The Government of India will mark the 15th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Varanasi between 21 and 23 January. Prime Minister of Mauritius Pravind Kumar Jugnauth will preside over the three-day convention, where the theme this year is 'Role of Indian Diaspora in building a New India'.
This was the first time since its inception in 2003 that the government's flagship outreach programme was not be celebrated on its usual date — 9 January. The Ministry of External Affairs said this was because many expatriates wanted to attend the ongoing Kumbh Mela in nearby Prayagraj this time.
"In reverence to the sentiments of the larger diaspora to participate in the Kumbh Mela and Republic Day celebrations, the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Convention is being organised from 21 to 23 January 2019 instead of 9 January," the MEA had said in a September 2018 communique.
However, many consulates, embassies and overseas Indian communities did mark 9 January as Pravasi Bharatiya Divas.
Significance of 9 January
The choice of 9 January to commemorate the day is linked with India's history from the pre-Independence days. One this day in 1915, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, then a Johannesburg-based barrister, had returned to India after spending a quarter of a century in England and South Africa. Perhaps it is a fitting tribute to Gandhi, who, according to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, has been "the greatest pravasi ever".
The genesis of the idea
According to the MEA, the day marks "the contribution of the overseas Indian community in the development of India".
The idea has its roots in a 2001 report submitted by a High-Level Committee on Indian Diaspora, headed by then BJP MP LM Singhvi. Back then, it was felt that the newly-liberalised India was not effectively utilising the diaspora to its advantage. The 2001 report highlighted the status of Indian communities in various countries and their potential in helping India's international outreach. The report identified culture, healthcare, education and media as some of the areas where the government could collaborate with the country's population abroad.
Two interim recommendations in the report gained plenty of traction: Observing an annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas and constituting a Pravasi Bharatiya Sanman for high-achieving Non-Resident Indians/Persons of Indian Origin.
In October 2002, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government announced Pravasi Bharatiya Divas as an annual celebration. Over 1,200 NRIs and PIOs attended the first edition of the event between 9 and 11 January 2003. The very first Pravasi Bharatiya Sanman, too, were awarded during the three-day celebrations. The erstwhile Mauritian prime minister Sir Anerood Jugnauth was one of the first 10 recipients of the award.
Changes in convention over the years
Till 2014, the three-day convention was organised annually. However, after the celebrations in Gandhinagar in 2015, the MEA decided to turn the three-day convention into a biennial affair. According to a report, the apparent lack of in-depth discussions on issues prompted a change in the pattern.
Since 2007, 'Regional Pravasi Bharatiya Divas' conventions have also been organised at international locations with significant Indian populations. The 2018 edition was organised in Singapore, where Indian-origin Tamils are a recognised minority community.
This year, the government has also organised a 'Youth Pravasi Bharatiya Divas', with an eye on the young expatriate population who form a significant proportion of the Indian diaspora in the West.
Indian diaspora and India's economic pitch
India's international ambitions took shape with the help of economic reforms in the 1990s. Consequently, the need to revitalise connections with the massive diaspora became a necessity. It was in this context that the NDA government constituted the High-Level Committee on Indian Diaspora in 2000.
Over the years, Pravasi Bharatiya Divas has helped India project itself as a rising economic powerhouse and attractive investment destination. Moreover, the flagship programme has been a platform for the government to galvanise support for its initiatives among expatriates.
Take, for instance, that part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speech at the 2017 edition, where he promoted his pet projects: "We have several programmes like the Swacch Bharat Mission, Digital India and Start-up India, where NRIs and PIOs can contribute for the betterment of India's common man."
Remittances from Indian diaspora
The Indian diaspora is the second largest in the world, with over 31 million people. This diaspora has been responsible for the regular inflow of remittances into the Indian economy. As a matter of fact, India is the largest recipient of remittances in the world. As per a World Bank report, India is likely to have received $80 billion in remittances till December 2018. A lion's share of these remittances — around 54 percent — come from the oil-rich Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman.
However, it is also interesting to note that there has been a general decline in the total contribution of remittances to the Indian economy. While remittances contributed 4 percent to India's GDP in 2011, the figure fell to 2.8 percent by 2017. However, the fall in remittances received in proportion to the GDP may not be a major cause for concern as there remittances in absolute terms have risen. Remittance data from the World Bank shows that higher proportions of remittances correspond to a weaker national economy. On the other hand, a fall in the remittance-GDP ratio may also mean diversification of the national economy.
The diaspora also is a source of major investments. In 1998, the "model minority" diaspora in the West bailed India out in the aftermath of the international sanctions by buying government-issued resurgent India bonds.
At a time when the rupee is threading on a sticky wicket, foreign exchange in the form of remittances and investments have been considered possible alternatives to bridge India's widening current account deficit as well as means to strengthen the currency.
India's foreign policy
Indians abroad have been useful as lobby groups in the West. For example: In the United States, the US-India Political Action Committee (USIPAC) has been an influential lobby group for India. The effectiveness of the Jewish diaspora has also been mentioned in the 2001 report: "The activities of Jewish lobbies… their large-scale funding for the scientific and technological development of Israel... could serve as an example (for India)."
As noted in a paper by the Observer Research Foundation, the Modi government has encouraged the country's people abroad to become India's voice in the West. Lately, the Congress, too, has realised the influence the Indian diaspora has in India's growth story, with party president Rahul Gandhi often interacting with Indian expatriates.
Moreover, the Indian population overseas has also added a new dimension to New Delhi's foreign policy. The presence of a large diaspora in West Asia, South East Asia and North America has influenced India's policies towards these regions.
West Asia is a case study in Indian foreign policy. The combination of a large worker population and oil imports has meant that India has always sought regional stability for the sake of its workers in the region as well as its economy.
Diplomacy is becoming more dynamic in the 21st Century. With the Centre advocating voting rights for NRIs and incentives for PIO card holders, India has finally come a long way since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, when he urged migrants to be loyal towards their "adopted homelands".
Updated Date: Jan 21, 2019 11:48:54 IST