi. Overseas Indians have related to them with great fondness.
On the third day because of the very high esteem for the Indian armed forces, a band comprising the three arms of the armed forces will play at Vijay Chowk against the backdrop of Rashtrapati Bhavan and North and South Block.
What importance have overseas Indians given to this event?
We are very encouraged by their response. Already, more than 1,200 people have registered, more will register now and before January 8. The figure will touch around 1,500. By coming to India they are expressing their sentiments towards India. 500 to 600 Indians have registered. The corporate sectors, highest officials from government, Indian intellectuals are represented well. There will be achievers from every field.
We are giving utmost importance to the event. The prime minister is inaugurating it. He is taking a keen personal interest in the programme. My minister Yashwant Sinha has declared issues related to overseas Indians as one of the top priorities in formulating our foreign policy.
What's the emotional take of this event?
There is a realisation amongst Indians living outside that our destinies are inter-linked even now. If India is seen as the emerging country, as the growing economy, people will pay much more attention to people of Indian origin in various parts of the world. If they are seen to be doing well, it enhances India's prestige.
When Indians excelled in Silicon Valley, India's image changed in just five years in the US. People started connecting Indians with software and computers rather than with elephants and snake charmers.
When the Indian economy grew consistently in the 1990s, despite the recession the world over, people started paying more attention to Indian communities. Some thought these people could become useful to us in reaching India's emerging markets. There is a co-relation. The idea is to build upon and cement this link.
Are you going to soft pedal the main issues concerning NRIs, or are you going to take them head-on? Has India learnt any lessons from China?
No two situations are alike. But I agree that our efforts have not met with the same degree of success. Maybe because we have not been able to create the same enabling environment.
We need to do more. After all, if you have too many headaches, why would anyone come to India?
Will you address these issues at the seminars?
We will discuss the issue concerning NRI investment though it is not a forum to redress grievances. In that case discussion would degenerate. We want a strategy, suggestions and brainstorming over the issue and how it can be done. We have our success stories. Like the telecom sector. We have done so well. In terms of remittances Indians have sent more than the Chinese.
Our situation is different. Those who work in the Gulf, their families are still in India. In the case of China, their family connection within China hardly exists. Second, overwhelming foreign investment in China has come from South-East China. We don't have many Indian entrepreneurs in proximity of India.
Anyway, I am not looking at an investment-centric relationship. We are looking at the perfect holistic relationship between India and overseas Indians. We will give a lot and can benefit from transfer of technology.
What about the hot issue of dual citizenship?
The issue is being discussed at the highest level. We have sought the law ministry's opinion. We have had meetings at the highest level in government. It's a complex issue. We are exploring ways and means to move forward.
Is success in sight? Is the idea feasible or not?
Yes, it's a possibility.
How enthusiastic are Indians at home?
Indians now have a positive mindset towards NRIs. In the old days Indians used to look at visiting NRIs and say, "Look this fellow has come from outside to teach us!" It's not so now. Indians are far more confident now. There is no feeling of envy now with the opening up of India.
If you take purchasing power parity, there are many Indians who are earning comparable amounts to people in the West. Now there is a vibrant India. A confident India is now coming in contact with NRIs.
How can you channelise the strength of overseas Indians to India's benefit?
That's the challenge. It cannot be done overnight. We need to brainstorm. Most people suggest there should be a single window available to them.
Indian bureaucracy and a slow system is their biggest headache.
Sure. I always say we need to create a far more enabling environment for them.
Don't you think such an event cannot be made a success by sarkari babus?
I hope you realise I am an Indian first. That's my first identity. FICCI, an apex body representing Indian industry, is our partner. The government and the private sector have joined hands and our experience is a pleasant one. It's like an entire India putting its foot forward to make a success of the event. It's not just the government or a political party who is doing it. We have invited Sonia Gandhi and former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao who will chair one session.
We want NRIs to know India is on the move. Remember we will have the prime minister, deputy prime minister, vice president and other top government functionaries. Amongst NRIs we will have V S Naipaul, Amartya Sen, two Nobel Laureates. Hargobind Khurana could not come because of his age. About 60 members of parliament from different countries will attend. Cabinet ministers to political leaders to lawmakers from abroad will be there.
This proves there is an interest in India. We need the structure to channelise their interest. From the US, 300 people have already registered and more than 400 are expected. Professor C K Prahlad, Professor Deepak Jain, Narpat Bhandari, Gururaj Deshpande, Professor Manu Bhaumik and many such achievers are in the list. There are people from every field of America. Now I only pray that everything goes alright!
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