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NRI pie in the sky

ANIL DHARKER

SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The first `Pravasi Bharatiya Divas" ... patriotism on test.

THERE'S one simple test to assess the contribution of the Indian diaspora to the mother country. There's a total of 20 million NRIs and People of Indian Origin (PIOs) in the world. The Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from them is U.S.$1 billion. On the other hand, there are 55 million overseas Chinese; their FDI investment is $60 billion. That striking comparison is worth more than the million words spoken at the recent Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Delhi.

You can respond to this huge disparity by jumping to one of two conclusions. First, that overseas Indians are not very well off. But that's immediately disproved: they earn $400 billion across the 110 countries the diaspora stretches. So you jump to the second conclusion: that they are less patriotic than the overseas Chinese. There's no way to prove or disprove that, but common sense and your own observation tells you that this is not very likely: a huge number of Indians abroad retain a strong sense of Indianness and nostalgia for the country.

The likely explanation is that patriotism is patriotism; patriotism isn't dollars. If the Chinese put back so much money into their country, it's not because their investment decisions are misty eyed; it's because they know that they will get good returns for each dollar they put in. This is borne out by another fact: whenever our government has announced a fixed deposit scheme for NRIs in Indian banks carrying interest rates higher than what's on offer in the West, a lot of money has come in.

That's it, in a nutshell. Our government's policy on overseas Indians is based on symbolism, whereas if the to our north ever holds a Pravasi Chini Divas in Beijing, you can be sure that their ministers will talk about a new, improved economic programme which includes reduced and simplified taxes, reduced import tariffs, higher labour productivity and accountability. In stark contrast, all we have offered are sops. Dual citizenship is the biggest of them all and you can bet that it won't persuade Lakshmi Mittal to set up a steel plant in India; he'd rather buy one in Europe or in America.

Even our sops are discriminatory: dual citizenship is being offered only to NRIs living in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. In other words, in the developed, Western, non-Muslim world. The fear of terrorism is obviously a factor here, so is the "Clamour Factor": it's the well-off, articulate NRIs who live in those countries who have made the most noise, and thus get what they want. But these are also the more sophisticated and money-savvy individuals who will take hard-nosed investment decisions, not sentimental ones. In other words, they will say, "Why, thank you" and take their dual citizenship and simultaneously say, "Thanks, but no thanks" to foreign direct investment. This doesn't mean that this section of NRIs should be ignored. In fact self-interest dictates that they get preferential treatment because their affluence, achievements and high visibility in their adoptive countries make them powerful representatives of India, representatives who collectively give us a sharp, modern image in the Western world and indirectly help in India's voice being heard on the world stage.

But what kind of Indian would help our cause? Precisely the kind the government is not cultivating. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership in Delhi is so enamoured of people who espouse Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideology, that it ends up picking someone like B.K. Agnihotri and appoints him as "Ambassador for NRIs". (We all know about his wanting diplomatic status while holding on to his Green Card, something the U.S. State Department has refused to do).

Would the Vinod Khoslas (who recently donated $5 million to IIT, Delhi), the Deshpandes and other Silicon Valley heroes and the Fareed Zakarias and other opinion formers respond to Agnihotri? They would keep opportunists like him at several arms length.

Enlightened self-interest tells us that we should leverage the clout of people of Indian origin who are now in the mainstream of American, Canadian and British politics. Or academics like Amartya Sen and Lord Bikhu Parekh, industrialists like Lord Bagri, CEOs like Rajat Gupta (MD of Mckinsey worldwide), scientists like Nobel laureates (the late) Chandrashekhar and Bal Gobind Khorana, musicians like Zubin Mehta ... Each one of them would react in distaste to the political hangers-on who seem to find favour with the government.

All this is bad enough. But there's more: there is another kind of PIO/ NRI who isn't even a tiny blip on the government's radar. This is the poor relation of the Indian diaspora, the one we can lump under the description "Gulf Indian". For 30 years, this Indian has sent back all he can save to Kerala and other States. He was even the major subscriber to the Resurgent India bonds! Yet the only thing done for him by the government was the setting up of the Protectorate of Emigrants. The ostensible purpose was to protect the Gulf Indian from job rackets and exploitation; but in fact this has become an easy source of corruption. The Gulf Indian is thus rooked by Indian officials before he leaves, rooked by his employers for whom he slogs away and rooked by all kinds of touts and confidence tricksters when he comes back. Yet this group of Indians sends back into the country over $300 million annually! So don't blame the NRI for being seemingly less patriotic than the Chinese. Whatever he is doing for India he is doing in spite of government policies. If he was met even half way, he would contribute at least twice as much, and we would have a Pravasi Bharati Divas every day of the year.

Anil Dharker is a noted journalist, media critic and writer.

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