With a view to connect the vast Indian diaspora and other parts of Pacific region with India, the Regional Pravasi Bharatiya Divas was organized and took place in Sydney during 10-12 November 2013. The theme of the convention was ‘Connecting for a Shared Future – The Indian Diaspora, India and the Pacific.’ Participants came from the many States and Territories of Australia, as also from some neighbouring countries including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Manila, Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Fiji and the Pacific Islands. The programme for the convention featured discussions on varying aspects of India’s relationship with Australia and countries of the region, and took into its ambit natural resources, energy, infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing, skills and education, languages, and women in business and culture. Our Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi and the New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell formally inaugurated the convention by lighting a ceremonial lamp. A book, ‘Mosaic of Faith’, was also launched by Ravi on the first day of the convention. Speakers at the convention included Ministers and dignitaries from Australia and India, prominent members of the Indian community, Australian and Indian business representatives and academicians. We bring you here a compilation of reports …

Despite participation at the convention being rather low at 500~600 delegates given the Diaspora of this region number more than half a million, it could still be labelled as a reasonably successful event, as the initiative has succeeded in sparking interest and kindling the flames of emotional connect within some opinion leaders among the said Diaspora at least. Many a topic was dwelled upon, and many a relationship has been formed during this 3-day long event at the Convention Centre in Darling Harbour, which was well-attended by representatives from both governments Australian and Indian, not to mention a wide spectrum of representation from business from both sides.

Delegates got the opportunity to be enthralled by the mellifluous melodies of santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, vocalist Meena Pandit, and many others including Shyamak Davar’s well known dance troupe from Bollywood. While almost 100,000 people of Indian origin do walk the streets of Sydney every day as permanent or temporary residents, as students and as tourists even, most of them seemed to be oblivious and unaware of the deliberations and programmes going on at Sydney city’s Convention & Exhibition Centre, where a mere 500 plus attendees, a mere drop in the ocean that is the Indian Diaspora which numbers beyond the 500,000 mark in the Oceania region alone, were at the Regional Pravasi Bhartiya Divas 2013, busy in sessions debating and discussing key issues that confront the overseas indian … how NRIs and PIOs could engage with India, what business opportunities are there, how bilateral cooperation can optimise resource use, access to skills, improve infrastructure, enhance education, etc., and how engagement through culture caqn benefit the Indian diaspora in the pacific and the home country to boot.

There were also sessions that focussed upon ‘Sharing Experiences,’ to do with ‘Success Stories,’ about ‘Science, Scientists and Academia, and even topics that touched upon the ‘Power of Media in the Asian Century’, ‘India Australia Strategic Partnership,’ and the ‘Pleasures and Pitfalls of doing Business in India’. Given the concurrent and overlapping nature of the sessions, there is no gainsaying that it more than difficulty for participants to attend or do justice to all the sessions, yet one saw a beehive of activity as delegates rushed from one venue or auditorium to another, trying catch up on as many topics of particular interest and concern to them as possible.

And while doing all this, also manage to squeeze in the time to quickly do some ‘pate-pooja’ by grabbing a bite and sip a drink or bite into a piece of fruit, find the elbow room to do some meaningful networking, meet new people and make friends, do some shop-talk with peers from other countries and exchange business cards, or even make a fleeting visit to the main auditorium, where a veritable cultural feast was being laid out, what with live bharathanatyam recitals, performances by bollywood and folk dancers, a sarod concerto, a vocal recital, and even an enlightening spiritual talk by a Swami from the Sydney Vedanta Centre. In this context, Vayalar Ravi, the Indian Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, was to be much appreciated, applauded and credited for making more than a sincere attempt to do justice to as many of the concurrent, oft hotly and rather intensely discussed sessions as possible by randomly visiting them, sitting for a time patiently and quietly at the very back, listening in carefully to grasp and capture the gist of the debate or discussion, and leaving moderation to the capable hands of domain experts.

One of our own contributors, Munish Gupta – journalist, media entrepreneur and GOPIO activist, who has many a PBD and regional conclaves under his belt, averred that “the session on language was quite unique, and nothing like any I have seen in any PBD so far.” Panelists had talked about the lurking threat to their native languages they facing as they assimilate themselves into host-societies, and the practical difficulties in propagating these Indian languages, including Hindi, in Australia. they spoke about how learning mother-tongues could serve to connect Disapora young to the cultural underpinnings of their parents, and how they could help youth in accessing paying jobs. Difficulties faced by teachers involved in language teaching in Australia were also touched upon. However, this relatively open-ended session did have its failings, maybe due to a lack of skillful moderation that could have tempered the open-ended nature of the session with a judicious enforcement of time-slots, as the warning-bell interrupted many a speaker who overshot the allotted 3 minutes. All said and done, the session was a well attended and thought provoking one, which went on way beyond its allotted time by a good half-hour.

Yet another lively and rather intriguing session where there were some slips between cups and lips was the one that dealt with ‘Power of Media in the Asian Century’ – chaired and moderated by Sushi Das, who is Opinions Editor of ‘The Age.’ While her moderation here was impeccable with her keeing the objective firmly in focus and nudging panelists and participants to keep to the track, the session had little to no discussion on the power of print in influencing the local sceneario. Panelists for this session were however drawn from a wide cross-section, from the domains of Broadcast Television, Film, Radio and Print, who did discuss and debate the onslaught of technology and its impact on media, authenticity and verification of stories in reporting, in the current context of this 24-by-7 churning out news in today’s information-overloaded world. Strains of Alwin Toffler’s ‘Future shock’ ? Data piracy, copy paste journalism, Social Media journalism all found mention and were addressed in various measure.

Affording honour to those who have made it big in life was the thematic focus of another session, the one that focused on ‘Success Stories.’ This was chaired and moderated by Neville Roach. Participants got a glimpse into the lives and mindsets of two successful people, who have carved a niche for themselves Down Under. Maha Sinnathamby, said to be the richest Indian in Australia, who is building the largest city in Queensland, rumoured in fact to be the largest one the world, was one case in study. Having acquired thousands of hectares for this path-breaking pet-project, Sinnathamby claims the backing of five Premiers and two Prime Ministers, and even goes as far as to say that, ‘the government here loves me.’ Sinnathamby’s advice to the Diaspora was that we need not necessarily label ourselves as ‘Indian,’ but instead assimilate into the society we live in yet at the same time keep our cultural values and heritage alive at home. Citing the example of Mohandas karamchand Gandhi, he averred that though the things that great man has left behind may or may not be worth even a AU$, his legacy to the world community has an ever-enduring character to it, with its simple message of ‘non-violence’ and ‘peaceful resistance.’

The other case in study was the one narrated to the audience by Brian Hayes, QC, Advisor to the South Australian Premier. Ascribing his success to his parents efforts (his Goan mother had worked as a secretary to put him through a good school), and striking a chord to the universal Indian mindset by stressing the importance of education, he was eloquent in his narrative. Speaking of racism and racist intolerance that is manifesting itself in many parts of the world today, he said: “Although I did not face racism due to the elite sort of profession I was in, at times my children, one darker than the other due to mixed skin colour, ask me ‘who am I?” during a moment of reflection. “Opportunities presented to me in life would not have ensued if my roots were not from India, and my early childhood of 11 years that I spent there.”

Coming now to core economics and trade, there was a session that had as it’s topic, ‘Bilateral Business Opportunities in Resources,’ which saw participation from several domain experts from the natural resources sector who have acquired coal mines in Queensland. The keynote address was delivered Jeyakumar Janakraj, CEO of Adani Mining Brisbane. Jeyakumar began with profiling his company and its agenda, its objective, and the economics of it all. he spoke about problems and prospects, and issues they are facing in setting up the project at Carmichael Point, QLD. It was interesting to note that they have had to create their own railway line in order to cart the mined coal right up to Abbott Point, the most northerly deepwater coal port operated and managed by the company in Australia, so that the coal may then be shipped to India’s largest private port and special economic zone at Mundra in the Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat State, also operated and managed by Adani, from whence the coal gets transhipped for delivery to Haryana and Punjab. Frankly, the logistics prove quite mind-boggling, and the Adani Group employs more than 10,000 people in Australia to keep the logistics and work on the project right on track.

“India’s GDP is directly linked to Energy growth and demand, and with power plants in India starving for coal, Australian coal is indispensable for India to cater to it’s increasing energy requirements and meeting the rising demand for power and fuel consumption,” says Jeyakumar, while naming figures in the trillions and presenting statistical data via graphs to bolster his analysis. Yes, the figures were indeed mind-boggling. And apropos, as a matter of disclosure, the dinners served at the RPBD were by the way courtesy Adani Mining.

On the second day of the RPBD, the Australian Federal Minister for Trade Hon. Andrew Robb, addressed the gathered guests during lunch. Taking the example of Silicon Valley in the USA, he underscored the role of Indians as a potent and powerful force of globalisation. Talking about how the rich experience and acumen of the Indian diaspora could well prove to be a major factor in facilitating the globalisation, prosperity and promotion of peace in Australia-India bilateral relations, he iterated that migration was a powerful force of globalisation and that the AU$ 10 Billion worth of inflow from India last year was only just a recent phenomenon which Australia is yet to take advantage of. “Australia is unashamedly interested in globalisation and the economic benefits it brings through permanent and skilled migration,” he opined, and then on a humerous note, quipped that “Australia needs to import few Indian cricketers urgently.”

Cricket apart, the Indian Diaspora’s value-systems and their hard-working nature, family-centric outlook and civic sense also drew an accolade from the minister. That the Indian community in Australia is the fastest growing migrant-community, the second largest intake of students in Australian Educational Institutions being Indian, the Punjabi language growing by 200 percent and the Hindu religion getting to become the fastest growing religion Down Under are all indications then that commonalities exist, he said. “We share security and terrorism concerns and should maximise our common good with people to people links by broadening the base of our relationship and help strengthen it further. We need to have Free Trade Agreements with India as we are doing with Korea, Japan, Indonesia, and China. And soon, we want to reintroduce the ‘Colombo Plan’ for study and scholarship, thus helping to make a vital link with the Indians here,” he added accompanied by applause.

Almost every other influential speaker echoed these selfsame thoughts of Andrew Robb and the words of Vayalar Ravi, Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, who said, “India seeks to enlarge its political, economic and security space in our relationship with other countries. There has been a significant expansion of trade and investment between India and Australia. The comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement negotiations which we have embarked upon will strengthen institutional connectivity and accelerate the rapid expansion of our commercial ties. Australian companies need to focus their attention on specific sectors in the Indian economy as the government plans to double infrastructure investment to US$ 1 Trillion over the next 5 years. The goal is for annual infrastructure expenditure to reach 10 % of GDP by 2017.” Here it is worth noting that yet another MOU was also signed between the Overseas Indian Facilitation Centre (OIFC) and the Australia India Business Council, to foster better understanding between Australians and Indians.

And to the local Indian community Vayalar Ravi had this to say: “Whether you wish to share your knowledge, technology and skills, whether your enterprise takes you to the cities or your compassion brings you to a remote village, I assure you of our continuing effort to support your endeavours.” He further added, “I am also sure that the MOU on Cooperation in Student Mobility and Welfare between India and Australia will contribute positively to the welfare of Indian students in Australia.”

In conclusion, looking at the entire three-day extraveganza in pensive retrospect, the RPBD had targeted for a 1000 delegates harking from various domains of Diaspora expertise, but ultimately managed to garner just a mite more than half-of-that, with delegates just short of 600 registering for the event, that number including the panelists and invitees and the guests as well. Despite this lower than expected level of attendance, one could say that the RPBD was well neigh close to a large measure of success, what with three State Premiers and two Federal Ministers from Australia; and Union Minister Vayalar Ravi accompanied by Suresh Shetty, Minister of Protocol and Health, Maharashtra State and K. C. Joseph, Minister for Rural Development, Planning and Culture, Kerala State, and their quiet presence along with top bureaucrats and eminent persona from India all did make up for the thinner than expected attendance, as did the depth and intensity of the debates and discussions during the myriad sessions.

As the PBD came to an end, the Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Valayar Ravi reiterated that the Regional Pravasi Bharatiya Divas was primarily an initiative to recognise the 450,000 people of Indian origin in Australia and those in New Zealand and Fiji. “India is keen to harness the growing power of its Diaspora, their contribution to the homeland and the progressing ties with Australia as fostered by strong trade and investment links,” he said. The Minister also assured overseas Indians that the Government of India would continue to look out for and serve the interests of the growing Indian Diaspora that today exceeds 25 million around the world. “I am very enthused with the participation and I hope to take back a lot of shared experiences that will help enhance the engagement with overseas Indians,” he said. Indian High Commissioner for Australia Biren Nanda said: “Participation in the event was from all states and territories of Australia and from neighbouring countries including New Zealand and Fiji, attracting about 500 plus delegates from the Asia Pacific region.” Though the convention was appreciated by many participants as a positive initiative for the Indian Diaspora living in the region, some attendees did criticise the registration fee of AU$ 425 and the event being held on working days.

Fact of the matter was, the vast majority of almost 500,000 strong Australia-resident NRIs and PIOs in general, and the 100,000 odd people of Indian origin resident in Sydney itself in particular, just went about their daily lives and chores without giving a whit or maybe even knowing that a Regional PBD had ever happened right in their midst. People who were pulled in to the committees from the local Indian communities did not and possibly were not able to carry or sell the conference to the general public or perhaps the PBD did not use local media effectively enough to its benefit. Or was it due to Sydney having just spent a whole ton of moolah on a Shahrukh Khan show with 11,500 seats sold, while PBD struggled to pull in even enough numbers to achieve a participation profile of a 1000 people for a 3-day event replete with classical concerts, three lunches and two gala dinners, bollywood stars and dance extraveganzas and what have you. Or could it be that the general Indian migrant is far too busy eking out a livlihood to bother too much about helping ‘strengthen relationships’ between India and Australia, as NRIs are least on their minds. Maybe the presence of grassroots NRIs and open interactions with them would have fuelled the topics of discussion onto avenues very different from the ones that were embarked upon … All said and done, as a footnote, the conference did end up as a symphony of views, and if the dialogues that took place do bring about positive change and help in creating a better understanding and relationship between the two countries, time can tell.

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