NRIs: No emotional blackmail, please

Pravasi Bharatiya Divas lacks substance. Will this edition be any different?

bikram

Bikram Vohra | January 5, 2015


A poster of Pravasi Bharatiya Divas

The relationship between the mother country and the great Indian diaspora has been ambivalent at best.

With 30 million and counting Indians living in foreign lands you would think there would be a more realistic relationships by now. While there is a high quotient of patriotic fervour it is not always translated into fiscal investment and that is where the rub lies.

Hardnosed business acumen and softhearted nationalistic zeal are not necessarily compatible. Foreign-based Indians far outnumber mainland Chinese equivalents but only dispatch 20 percent of the foreign earnings sent home by the Chinese.

The reasons for these are multiple. Indians invest largely in themselves and larger family units through land, housing and other property deals. Business ventures still suffer from time lag and the traditional choke offered by bureaucratic red tape. The pillar to post scramble, the exhausting chase for NOCs and a series of signatures has caused many an NRI stalwart to put his hands up, surrender the blueprint and fly out unsatisfied.

We are all set for the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Gujarat and Narendra Modi will do the honours, home state and all that. This annual gathering is rather suspect and like the Commonwealth meetings comes up with very little of substance. Whether this one will have a different texture is to be seen.

Efforts to improve the relationship have been made with the appearance of every new government but they soon fade away and the spasm of hope that maybe this time around there will be tangible changes is usually stillborn.

NRIs have mockingly called themselves Not Required Indians and may have unwittingly contributed to the process of distance and disaffection during the ‘foreign goods’ period. In the seventies and eighties Indians abroad were supercilious, contemptuous and judgemental, this social arrogance underscored by a fistful of dollars and the craze at home for buying foreign commodities. Even as Indians at home resented these ‘visitors’ they flocked to buy their used goods... just because they were made abroad.

That desire has largely evaporated in India but the residual suspicion remains.

India’s officialdom has also done little to inspire goodwill. Slow moving clearances and permissions are compounded by old habits of payoffs that just don't die. Petty bureaucracy still demands its ounce of financial flesh.

An across-the-board fallback from the ultra-protectionist days also promotes a feeling of deep alienation from the industrial base in the region under recce towards the foreign-based Indian entrepreneur. Local industrial echelons believe NRIs demand too much concession. NRIs feel that indigenous companies are mollycoddled and afraid of competition. In this list of negatives, the inconstancy of subsequent governments and the very real fear that fragile governments create fragile policy has a role to play. NRIs need assurance and adequate guarantees. To expect them to invest out of stirred up guilt is unfair and unacceptable. Why put money into arrangements that might collapse with the government in power?

On this canvas it is unlikely that NRIs located largely in the four blocks of the Far East and Australasia, the Gulf and Middle East, Europe and the UK and the Americas will heed the call of the incentives that will be pulpit-pounded next week without some more tangible evidence that the NDA government understands the texture of the relationship and has a special feel for the NRI status and its unique problems – something the Congress merely paid lip service to over the years. Most important is a timeline and that never comes.

Some visible and immediate window dressing will be vital to get this issue to fly. The first genuine step would be to activate the right of franchise not in the clumsy fashion it is now but in a more genuine manner. There is no explicable reason why Indians with domestic passports should be denied the right of franchise. This constitutional premise would, ipso facto, emphasis the sense of Indianness and reduce the political isolation that NRIs are bound to feel when called upon to rally around but not given the courtesy that should go with it.

By that very token the next imperative is to upgrade the concept of an NRI cell within certain central ministries and convert it into a proper and vibrant ministry with, at least, a minister of state commanding a council of representatives. For years there has been an unheeded call to elect or appoint, through the president, two members of parliament who are NRIs. Since this cannot be done without franchise and there are some very real logistics problems to voting for individuals around the world the appointment could be done from distinguished NRIs who are now back in India. That would suffice until a system evolves for democratic elections.

Until the infrastructure is recognisable and valid the budget promises are likely to stay notional. It is not so much the lifting of limitations in percentage points that counts in these circumstances but the lack of confidence in the promises. The overall attitude must change.

And unless there is some exceptional prestige attached to the PIO card one cannot see much in it beyond the headache of applying and receiving it. It seems most likely to die dustily from indifference and there seems to be a certain candy to baby feel to this exercise. NRIs are far too adult and mature to be beguiled by toys.

One would be hesitant to submit that the BJP finally acknowledges NRIs as a genuine fiscal force. There could be a little expediency about the few courtesies that have been extended. But since it would be foolish to snub these concessions there is hope that they can be built upon. To do so effectively, the Indian government must clean up the ground clutter in a seven-point programme.
 

  • Clear up the credibility of the NRI brigade by ending the patronisation of scam artistes who pretend to represent the community through patently useless NRI seminars and symposia, many of which have the stench of total corruption about them.
  • Send out teams of technocratic and business experts along with politicians and bureaucrats to NRI strongholds, so they talk the same language and establish a genuine and durable rapport.
  • Reduce the red-tapism that still exists in getting things done.
  • Make charges of corruption at home a very serious matter.
  • Give NRIs real-time frameworks for NOCs and clearances and stick by them, thereby realising they do not have the time to cool their heels.
  • Eliminate middlemen and brokers when dealing with NRIs.
  • Offer long-term business investments that pay dividends comparable to the international markets.


Finally, an eighth factor. Do not load the NRI with the baggage of emotional blackmail. Chauvinism is not a professional element.

If Modi means business the NRIs will do business.

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