Dnyaneshwar Mulay is a career diplomat with a difference. Currently the Secretary for Overseas Indian Affairs in the Ministry of External Affairs, he is also a renowned writer and thought-leader, with 15 of his inspirational books having been translated from the original Marathi into Urdu, Kannada, Arabic, Dhivehi and Hindi. His seminal work ‘Mati Pankh Ani Akash’ has been included in the curriculum for graduate students in the North Maharashtra University. As an IFS officer of the 1983 batch, he has worked in Indian Missions in Tokyo, Moscow and Port Louis. He served as Minister in Damascus and was India’s longest serving High Commissioner to Male (Maldives). He assumed charge as Secretary (Consular, Passport, Visa and Overseas Indian Affairs) in November, 2016.
In this thought-provoking interview with Rajeev Gupta, Editor of NRI Achievers, Secretary Mulay asserts that engagement with the Indian Diaspora is entering an exciting new age of electronic connectivity and explains how the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas concept has undergone a sea change.
Q. Your Ministry has focused on creating connectivity with the world, including the Indian Diaspora abroad. You yourself have emphasised the need to inject economic substance to interactions with the outside world. This implies promoting growth in tourism, growth in trade and growth in personal and corporate investments. How can we make the Diaspora an empowered tool in this regard? NRIs keen on investing in India are often hindered by complex regulations and red tapism. How can such hurdles be removed?
Red tapism is a word that has been used too often. If you see the overall policies of the Government of India particularly under the new regime, there has been a paradigm shift. It’s about creating a welcoming environment in the country. From zero or just one country on our list for Visa on Arrival, we have moved to more than 155 countries for Electronic Transit Visa (ETV). In my view this is a major step.
India which used to be considered a restrictive country has rapidly opened its doors to nationals of more than 155 countries through the ETV. Many may not have fully understood the importance of this, but through my interactions with our missions and others, I know that lot of people are actually now using this route because they don’t have to go to the Mission - they can pay online. This is symbolic of the new age we are entering in and this will ultimately contribute to business growth. Business promotion doesn’t only mean changing the norms or raising the cap, which the Government is in any case doing. To make investments attractive, the country as a whole has to be attractive, people as a whole must display a kind of welcoming disposition, we should inculcate the spirit of “Atithi devo bhava”. The ‘Atithi’ could be an investor, tourist, Overseas Indian, FII investor or anybody who comes to India for whatever objective.
Again, business does not mean just investment. We get confused when we think of business as only trade, commerce and investment. The Prime Minister, while speaking in New York, told the Indian Diaspora that ‘whenever you go to India take five people along with you to India’. So he was indirectly promoting not only tourism but also business visitors. The first business friendly step is to create a friendly impression and perception outside the country. We have done that.
Q. The Visa on Arrival facility is not available in countries like Canada, US, UK, Australia and New Zealand where a large number of NRIs are located. Does the government have in mind any provision in this regard in the New Year?
No, I am not referring to the specific countries that you are mentioning. But the Government is continuously expanding the list of ‘electronic tourist visa’. This approach will continue.
Q. But the majority of NRIs live in these countries?
You know how many countries are there in the world - around 198 countries out of which 155 are covered. What does this mean? The majority of countries are covered. What I am trying to say is that this is not the only area where we have worked. We have worked to simplify the OCI and PIO system. Despite some transitional issues, the aim is to provide a uniform facility for OCIs and PIOs, to bring them all on same level, with no differential arrangement.
There is a constant churning here to think ways of getting the Diaspora connected in a better way. We do not work only because PBD is coming. PBD is just a part of whole. There is a constant engagement with many components and PBD is one very important part of that.
Q. So is there any plan to take some new initiatives in addition to PBD, which is a biennial event and nothing substantial comes into the light in the intervening two years about what is actually happening between Indian Diaspora and Indian Government?
Yes, the whole vision of the Ministry is to expand and be more creative in our engagement with our Diaspora. As a result, since we had our last PBD in 2015 in Ahmedabad, we have had as many as ten panel discussions. We call them PBD Monthly Panel Discussion and we choose one theme every month, like for instance ‘Holistic Health’ or ‘Education’ or ‘Tourism’. We had one discussion on “How to improve Passport, Visa and other Consular services”. Other sessions were devoted to “Startups”, “ECR countries” and “Girmitiya Countries”.
Q. Is the PBD concept undergoing a change?
It was noted that the PBD was getting repetitive and it was getting less and less outcome-oriented. So honourable Minister Sushma Swaraj opted for a rethink and a revamp of the approach. Firstly, it has been decided to hold the event once in two years to make it more substantive. Secondly, the intervening period is used for improving the policy structure and framework and much more.
Thirdly, we have 8 to 10 schemes – Know India Program, Scholarship Schemes for Diaspora, Study India Program, India Development Foundation for Overseas Indians, etc. All these schemes have been revamped to make them more effective, more transparent and more outcome-oriented.
We are regularly monitoring how much is the pendency as far as issuing of passports is concerned. For example, in the Jalandhar passport office, the pendency rate is zero and many others like Bhubaneswar are following. Earlier, this pendency rate used to be in several thousands, for a variety of reasons. So, we are revamping this and making it people-friendly. Today our Diaspora policy is much more efficient and very people friendly.
Q. The PBD has often been labelled a government sponsored jamboree where NRIs from around the world are fed dollops of inducements to return home in a rather more secular replay of Ghar Wapsi. How would you react to this perception?
Perceptions do not always reflect reality. What we know is we are working very hard so that people abroad can feel comfortable and confident in connecting with India. We have to ensure that environment here is safe for them, their welfare is taken care of and they are given necessary incentives.
Q. PBD is called a gathering of the rich who know NRIs. Is that true?
I don’t see such things. The PBD is for Pardesis irrespective of their background, financial or otherwise.
Q. Although the people selected for awards are usually from the affluent classes?
I don’t agree. There is a very good jury system. The jury is chaired by the Honourable Vice President of India. So you can see there is no question of compromising on quality and standard. Of course, it is our endeavour to constantly strive to improve the process by inviting diverse nominations.
Q. Do you provide any special facilities to the participants in the form of finance, hotel and tickets?
Well, you know it’s a huge event. The Government spends a lot of money on it and charges registration fees which in today’s context I believe is very nominal.
Q. There are lakhs of NRIs in the middle-income bracket, especially those working in Gulf countries, who contribute greatly to India’s economy but are unable to take part in PBD because of the cost factor and other hurdles. Is the government considering any steps to facilitate their participation in greater numbers?
We have to take a rational view. We cannot invite everybody, nor is it possible for everybody to participate. We have certainly taken inputs from our own embassies in these countries. We try to give them as much representation in various panel discussions that are currently going on. We have now introduced the scheme of scholarship whereby 50 seats are reserved only for the children of our Diaspora in Gulf Countries; it is a unique step which has been introduced recently. A message has gone very clear and loud to everybody in the world that India cares for its citizens and it cares certainly for its overseas citizens. Those who are in trouble, who are in distress know that India is always ready to help them out, to evacuate them, to bring them back with dignity. Whether it is mortal remains, whether it is dead bodies, we are with people to solve their problems. This has also increased the respect for India in the mind of outsiders.
Q. There are more than 1.75 crore NRIs around the world, but this message of PBD and regional PBDs goes to only a few thousand NRIs. Is this fair to say?
We advertise in all possible ways and our embassies circulate the information widely. Most of the people who are overseas open Embassy website at least once in a while; not all but many-many people do see the Government schemes for OCI and NRIs listed there. Sometimes, I do find complaints from even literate and educated people that they were not aware about PBD. I would only ask them to visit their own country’s embassy website, where all relevant information is regularly updated. We also publicize press releases on Facebook and Twitter. I feel that the community and the media should also propagate such information for their own good and for the good of the country.
Q. Now that almost all the States have taken to hosting their own ”Investor Summits” over the last few years, can we expect to see the PBD to move in directions apart from Investment, Make In India, etc, and focus on addressing Diaspora issues, as it was originally conceived to?
We don’t focus just on investments. We have a holistic approach to the Diaspora and the primary focus is their connectivity with India. Connectivity could be emotional, cultural, economic, intellectual, philosophical, psychological, or business related.
So it really is how you look at it - by and large PBDs have succeeded in conveying the message of India to the overseas Indians. And now we shall take it to a new level where the engagement becomes substantive. That’s why the PBD 2017 theme is “Redefining Engagement with the Indian Diaspora”.
Q. Has making visa facilities easier made a measurable difference?
Yes, no doubt a larger number of people are now going through the electronic tourist visa because they find it far easier to go to online to book, to pay and to arrive. Travel to India is easy and simple.
Q. Our youth go abroad for studies, their expertise is harnessed and they contribute to the economic growth of the countries they reside in. Is the government thinking in terms of wooing that talent back to India?
We have devoted one full day i.e. January 7, 2017 to Youth PBD and expecting about 800 – 1000 youth to participate in it. There is already a “GAIN” program by HRD ministry as it is a portal for the people who want to come back to the country and that channel is already provided. We have created a separate portal for student registration so that we know how many students are there and what they are doing. We are getting in touch with them and updating them about the development of India. And we are also creating another portal so that more overseas Indians can register more conveniently. As a result of these efforts, ‘brain drain’ is fast becoming ‘brain gain’ for India.
OPEN LETTER TO INDIAN GOVERNMENT
WHY WE NRIs IMPORT MORE FROM CHINA?
I am a Non resident Indian residing in Australia for over 11 years, I own a trading company where we import pesticides from India and China for the Australian market. 95% of our products are imported from China and 5% from India. Being an Indian our company is very passionate about supporting Indian businesses. However we constantly face hurdles. I would just like to highlight some points here - No free trade agreement between India and Australia. Due to the absence of a free trade agreement all imported goods from India attract a duty of minimum 5% which makes Indian products more expensive and less favorable. Since China and Australia have a free trade agreement goods from China do not attract any duty making China more competitive which helps them to increase their production capacity hence bringing in more jobs and growth into Chinese economy. - No tax rebates for Indian companies. Chinese government is very supportive of it's businesses giving them rebates on export which brings in more investment and increase foreign currency reserves. On the contrary Indian government imposes more taxes that not only makes Indian origin goods less competitive but also discourages foreign investment - Indian government needs to invest in shipping ports and high speed transportation so the goods can be imported and exported at a brisk pace. Lead times on goods from India range between 10-12 weeks minimum on the contrary the same goods from China have a lead time of maximum 4 weeks. A common perception about India in the western world is that things move at a very slow pace in India which discourages businesses in Australia hence they are not always eager to trade with India. - Living in Australia we notice every citizen and government is sympathetic towards their farmers and very proud of their farming industry, on the contrary in India even though farming still constitutes about 63% of Indian GDP ( I might be wrong here) still our farmers are In the worst condition possible. This information in the western media leaves a very bad impression about India as all major companies have to prove that they are playing a part in the corporate social responsibility Why is the government not doing any campaign where every Indian citizen is empathetic and considers this a responsibility to help improve the plight of our farmers so they can progress and India can become self sufficient and a net exporter of agriculture products. I would be happy to support in any way possible to contribute that will help in the progress of India and its citizens.
Thanks, An NRI