Good migrants, bad migrants: Notes on the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas

Several years ago Dr. S. Irudaya Rajan took me to a church in Trivandrum where elders got a free Sunday lunch. Almost everyone I met there had a child, sometimes all their children, living somewhere else – Zambia, USA, Canada, Saudi Arabia.

“I went to a lady who was living alone,” Dr. Rajan told me then. “She told me she had three sons, two daughters. Today she is living with three dogs, two cats. That is the impact of migration on the elderly. Anybody dies in Kerala today the body will have to be kept in a mortuary with ice because someone has to come from Canada, someone has to come London.

NRIs at the London Olympics. AFP.

Dr. Irudaya Rajan just edited a book called the India Migration Report 2013: Social Costs of Migration. The book looks at the impact of migration on both those who leave and those who remain behind. It was released at this year’s the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebrations in Kochi this week.

It is good to see that the annual Indian immigrant jamboree is trying to get beyond the rah rah nostalgia trip, the endless dance performances and Pravasi Bharatiya Samman awards that have typically characterised these events.

January 9 was chosen as the day to celebrate the Indian immigrant because that’s the date Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa. While honouring Gandhi, the choice of that date also implied a certain preconception in the entire idea of the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas – it was very much about what can you do for your country, not at all what your country can do for you.

The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs trumpeted that its goal was to engage the diasporan network to promote trade and investment, education, culture, science and technology. In the age of the brain drain, the Indian immigrant had hitherto been regarded as a sort of a traitor. He was not leaving to flee civil war or tsunami but in search of greener pastures, preferably dollar green ones. In her book Leaving India, Minal Hajratwala quoted V.M. Dandekar as saying way back in 1967  “(O)ur entire educational system has become a big liaison and passport office.”

The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas was New Delhi’s way of welcoming the prodigal son  (and daughter) back.

But it was a particular kind of immigrant who got this fawning song-dance-and-diya welcome.

That was quite clear in the ministry’s own press release announcing its much ballyhooed Overseas Citizen of India Scheme, a sort of faux dual citizenship.

In response to persistent demands for "dual citizenship" particularly from the Diaspora in North America and other developed countries (emphasis author’s) and keeping in view the Government’s deep commitment towards fulfilling the aspirations and expectations of Overseas Indians, the Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) Scheme was introduced by amending the Citizenship Act, 1955 in August 2005.

The ministry estimates the Indian diaspora to be about 25 million strong, spread over every region in the world. But the “dual” citizenship or the Overseas Citizen of India privilege was only extended to a chosen few. The original proposal restricted overseas citizenship to the citizens of 16 countries. That raises a lot of eyebrows as Niraja Gopal Jaya pointed out in India Today.

(W)as it a coincidence that all these countries were located in the advanced industrial societies of the west, and that it was the expectation of investments by the diaspora in these countries that drove this initiative? The exclusions were significant: none of the countries to which Indians were shipped as indentured labour in the nineteenth century; nor even the Gulf countries where large numbers of working-class Indians have gone in search of jobs; and definitely not Pakistan and Bangladesh. Over time, this anomaly has been removed, and now it is only people of Indian origin in Pakistan and Bangladesh that remain excluded from the "overseas citizenship" of India.

The ministry has finally somewhat woken up to the fact that there needs to be give and take in the relationship with the diaspora. Vayalar Ravi, the Overseas Indian Affairs minister promised that the government would help bring home Indians who were eligible for the amnesty offer from the United Arab Emirates government. “ We do not want any Indian to suffer because they don’t  have money for pay for their fare,” Ravi told reporters. The state minister for the diaspora said the government would provide soft loans to the returnees to set up businesses.

Delivering his keynote address at this year’s ceremony, Kerala’s chief minister Oomen Chandy both noted that NRIs remit about Rs 60,000 crore to Kerala and also said that the “Pravasi Divas is the best platform to address their grievances.” Chandy probably did not intend it but the connection between the two is quite explicit. Those Gulf emigrants, who work as build skyscrapers and cook and clean and empty bed pans, aren’t exactly the ones India wants to laud but India cannot ignore the cash they send back home.

Attending a fancy NRI meet-and-mingle session at five star hotel in Mumbai, Minal Hajratwala wrote for Firstpost that the buzzword was “engagement”.  But while everyone was patting themselves on the back about India’s foreign remittances few wanted to get down and dirty and really talk about where they were actually coming from wrote Hajratwala.

This narrative of success relies, of course, on a very broad definition of NRI that includes labourers in the Gulf (27 percent of remittances).  None of them, as far as I know, made it to the ballroom.

I don’t know how many of them made it to the extravaganza in Kerala or even wanted to be there.

But even having the Divas in Kerala for the first time in its decade-long history is at least one small step in acknowledging the diversity of India’s emigrant story.


Updated Date: Jan 09, 2013 17:05 PM

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