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The Bridge That Links India to the World
|by Aroonim Bhuyan|
"When I meet heads of state and government and business leaders in distant lands, they tell me very proudly that the Indian community is a great asset, that people of Indian origin are highly creative, productive, enterprising, peace-loving and devoted to their families, their communities and their neighborhoods."
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said this while inaugurating the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) 2007, the annual conclave of the 25 million-strong Indian diaspora spread across 130 countries, at New Delhi's Vigyan Bhavan convention centre Jan 7, putting in perspective the reputation the Indian communities overseas enjoy. And with it, the importance the Indian diaspora holds for India in the global context today.
"We are one family. The whole world is our home. That is why I have often said that while the sun has set on many great empires of the world in the past, the sun will never set on the world of the Indian diaspora! From Fiji in the East, to Los Angeles in the West, from Cape Town in the South to Toronto in the North, the people of Indian origin are the world's most globalized community," the prime minister said.
It is not just the moolah, the remittances, that count, say Indian officials who power the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA), the nodal ministry that interfaces with non-resident Indians (NRIs) and persons of Indian origin (PIOs). There is knowledge and experience to be shared, ideas to be explored and successful models in multiple fields to be replicated.
As the prime minister said, "Invest not just financially, but intellectually, socially, culturally, and, above all, emotionally."
The Indian diaspora, once considered as the manifestation of 'brain drain', is now looked on as a major catalyst and enabler that can spur the country's growth rate, much like the overseas Chinese have turned out to be for China's phenomenal growth.
And that is because overseas Indians have made significant achievements in all fields, be it politics, education, industry, sports, arts, science technology or philanthropy.
Last year alone, overseas Indians were in news all across the world -- from New Zealand where Sir Anand Satyanand became the first person of Asian ethnicity to be appointed governor-general of that country, to Britain where L.N. Mittal came to head the world's largest steel entity, Arcelor-Mittal, to the US where Sunita Williams became the second woman of Indian origin to go to space.
The year 2006 also saw writer Kiran Desai becoming the youngest woman to win the prestigious Booker Prize and Indian American Indra Nooyi being appointed the chief executive of global beverage giant PepsiCo.
Prior to blasting off to space, Williams, whose father hails from the western Indian state of Gujarat, said, "I am half Indian and, I am sure a group of Indian people are looking forward to seeing a second Indian, a person of Indian origin, flying into space."
She was only partially correct. It was not just a group of Indians that had looked forward to her flight to space. It was the whole of India that was connecting emotionally with one of its "achievers" overseas.
The brightest side of this new sunshine story of India and its growing links with its diaspora is that overseas Indians are acknowledging with pride their Indian origins.
At his swearing-in ceremony in New Zealand's capital Wellington, Sir Anand said, "I acknowledge also my Indian origin, with four grandparents who migrated from that country to Fiji."
Another positive aspect of this new phenomenon is that many overseas Indians are returning to India, to actually take part in its growth process.
One very good example is Vikram Akula, founder of SKS Microfinance, an organization that offers micro loans and insurance to poor women in impoverished areas of India.
"We need to look at getting microfinance in every village and every slum in the country," Akula, who holds a BA from Tufts University, an MA from Yale University and a PhD from the University of Chicago, told CNN.
Similarly, the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI), one of the most influential professional bodies in the US, has started two pilot projects in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh to improve primary healthcare in the two states.
It is not that one needs to come back to India to contribute to its growth story. After all, the Indian diaspora is being seen as the bridge and enabler that links India to the rest of the world.
Nothing manifests this better than the recent civilian nuclear energy deal between India and the US.
After Manmohan Singh and US President George W. Bush agreed on the deal, the Indian American community, regarded as the most educated and affluent of all immigrant communities in that country, lobbied hard for the US Congress to pass the bill that gave accent to the deal.
"I thank the overseas Indian community and its leaders who played a very significant role in highlighting the importance of this initiative in the US and elsewhere," Prime Minister Singh said at PBD 2007, acknowledging the Indian American lobbyists' hard work.
Another heartening aspect of this new phenomenon is that overseas Indians living in different countries are drawing upon their common Indian roots to seek each other's help.
After Trinidad & Tobago, home to around 520,000 Indian origin people, put up a rather creditable performance in its football World Cup finals debut last year, the Indian diaspora in that country sought the help of Indian origin footballer Vikash Dhorasoo to promote football among the youth there.
After all, it was at the same World Cup finals that Dhorasoo, whose ancestors had migrated from Andhra Pradesh to Mauritius, became the first Indian origin player to play in a World Cup finals match when he took the field for France in a group match against Switzerland.
If India hopes to keep using the bridge that the diaspora is, it has to maintain it too, see to it that no cracks develop, and ensure that the bridge stands on a string foundation. It was precisely with the mandate of looking after the welfare of overseas Indians that the Indian government had created the MOIA in September 2004.
Since then, the ministry has been taking several initiatives to keep India's ties with its diaspora strong.
A very important development has been the proposed PIO university.
"It is a wrong notion that all overseas Indians are rich," Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi said in the course of an interaction with reporters in New Delhi. "They want quality and affordable education and we will provide this to them through the PIO university. The fees (for various courses) will not be high."
Another key initiative by the government has been to push for labour welfare pacts with countries, particularly in the Gulf, which have a large number of overseas Indian workers, and who contribute substantially to the country's economy by way of remittances. More than $23 billion flowed in to India as remittances last year, which was the highest for any country.
In fact, it won't be wrong to say that MOIA and its mandate will have to play a key role in India's growth story.
India and the Indian diaspora - two shining stories. Two stories linked by the common bonds of history, heritage and culture. India sees this combination as an essential component in establishing itself as a global power, sooner than later.
As Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar, himself of Indian origin, said about the Indian diaspora at PBD 2007: "They are not merely cultural ambassadors for India abroad; they are also ambassadors of the 'abroad' to India and can help interpret and explain international conditions to India and so contribute to its transformation."
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