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19 Jan, 2012

India’s “People Power” Diaspora Now A Major Agent Of Change

JAIPUR, Rajasthan: When the Q&A began after one of the plenary sessions at the overseas Indian diaspora caucus on January 9, the first person to raise her voice was Dr Rashmi Dickinson, a former Hampstead, UK-based cardiologist. After narrating a brief story about her career in the UK, she said she had decided that it was about time for her to contribute to India’s development. Upon return, she adopted 20 villages, started an eco-trail and undertook a number of other projects to improve livelihoods of the poor and needy in rural India.

Travel Impact Newswire Executive Editor Imtiaz Muqbil was the only travel industry journalist from Asia invited to attend the Pravasi Bharati Divas 2012.

Then, she ran afoul of the “establishment”. For one of her projects, she had to cross a bureaucratic hurdle for which the official demanded a bribe. She refused. That triggered off a chain of events that cost her years of work, tied her up in legal and bureaucratic entanglements and wasted three million UK pounds of her personal money. “I’m absolutely devastated,” she said. Her demand: What can the Indian government to help people like her, those with good intentions who want to change India for the better but run up against those who want to keep it the way it is.

That question went to the heart of discussions at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD), the annual caucus of the overseas Indian diaspora. The 27 million strong constituency has unlimited financial and intellectual resources which the Indian government is seeking to tap in pursuit of becoming an economically advanced country and a global superpower. The second largest global diaspora after China, it has produced illustrious personalities such as a former president of Singapore and the Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago. Most of the IT professionals in Silicon valley and most of the doctors in the UK are of Indian origin. The formidable line-up includes Nobel laureates, businessmen, industrialists, technocrats, authors, engineers, academics, hoteliers and a broad range of professionals across all spectrums of life in just about every country of the world.

In the past 10 years, the Indian government has organised the annual PBD in cooperation with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) to discuss ways for the diaspora to reconnect with the mother country. Held in the “Pink City” of Jaipur, one of the three corners in India’s popular Golden Triangle tourist circuit, this year’s PBD was attended by 1,900 delegates and spouses from 54 countries, the largest turnout ever. According to the Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs Mr. Vayalar Ravi, it was a “watershed event” which for the first time looked beyond just investment and finance to cover the theme of inclusive growth – the promotion of knowledge, philanthropy and social entrepreneurship.

Major Asset

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Although they live abroad, many diaspora Indians are proud of their lineage, education and heritage and anxious to rediscover their roots dating back to when their forefathers went abroad in search of better opportunities or were transplanted by the British colonialists to the sugar and tobacco plantations in far-flung places such as Fiji and the Caribbean. Today, they cut across all castes, colours and creeds. One of the biggest owners of supermarkets in the Gulf is an Indian Muslim. The biggest owners of motels in the U.S. are Gujaratis. A Sikh has recently been appointed to the Canadian Cabinet. In the Gulf, fabulously wealthy Indians are as much a part of the diaspora as the millions of domestic workers and construction workers. Fluency in English, the capacity for hard work and a hunger to get ahead has given the diaspora a competitive advantage over other migrants. Adding to that is a strong sense of justice, as epitomised by independence leader Mahatma Gandhi and his peaceful anti-colonial revolution.

The Indian government has worked to build the bonds as part of the economic liberalisation and development programme that began in 1991. One of the most popular figures being bandied around at the PBD was the estimated US$1 trillion required to build Indian infrastructure in the 12th Five year plan 2012-2017 – roads, highways, airports, seaports, water and energy and telecommunications. Even more will be needed in private investment. That’s where the diaspora comes in.

Year after year, the government works to forge stronger links. One million of those who hold foreign passports also hold special cards which give them the right to visit, live and work in India. Slow but steady measures have made it easier for them to remit money, invest and study. They have been provided with tax holidays, high returns on bonds and numerous other investor-friendly goodies. In 2007, an Overseas Indian Facilitation Centre was set up by the MoIA in cooperation with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) to act as a focal point for the diaspora professionals and SMEs to invest.

At this year’s PBD, the government unveiled a pension and life insurance fund for overseas Indian workers, a voluntary scheme that helps them accumulate some savings to prepare for their return to India as well a life insurance cover. As the country has one of the world’s youngest populations, an entire session is devoted at the PBD to harnessing the power of the diaspora’s young generation, too.

In addition to the measures by the central government, the states are also working overtime to attract Indians. At the forefront are states such as Bihar, Assam, Kerala, Jharkand, Orissa and Rajasthan. Projects such as the Mumbai-Delhi industrial corridor are providing massive business opportunities across numerous states in one go.

Read some of the top policy speeches. Click on the link

Mr Oommen Chandy, Chief Minister, Kerala: From Wage-Earning To Entrepreneurial Society

Mr. Ashok Gehlot, Chief Minister, Rajasthan: State Ministers, Govt Officers, Have To Disclose Property Holdings

Dr. C.P. Joshi, Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways: Transparency Has Drawn More Investors to Road Projects

Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, Union Finance Minister: India’s Brain Drain Has Now Become A Brain Gain

Major Challenges

But the push for economic development, jobs and a higher global profile for India is coming up against a range of environmental, political, social and cultural challenges. Three of the most fundamental issues involve water, energy and food. It was indicative of the seriousness of these challenges that the PBD began with a discussion about them.

Water is described as the most serious, which is why India is one of the few countries in the world with a ministry devoted solely to water and sanitation. The country is dependent primarily upon rainfall and its rivers. Water consumption is surging but the supply is not. Mr. M. Bhaskar, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, said that irrigation takes up 86% of India’s water consumption, 8% industry and 6% domestic usage. He said that in future the share of consumption by irrigation is likely to go down and while industrial and domestic consumption will grow. This will create a whole new set of management issues, especially in the rural areas where the role of women is crucial; in many villages, fetching water is their responsibility. Said one of the speakers, “The woman has to be Dara Singh (a well-known Indian wrestler in the former days). She has to fetch 200 litres of water per day.”

Mr. Bhaskar noted that water supply is unevenly distributed both geographically and temporally right across India. While places such as Cherrapunji have the world’s highest rainfall, others such as Rajasthan are extremely arid. And even this rainfall is unevenly distributed seasonally; Cherrapunji gets most of its rainfall in a span of 3 to 4 months and the rest of the year faces a water shortage. A major effort is underway nationwide to boost water conservation and storage facilities and build canals and dams. Calls are also being heard for a return to some back-to-basics systems, such as the large earthenware cisterns that once were used to store rainwater before pumps began to be deployed to suck up groundwater, which is also being depleted.

Same issue with energy; India is heavily dependent on imported oil and now in pursuit of alternative sources. Here, the host state Rajasthan had much to offer. It may be short of water but it has plenty of sun-power and wants to build solar parks to attract investment. The Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said 10,000 ha of land has been identified for selling agricultural units using solar energy. Overall solar power is expected to become one of the major sources of energy for India which plans to spend $35 billion in the 12th plan period to boost power generation capacity from renewable sources. The plan calls for raise the total capacity of renewable power to 22,500 MW by March 2012 and 48,000 MW by 2017, from 15,539 MW currently.

As for food, supply is not an issue, but soaring prices are. Mrs Bhavna Doshi, President, Indian Merchants Chamber, noted that food inflation has a significant adverse effect on the inclusive growth plans. There seems to be little that is helping to ease inflation, she said. The Reserve Bank of India’s policy to increase interest rates has not yielded results because it affects the growth of business. Increasing rates leads to increasing costs. The RBI recognises this but containing inflation is a priority, especially because it can become a political issue.

Responsibilities and Opportunities

In all these areas, NRIs see both responsibilities and opportunities. To act on both, what they want most is system change. Ideas presented by G. Mohan Gopal, Chairman of Institute of Southeast Asian Studies went down very well. He noted that three of India’s top independence leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi were all non-resident Indians at some time in their life and were exposed to ideas and thoughts which helped transform both India and the world. They did not come back to become members of the elite, he said. They came back to change and reform in India.

Mr. Gopal, who worked for many years as Senior Counsel at the World Bank, said four areas of reform were necessary for the emergence of a new India. First, he said, the economic and policy framework needed to be improved to promote investment. He did not elaborate on this as it had already been discussed in numerous other sessions.

Secondly, he said changes in the “obsolete” tax and foreign exchange regimes are necessary. They were created in the days when people left the country and came back. Today, however people settle down in other countries and then spread their interests. New types on foreign exchange regimes need to be created to help Indians reduce the amount of time they spend both in India and abroad on managing this aspect of their money.

Thirdly, he said, the state and civil service sector was still stuck in a colonial mindset and lived in a “state of exploitation, corruption and oppression.” People feel there is no other way in which they can battle the state’s corruption on a daily basis. The Indian civil service has outlived its utility, he said. As policies have become more complex, the civil service needs specialists to handle it, not generalists.

Fourth, Mr. Mohan Gopal said, the education and knowledge sector had to be reformed to create quality institutions of learning, especially tertiary education. Noting the fact that very small percentage of people go to college, he said new systems need to be created so that “colleges run after students, not the other way around.” Finally, he said, social change and social justice was critical and that all forms of discrimination on the basis of caste and gender must end.

Major Liabilities

The changes taking place within India cannot be removed from a global context, especially in relation to the Brazil, Russia, India, China equation. Mr. Shashi Tharoor, a former United Nations undersecretary general in charge of information who returned to India to become a member of Parliament, noted the differences between India and China growth trajectories. He said that while China’s growth was largely export-driven, India’s growth was based more on internal consumption, thus better shielding the country from external shocks.

Paradoxically, India’s major assets are also its major liabilities. The first is the size of the population. While 1.2 billion people are its primary resources, as suppliers of sheer brainpower as well as consumers, they are also huge guzzlers of its natural resources. Water is just one. On 7 January, The Times of India quoted a report saying that India’s forest cover has fallen by 367 km² between 2000 and 2009, most of the losses being in the north-east states of Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and Arunachal. However, there had been gains in other states such as Punjab, Jharkand, Tamila Nadu, Rajasthan and Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

Secondly, all of India’s culture and heritage can be traced back to the four great religions which took root there and two other great religions which have contributed immensely. When these cultures work well together, the synergy is enormous and tangible. But when they go down the nationalistic and supremacist path, or are exploited by politicians to fuel communal tensions and tap into vote-banks, they can become fatal liabilities.

Thirdly, in line with its leadership in the field of information technology, India has witnessed a proliferation of TV channels, Internet and social networking sites, and online newspapers. While these have played a great role in connecting India both internally and externally, they also become forums for an outpouring of vicious religious and racial hate whenever security issues arise.

Democratic Credentials

Finally, India’s democratic credentials provide unprecedented opportunities for inclusive and peaceful change. But these same democratic credentials slow down the decision-making process and spawn corruption. In one of the published interviews, a young generation Indian leader, Dr Jayaprakash Narayan, founder and president of the Lok Satta party, said one of the biggest problems is the funding of the electoral system itself. As all the politicians are dependent on interest groups for expenditure, the money comes with strings attached. As the financiers expect returns, either personally or in the form of favourable policies to support their sectoral interests, how can there ever be a corruption-free society, he asks.

Security concerns also dominate the decision-making process and the policy apparatus. This is the domain of the Home Ministry and the Defence Ministry. India has lost two Prime Ministers to terrorist attacks by Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers and Sikh separatists. There have been long-standing issues in Kashmir as well as an ongoing insurgency in the Northeastern states. Religious tensions also lead to violence, although this has subsided in recent years. However, government measures designed to improve security affect two areas that are critical to the development of India: stringent visa policies affect inbound tourism, and regulations to staunch the flow of financing for terrorism which slow the flow of legitimate money for remittances and investments.

The policy environment under which changes have to be made is complex. Attracting investment also means liberalising the environment for investors which means giving them a bigger piece of the action. That is raising fears of neo-colonialism. In his session, Prof. Kishore Mahbubani, Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, was asked point-blank about a posssible return to the colonial days of the British East India Company and the foothold which that supposedly innocuous commercial establishment provided for a wholesale political and economic takeover of India. In reply, Mr. Mahbubani called on the questioner to think carefully about how 300 million Indians (the population of India in the colonial days) had come to be dominated by a miniscule force of a few thousand Britons in the first place.

There are also clear examples of policy changes backfiring. Aviation liberalisation was once projected to be the new gold rush. Kingfisher was one airline set up by a flamboyant beer baron to capitalise on this opportunity. Today, it is in financial trouble, with reports of cost cutbacks leading to flight cancellations, unpaid salaries and safety concerns. Another airline, JetAirways, is also merging two sub-brands JetLite and JetConnect, as part of a restructuring operation. Clearly, things did not go according to plan. What went wrong would be well worth studying in detail.

The entire PBD is held against the backdrop of a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi , whose nation-building philosophy was the subject of an entire session in its own right. Mr Sam Pitroda, Advisor to Prime Minister on Public Information, Infrastructure and Innovations, stressed that new models of development will be eventually required, based on the Gandhian philosophies of social and economic justice and a bottom-up approach. He indicated that the country may not be able to cope with the huge environmental, social and other pressures of get-rich-quick economic models. “The western model is neither sustainable nor scalable, and at some points, not desirable. We are a nation of over a billion people and we cannot afford to follow a short term model meant for a population of less than 250 million people.”


Even after pouring out her complaint, Dr Rashmi Dickinson voiced confidence that a better India will emerge, and that all the pressure for change will produce positive results. Mr. Tharoor was confident that people power can prevail. He cited the example of a women’s self-help group that rose to the occasion and took on the middle-men who had been fleecing the local farmers by paying them a pittance for milk supply. It was only when the village-women decided to take matters into their own hands and confront the middle-men that the prices were raised. In turn, Mr Atul Jain, CEO, TEOCO Corporation, noted that all the decisions are fraught with risks and dangers. However, he said Indian decision-makers cannot afford to worry about whether or not to take the risk but more about the risk of not taking the risk.

As the PBD well-demonstrated, there is no shortage of food for thought. Just about every session ended with argumentative discussions, comments and questions with vehement objections about denial-of-voice being voiced whenever time ran out. The world’s most polyglot, multi-cultural country is slowly but surely changing and maturing in an inclusive way. New public and private partnerships are being forged, civil society is getting involved.

As long as the pie is growing, the problems will be manageable. The moment of dread will come when the pie begins to shrink, and it becomes each man for himself. That’s when India’s mettle will be tested. At the moment, India has little interest in anticipating or preparing for that moment.