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Diaspora & development

Saumitra Mohan | New Delhi |

Diasporas have emerged as an important component in the process of globalisation, which has created a global village connecting people of various regions, socio-economic, political and cultural backgrounds. Today, international relations denote inter-connectedness among populations of different countries. In recent years where governments are becoming increasingly people-centric, it is the people who represent one of the crucial agents of diplomacy. This has made the diaspora an important agent of diplomacy.

The Indian diaspora has emerged as an important factor in foreign policy, economic development and knowledge transfer. With over $ 60 billion worth of remittances, overseas Indians play an important role in the country’s economy and management of its foreign exchange. The success of Indians in the developed world, particularly in knowledge industries and professions like medicine and academia, have also helped transform the country’s image.

Indians were initially brought in as indentured labourers to develop plantation economies, construct railway networks and to serve as soldiers in the imperial military establishments in far-flung parts of the empire in the nineteenth century. More than two million Indians fought on behalf of the empire in several wars, including the Boer War and the two World Wars, and some remained behind to claim the land on which they had fought as their own.

These workers and soldiers were often accompanied and followed by a large number of Indian traders and professionals under the free passage system. Presently, there are about five million Indians in the Gulf countries. Meanwhile, in countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, Indians have made their presence felt in different professions.

The migration of Indians as professionals, labourers and traders to various countries is a continuing saga. Rapid economic growth and expansion of technical education, particularly in IT, have accentuated the process. The USA and Australia have received a large number of Indian students, many of whom settle down after completing their studies.

If there is one issue on which all political parties agree, it is the imperative to include overseas Indians in the country’s economic development and to take care of their needs and aspirations. Successive governments have given more and more concessions to them as an acknowledgment of their contribution by way of remittances, investment, lobbying for India, promoting Indian culture abroad and for building a good image of their country through intelligence and industry.

The Indian diaspora constitutes an important, and in some respects a unique force in world culture. The Government of India has formulated multiple schemes to cater to the cognitive needs of this segment by acquainting them with the schemes and incentives that are offered to them.

After India and the overseas Indians rediscovered each other under Rajiv Gandhi, there came a host of measures such as a separate Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Person of Indian Origin (PIO) Card, Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award, Overseas Citizen of India Card, NRI funds and voting rights for Indian citizens abroad. While some were introduced by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, others were unveiled by the National Democratic Alliance dipensations. The response of the diaspora was varied as these affected different categories of Indians in different ways.

India carried out a major reorientation of its economic and foreign policy in the wake of the major foreign exchange crisis, the end of the Cold War, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The technology-driven growth of the 1980s and Nineties and the achievements of professionals have catapulted the Indian diaspora to a very prominent position in the USA. Gujarati migrants from Africa have become major players in the UK.

India was initially sensitive to the possibility that promoting the cause of overseas Indians might offend the host countries, which ought to be fully responsible for their welfare and security. The Indian community and our diplomatic missions interacted on national occasions, but “diaspora diplomacy” was important. However, it started yielding dividend with increasing engagements with the Indian diaspora across the world.

Several parliamentarians from the UK, the US and Canada take considerable interest in Indian politics because of the large presence of Indians in their constituencies. Various groups in India also make use of the diaspora for promoting their interests. The domestic reaction to the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka highlights the implications of the diaspora as an important factor in our external relations. The LTTE and the separatist movement in Punjab illustrate the impact of the diaspora on national security. For the Indian nationals in the Gulf and elsewhere, welfare measures and resettlement facilities were more important, while the prosperous communities in the West, who were clamouring for dual citizenship, felt short-changed. But, on the whole, they were energised into espousing Indian causes in the US. Of course, their support for Indian interests was not automatic and they often urged the Government here to modify its policies to suit American sensitivities. Indian-Americans contributed little by way of remittances or investments, but the establishment of the India Caucus in the House of Representatives and the turning around of hesitant legislators into voting for the India-US nuclear deal were major accomplishments.

The achievements of the diaspora and India’s policy of economic liberalization and globalization have created the ideal environment for a mutually beneficial engagement. In the wake of the foreign exchange crisis of 1991, the government leveraged the financial resources of the diaspora who contributed substantially contributed to the India Development Bond and Millennium Bond.

The exodus of highly-skilled talent creates a very real “brain drain” in the economy, particularly in such sectors as engineering and bio-technology. A poor education system with insufficient capacity combined with the outflow of skilled professionals creates a shortage of skilled labour and inflates wages relative to other low-cost countries … thereby making India less competitive in these spheres.

Poor governance and other systemic issues impact the business environment and drive away business, investment and high-quality jobs, thereby creating a vicious cycle which India cannot afford. The challenge for India goes beyond just determining how to leverage the many successful Indians abroad. It needs to provide an attractive ecosystem to study and work in if it wants to retain its best and brightest, and in order to ensure that Indian businesses and foreign investors continue to invest in India.

Further, Indian banks offer a high rate of interest on deposit accounts overseas whenever there is a financial crisis, but there is no systematic programme in place to attract investment from the diaspora. In order to attract its diaspora, its capital and know-how back to its shores on the scale required and to retain its current pool of talent, it will need to develop a comprehensive strategy that provides sufficient incentives to make the move attractive, given the opportunities the diaspora has abroad.

The nature of engagement with the diaspora has changed according to the needs of the time. Because of extraordinary diversity and geographical spread, the policy of engagement has to be flexible and tailor-made to suit every segment of the diaspora. The approach towards the workers in the Gulf is primarily oriented towards welfare and remittance. Engagement with the diaspora in the developed world has to be multifaceted and aimed at making India a knowledge-power. Their strengths have to be leveraged for political lobbying, image projection and economic development.

The communication and transportation revolution and the global reach of the media have brought about a major change in the nature of the relationship between the diaspora and their country of origin. India must follow a robust and flexible policy in order to leverage the strengths of the diaspora and minimise the possibility of a negative fallout. The diaspora can play an important role in India’s quest to be a knowledge-power and a developed country.

The writer is Additional Secretary, Dept of Health and Family Welfare, West Bengal. The views expressed are personal and not the Government’s.