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AT HOME IN THE WORLD

- NRIs are demanding more accountability from the Indian State

Three things stood out at the eleventh Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Kochi last week, the first to be held in Kerala where 44 out of 100 households have a non-resident Indian in its fold, according to statistics compiled by the state. Perhaps the most significant of the three notable aspects of the 2013 version of the annual gathering of overseas Indians is that the country’s networking with its pravasis is rapidly becoming decentralized: states are vigorously wooing their non-residents and are no longer leaving the job of engaging pravasis exclusively to the ministry of external affairs or even to the ministry of overseas Indian affairs, the designated organization at the Centre for dealing with Indians abroad.

It did not, therefore, come as a surprise that a session in Kochi, which featured chief ministers, had to be called off. There was a time when such a session used to be the highlight of the entire three-day proceedings of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. NRIs used to run after their respective chief ministers for a word or a nod, but no more. It is the other way round now: states like Punjab and Gujarat routinely have their own programmes to draw pravasis from their respective states.

That these separate programmes take place on the margins of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas and are dependent on the coat-tails of the ministry of overseas Indian affairs to attract them all the way to India and to provide the institutional framework for their participation is proof that what started more than a decade ago as a ragtag gathering of favour-seekers from faraway lands, or overseas Indians looking for photo opportunities with leaders back home, has evolved into an enduring institution that is mutually beneficial for India and its sons and daughters who have adopted foreign countries as their homes.

The second feature of this year’s Pravasi Bharatiya Divas was that it represented grassroots democracy in action. At a half-day session devoted to “NRIs in the Gulf”, which preceded the formal opening of the proceedings by the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, a number of Kerala ministers handling key portfolios interacted intensely with migrants to the Gulf, mostly Keralites, on their day-to-day problems.

At this session, a Gulf Indian told the ministers, for instance, that he has been trying in vain to get a ration card in his name. Why did he need a ration card when he is abroad? Because that is the only proof of residence in his case for transactions at home, even to open a bank account, he claimed. Kerala’s minister for non-resident Keralites’ affairs, K.C. Joseph, found a solution to the problem on the spot, to the surprise of the man who raised the issue. This example was repeated several times during the half-day session at which Kerala’s chief minister, Oommen Chandy, and the minister for overseas Indian affairs, Vayalar Ravi, stayed on the dais and ensured that there were summary decisions wherever possible on specific issues that were raised by the Gulf Indians.

Ravi and Chandy had managed to get Indian ambassadors from all the Gulf states not only to attend the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, but also to be on the dais along with the ministers so that their inputs could be sought in taking on-the-spot decisions on issues raised by the pravasis from the Gulf. But in another signal that NRIs, like their domestic brethren, increasingly wanted accountability from elected representatives, they made it plain that they were not interested in the ambassadors or any other bureaucrats at this forum. “We want to talk to the ministers directly,” several of them said time and again, “and we want our ministers to answer us in turn.” The elected representatives are accountable to the people of this country, was the common refrain heard at this year’s Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. It is to the credit of the minister for overseas Indian affairs, himself a grassroots political leader in Kerala with five decades of public service behind him, that he facilitated this exercise in instant democracy and accountability. This was a new feature of the 2013 version of the annual gathering of overseas Indians.

Some years ago, the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas held in New Delhi saw participants being gagged: often their complaints went unheeded. But this year’s exercise in grassroots democracy was a new experience that reflected a new India where there is talk of a “spring” as in the Arab world. It would be a welcome change in national affairs if what the NRIs got out of their Kochi conclave could serve as a broader national model and were extended to other Indians and the entire nation. The third interesting reflection at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Kochi was that NRIs cannot be divorced from their brethren resident within the country and that their problems and concerns converge and overlap. It did not come as a surprise, therefore, that the fears arising from the fallout of the Delhi gangrape had an inevitable echo in Kochi.

At the session devoted to the Gulf, Kerala’s home minister, Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, had to take the floor and assure NRIs that their kith and kin in the state would be protected and had nothing to fear in the sphere of law and order. Law and order back home are key matters of concern to NRIs in the Gulf: most blue-collar Indians in countries like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait have left their families behind in India and need the state’s protection, especially if incidents like the Delhi gangrape acquire a pattern, as reflected in a spate of media stories in recent weeks on violence against women.

An indication of the damage that has already been done to India’s image by the Delhi gangrape came when Hemant Patel, a designated speaker at the Kochi conclave, announced to the media that he had dropped plans to spend a few days with his family in the national capital after the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas events were over. Patel is not just another NRI; he is head of the Asian American Hotel Owners’ Association, which represents Indian Americans, mostly Patels from Gujarat, who virtually control the American motel business. This association is now among the leading lobbying groups in the United States of America. If the head of this organization, which has a feel for the tourism and hospitality industry, is unwilling to risk taking his family to New Delhi, the damage from the recent exposures of violence against women for India bound tourism can be easily imagined.

Naturally, fears about the safety of NRIs, triggered by the Arab Spring, flowed from discussions about law and order at home. Here, the prime minister rose to the occasion and was unstinting in assuring the government’s full backing for Indians abroad. “As the Indian expatriate community develops a more global presence, they also become more vulnerable to economic crises, conflicts, civil unrest or just senseless hate crimes,” he told the Kochi conclave, “At a time of turbulence in many parts of the world, the safety and security of overseas Indian communities are uppermost in our minds.” However, in order not to raise expectations of his government to undue levels, he added that on the safety of Indians abroad, “the primary responsibility rests with the host countries. We derive comfort from the assurances that we have received from governments in the countries of your residence that they will do everything for your safety and security.”

At a time when the United Progressive Alliance government’s image is at its nadir and nothing seems to be going right for the ruling coalition, the prime minister had something to crow about: the creditable evacuation of Indians from Libya during that country’s strife, which led to regime change: “We recognize that, but when needed, as was the case last year in Libya, our government will provide prompt and necessary assistance.” That statement brought smiles to many faces at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas.