“Hum passport ka colour nahi, khoon ka rishta dekhte hai” … were Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s line with which he began his address to the distinguished guests, delegates, exhibitors and all other participants at the 14th edition of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) 2017, held in the ‘socalled’ Silicon Valley’ of India, Karnataka State’s beautiful garden-city capital of Bengaluru. The summit and related activities were organized and held from the 7th to the 9th of January 2017. This three-day Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, billed to figure among one of the the largest convergence events of Indian Diaspora, began in the country's IT hub on a Saturday – with a special spotlight on the role played by youth in transforming the society, and India's potential to play the role of a 'Vishwa Guru' once again in today’s fast changing social, economic, geo-political global context.
The stage for the three-day event was in fact set by the Surinamese Vice-President, a 36-year-old engineer turned politician of Indian descent His Excellency Michael Ashwin Adhin, who called upon India to once again don the mantle of being a meaningful and mentor for world societies – playing its role to the hilt as a big player on the global platform – while simultaneously seeking technological know-how from India for the development of his country – a carribean natural-resource rich nation that received waves of Indian indentured labour between 1873 and 1916. The Suriname Vice-President looked to his roots, averring that India should serve as a ready source of nature-friendly technology for Suriname, which could enable it to compete an ever widening global market.
“The transformation of India implies an influential India at the global-level and that for countries like us ought to mean greater economic and technological cooperation. Any contribution by the Indian diaspora to India will than serve to be mutually beneficial,” said HE Adhin said during his keynote address. Quoting from the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads, the 36-year-old Vice-Head-of-State recited verses in Sanskrit during his nearly 15-minute address, on “the Role of diaspora youth in the transformation of India,” organised as part of Youth Pravasi Divas. Urging a minimisation if not an end to the manifestation of monopolistic trends in businesses, he was of the view that new nations should rightfully be encouraged to grow in order to bring about a new and more equitable balance of power in the world. “India has the potential to emerge as a behemoth, a superpower … and not merely the potential, it has the spiritual grounding and the value-systems that go towards defining a ‘Vishwa Guru’ — a world teacher,” were his very words. “It is also unprecedented to have about 1,700 overseas participants and about 300 to 500 NRIs participating today,” Ashwin said. The focus on the first day was on India’s transition to a digitised economy and youth entrepreneurship.
Recalling the arrival of Indians at Suriname as indentured labourers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar between 1873 and 1916, he shared facts and figures: currently, Indians account for 30% of the country’s population, and many hold key positions in society. “We did not forget our roots. We had brought along with us the knowledge of medicinal plants, plant seeds and musical instruments,” he said. Ashwin, who had but recently dropped ‘Michael’ from his name, has Indian roots going back to at least 144 years. His grandfather’s grandfather was an Indian from Uttar Pradesh, who was taken to Suriname to work its sugarcane fields as an indentured labourer after slavery was abolished.
Another high ranking Pravasi present at the meet was the Chief Guest, Prime Minister of Portugal Antonio Costa. Speaking on the occasion, he recalled his Indian roots in the erstwhile portugese colony on our west coast, and asserted that he was indeed proud to be a person of Indian-origin. Costa said: "Yes, I am actually a person of Indian origin," even taking out a card from his coat pocket and waved it at the audience. The delegates applauded Costa's gesture. The 54-year leader recalled that his father – Orlando da Costa – had spent most of his youth in Goa, which was then under Portuguese rule. "My father’s childhoot took place in Goa. And we never did lose our ties with India. I still have many relatives in Margao and plan to visiting them after this PBD," he said. Costa underscored how it was the duty of a Diaspora to connect the country of their origin with those in which they presently live.
Now, coming back to what our PM Narendra Modi had in store for his audience on the day of his address at the PBD, a keen sense of anticipation was in the air even as he stood up to deliver his speech. Asserting that the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is a celebration to mark the return to India of one of our greatest Pravasis, Mahatma Gandhi, Modi said Indians abroad are valued not just for their strength in numbers, but are respected for the contributions they make. In his keynote address at the 14th PBD celebrations, he said that the Indian diaspora represents the best of Indian culture, ethos and values. "The true identity of this event is you, the overseas Indians. It is a matter of pride for us that you all are here to attend this. There are over 30 million overseas Indians living abroad," said Prime Minister Modi. "In the past, when people left the country for employment, it was referred to as ‘brain drain.’ But we want to change this – into a ‘brain gain’," he quipped. “The Pravasi Kaushal Vikas Yojana, PKVY, which we have launched launched recently, will provide skill development and orientation to youth in their chosen field of vocation. For those workers who seek economic opportunities abroad, our effort is to provide maximum facilitation and ensure least inconvenience," PM Modi added, while also asserting that the Centre will not stint in providing support and training for Indian youth seeking employment abroad. He emphasized the importance of skill development, in keeping with his thrust towards skill building ever since he assumed office in 2014. Talking about the new scheme – a soft skills development programme for young Indians – it is aimed at boosting the confidence level of the Indian youth, said Modi: “Unskilled workers will be trained in soft-skills to get better wages abroad as we want them to go well trained and feel secure.”
“We have streamlined systems to safeguard immigration of Indian workers. About six lakh emigrants have been granted emigration clearance online for overseas employment through registered recruitment agents”.
The 'Youth Pravasi Bharatiya Divas' was launched as part of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, 2017 with a view to reach out to the young, new generation of the Indian diaspora members spread across the globe. The scheme is part of a slew of skill building measures that the PM has rolled out to focus on training of the youth both at home and abroad.
“What binds us all together is 'Bharatiyata' (Indianness),” said Modi, hailing the Indian Diaspora for its achievements on foreign soil. “There are 30 million Indians abroad. Around 69 billion dollars is remitted annually by overseas Indians. But they are valued here not for their large numbers but their valued contribution to diverse fields. They best represent the Indian cultural ethos and are role model for other immigrant communities. There is new energy among the Diaspora to connect with India's social and economic transformation. It is not brain drain but brain gain.”
The Prime Minister also thanked the Indian Diaspora for supporting the Centre's move against corruption and called opponents of demonetization 'political worshippers' of black money. Talking about the demonetization issue at the PBD, Modi said, "Black money and corruption were gradually corroding our polity, economy, society and the country, and we launched a massive campaign against it. Some political worshippers (rajnaitik pujari) of black money did their best to portray our efforts as anti-people”.
In a move that would give a permanent link to descendants of indentured Indian labourers shipped abroad by the British and French, the government has on offer an Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) card to help them visit the country without a visa. These former labourers, known as Girmitiyas, were taken away by the colonizers as early as 1820s and their progeny are spread across all of Africa, South East Asia, the Pacific Islands and in the Caribbean. "We have a special bond with the Indian diaspora living in the Girmitiya countries, who are deeply and emotionally attached to their place of origin. We are aware of the difficulties faced by Persons of Indian Origin/ from these countries in obtaining an OCI Card if they moved abroad four or five generations ago. I am glad to announce that starting with Mauritius, we are working to put in place new procedures and documentation requirements so that this scheme benefit nearly 8 million descendants” said Modi. He further announced that the government would be addressing similar difficulties of PIOs in Fiji, Reunion Islands, Suriname, Guyana and other Caribbean States.
It was also announced during the PBD that approximately seven lakh Indian students are pursuing academic programs abroad. The soon-to-be-launched Visiting Adjunct Joint Research Faculty (VAJRA) scheme will enable NRI and overseas scientific communities to participate and contribute to research and development in India. Under the scheme, an overseas Indian can work for one to three months in an institution in India.
4 Ts – wiz., Talent, Training, Technology and Teamwork will be the key elements India’s External Affairs Ministry plans to use, for binding youth of the Indian Diaspora with the country during the year ahead. Speaking at the inauguration of the PBD in Bengaluru, Minister of State for External Affairs V K Singh told the young audience from across the globe that these four 'Ts' will not only transform their lives but also the country.
India’s Ministry of Tourism is now creating special wedding and film tourism circuits to attract foreigners and NRIs and capitalize on Indian films’ and weddings’ popularity abroad, with the aim of building our soft-power as well as simultaneously generating all sorts of economic opportunities for citizens as well as Diaspora members. It’s by now common knowledge that Indian weddings and films are a huge sensation abroad and have a dedicated fan following. Speaking at a discussion on 'Partnering with Diaspora to accelerate tourism in India', Vinod Zutshi, Secretary with the Ministry of Tourism, explained how royal and beach weddings were gaining popularity. The ministry is getting numerous enquiries about royal weddings in Rajasthan and Indian-style beach weddings in Goa. Private tour operators are making the most of this opportunity.
Our Minister of State for External Affairs M J Akbar, who was also present at the PBD, said tourism in India was growing but the problem was of a less-flattering reputation created by writers like V S Naipaul. "Today India is no more in darkness. India also has rain and river tourism. There is a need to create food tourism as Indian cuisines are more than of any continent," he said.
The IDF (India Development Foundation of Overseas Indians), is all set to transform the Indian landscape where people from the Indian Diaspora can contribute for building infrastructure in the country. At the PBD, INR 20 lakh from one visitor and US$ 25,000 from another were donated to the IDF fund. The IDF platform had existed earlier too, but contributions were never significant as there were many legal hurdles and lack of transparency. Taking these matters into account, the Centre has now made it a more dependable and transparent platform that can help build infrastructure anywhere in the country. MEA secretary Dnyaneshwar Mulay said, "We have revamped the IDF. It is now a registered trust of the Government of India. We have asked states to provide a list of small and medium projects where people from Indian diaspora can contribute”.
At least 100 such projects will soon be put out on the website. One such project, which has got maximum support, is 'Namaami Gange', the Ganga river-cleaning project. So far, INR 3 crore has been collected. The money has been used to build toilets in Tirupati, Amritsar near the Golden Temple and in the Northeast.
Minister of State for External Affairs, Gen (retd) V K Singh, reiterated that the government is taking appropriate and stern action against illegal or unregistered agents who recruit workers from the country for domestic jobs abroad. "These unregistered agents recruit workers on tourist visas and from one country they take workers to other countries, and make them do domestic work," he said at a discussion on ‘Consular Services to Overseas Indians: Ensuring Effective and Efficient Delivery.’
Amid deliberations on several issues concerning the Indian Diaspora across the globe, concerns were raised on not having a separate session to address grievances of those residing in the Gulf countries. Kuwaiti delegates also raised a stink over the city's uncleared garbage – "The city's infrastructure is not up to the mark. We are staying in the Lalit Ashok and while commuting we see the IT city's badly planned facilities. With garbage strewn all over, we couldn't help but draw comparisons of places that we visited like China, Vietnam and Turkey," says Kazi Ek ball Hossain and Linus Gomes from Kuwait. Yet another delegate from Kuwait, Jatinder Suri, who has been attending every edition of Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, was of the view that the event had over time gone out of focus. "The very purpose of PBD is to interact and that's missing. Though I booked my meetings online, I couldn't meet anyone, as either the server crashed or is not working," said Suri and other delegates who waited close to an hour near Hall No 1, as it was cordoned off due to security reasons.
NRIs were also irked as interactions sometimes took the backseat at B2B events – A delegate from the UAE who didn't want to be named said, "It's supposed to be for us (NRIs), but there is nothing as such. When top leaders come, we are cordoned off to wait for hours, and we couldn’t even have lunch. I have attended PBDs before, but here I have bad experiences. I don’t know whether I would ever come again at all," he said.
A delegate, who has been living in Singapore for over two decades now, added, "Our team has developed a technology that could be used for Swachh Bharat. When I met the Urban Development people, they took a card from me and said they would contact me. The very purpose of the Divas is to interact and talk about investments, and what's the point if they contact me later after I go back?"
All these days, the Bangalore International Exhibition Centre on the Bengaluru-Mumbai highway was turned into a mini-India, with people from different parts of the country and representatives of the Diaspora coming together in big numbers. The biggest exhibition stall at the PBD was set up by the Karnataka government and it became a major crowd-puller right from the first day.