Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Global Indian

KOCHI, INDIA – No other country has anything like it – an annual jamboree of its diaspora, conducted with great fanfare by its government. India has been doing it, with great success, for a decade, timed to recall the return to India of the most famous Indian expatriate of them all, Mahatma Gandhi, who alighted from his South African ship in Bombay on January 9, 1915. As I write, the southern port city of Kochi is overflowing with expatriate Indians celebrating their connection to their motherland.

India is the only country that has an official acronym for its expatriates — NRIs, or “Non-Resident Indians.” In my book India: From Midnight to the Millennium, I suggested, only half-jokingly, that the question is whether NRI should stand for “Not Really Indian” or “Never Relinquished India.”

Of course, the nearly 25 million people of Indian descent who live abroad fall into both categories. But the 1,600 delegates who flocked to Kochi from 61 countries for the eleventh Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Expatriate Indians’ Day) celebrations this month were firmly in the latter camp. They were in India to affirm their claim to it.

It was curiously appropriate that the event, organized by the Ministry for Overseas Indian Affairs (another unique Indian creation) in cooperation with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, took place in Kochi this year. After all, though the state of Kerala contains just 3% of the country’s population, it accounts for the largest number of Indians living and working abroad.

And what a collection the delegates make: the President of Mauritius, the former Governor-General of New Zealand, former Prime Ministers of Fiji and Guyana, Malaysian politicians, Gulf-based entrepreneurs, tycoons from Hong Kong, and corporate titans from the United States, all united by the simple fact of shared heritage – the undeniable reality that even exiles cannot escape the mirror. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put it in his inaugural address, they were united, too, by an “idea of Indianness.”

Indianness embodies the diversity and pluralism of both the country and its diaspora. India was again using the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebrations to provide Indians – including former Indians – from all corners of the world the assurance that they were indeed at home.

There have been four waves of Indian emigration. The first, in pre-colonial times, included those who left as travelers, teachers, and traders; the second involved the forced migration of Indian labor as indentured servants of the British Empire; the third was the tragic displacement of millions by the horrors of Partition; and now we have the contemporary phenomenon of skilled Indians seeking new challenges and opportunities in our globalized world.

I would probably divide the fourth wave further into two distinct categories: highly educated Indians, often staying on after studies abroad in places like the US; and more modestly qualified (but often harder-working) migrants, from taxi drivers to shop assistants, who generally see their migration as temporary and who remit a larger share of their income to India than their higher-earning counterparts do. But both sets of fourth-wave migrants remain closely connected to their motherland.

The ease of communications and travel today enables expatriates to be engaged with India in a way that was simply not available to the plantation worker in Mauritius or Guyana a century ago. To tap into this sense of allegiance and loyalty through an organized public gathering was an inspired idea, which India continues to build upon each year.

India regards its successful expatriates as a source of pride, support, and investment. According to a recent US survey, Indian-American households’ median annual income is nearly $88,000, more than $12,000 higher than Japanese-American households and more than $20,000 higher than the national average. That kind of success is not merely at the elite end of the scale: in England today, Indian restaurants employ more people than the steel, coal, and shipbuilding industries combined. (Many are the ways in which the Empire can strike back.)

The presence of successful and influential Indians in so many countries is also a source of direct support for India, as they influence not just popular attitudes, but also government policies, to the benefit of India. The country also received $70 billion in remittances last year – more than double the level of inward foreign direct investment.

There is undoubtedly a utilitarian aspect to the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebrations, as suggested by the many parallel seminars being run by state governments to attract expatriate investment. The importance of diaspora financing – from the remittances of working-class Indians that have transformed Kerala’s countryside to the millions poured into high-tech businesses in Bangalore or Gurgaon by Silicon Valley investors – simply cannot be minimized, especially during a global financial crisis.

But we should not get carried away: overseas Indians still invest a lower proportion of their resources in India than overseas Chinese do in China. Encouraging them to do more, and giving them reasons to do more, is certainly a worthwhile task for the Indian government – and an overt goal of the annual conclave.

Sometimes the real value of a conference, however, lies in the conferring. Indians have learned to appreciate how much it means to allow NRIs from all over the world the chance to share their experiences, celebrate their commonalities, exchange ideas, and swap business cards. Because when India allows its pravasis to feel at home, India itself is strengthened. I can think of one more meaning of NRI: the National Reserve of India.

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    1. CommentedAshok Rao

      The most surprising statistic to me was that the median salary of an Indian was only $20,000 greater than the national average. Not even in Connecticut is the average (let alone median) near $70,000.

      That said, this speaks of a very interesting paradox. India's leadership and diaspora seem of far higher caliber than China's. With former IMF chief economists as top advisors and the pedigree of Nehruvian scholarship, it's a shame that India's politics is defined more by the petty traffic cop than the minds that made this country.

      I think India's most powerful asset is its society. It is this bond that will marry the Indian and American cultures, the two democracies where civil society and culture far outweigh the state.

      As an Indian-American, I can identify with the messy political debate, irritating corruption, paralysis, quid pro quo modus operandi – but it is that which makes these two societies so ultimately similar. In Europe, the state represents almost all ways of life (certainly as a % of GDP).

      Ultimately, India's greatest asset is its society, and its diaspora are its crowning jewel.

    2. CommentedV S

      In Tharoor's previous article titles "The Emerging World’s Education Imperative", he claimed credit for the Right to Education Act. At that time I commented: "As for the Right to Education, all it does is destroy better quality private schools. Unfortunately, scammers like Tharoor won't be around in 10 years to witness the harm caused by RTE, or be accountable for it."

      Well, it has taken less than a few months to witness the harm. In an article titled "Learning levels at all-time low" in Times of India today, they had this to say about the Right to Education program.

      "Putting a question mark on government policies and the implementation of Right to Education Act, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2012 has found that learning levels have dipped to an all-time low. So, almost half the 6-7 year-olds (Class I) in India cannot read even one letter in any language, over 57% cannot read any English while almost 40% cannot recognize numbers between 1 and 9, the report said.

      According to the report, 12.8% children between Class I and V could not read a single letter while 10.7% could not recognize numbers 1 to 9. The number of children in Class V who could read Class II text fell from 53.7% in 2010 to 46.8% in 2012. In 2010, seven out of 10 children could solve a two-digit subtraction problem with borrowing. This has come down to five out of 10 in 2012.

      Scathing in his indictment of government policy, Pratham Education Foundation CEO-President Madhav Chavan said," RTE has become the right to schooling and not to learning and education. The way RTE has been structured, the continuous comprehensive evaluation has led to neglect of learning. The ASER 2012 report has a lot of compelling information to persuade people that we are looking at a deepening crisis in education that is like an unseen and quiet killer disease."

      Pointing to what he described as an " alarming degeneration", the report said that in 2008, the proportion of children in Class III who could read a Class I text was under 50% which has dipped to nearly 30%. A child in Class III has to learn a two-digit subtraction but the proportion of children in government schools who can even recognize numbers up to 100 correctly has dropped from 70% to about 50% over the last four years since RTE was introduced.

      Disputing the government report on education for 2010-11, Chavan said the claimed that private school education was not great and socio-economic-educational background of children's families, parental aspirations and additional support for learning contributed to their better performance. The ASER report asserted that for the money spent by families on private schooling, they deserved better education. "

    3. CommentedVenu Madhav

      Granted there could be shortcomings from any new program but that should not deter us to try. Jumping off the bandwagon on an impulse indicates the "shortsightedness" and some of the caustic comments below indicate a "quitter" attitude, which is probably the big difference when compared with citizens of other countries. Our collective wisdom should not be restricted to debating instead for something more solid to see, feel and be proud of. So I am challenging one and all, to define one solid cause that we can all sign up with body, mind and soul, thus gain the focus needed to achieve tangible results. The bracket of common causes can be any one thing among: Weed out corruption, Save the girl child, Food for everybody, etc., but again let's pick one and solve it so well that we can be proud of it! Any ideas??
      Remember, "Focus" is saying "NO" to 99 things and picking that "ONE" thing that can really define "us". Anybody with ballsy ideas??

        CommentedV S

        I certainly don't have the capabilities and prefer to parrot other economists and leaders. The Wikipedia page on "Economic liberalisation in India" is a good start, with the section on "Ongoing economic challenges" relevant today. There's an article titled "India’s Godot: Economic Reforms 2.0" (that can be googled) which chronicles the long delay in the second round of reforms, although doesn't do a good job of pointing out what is high priority. Goldman Sachs, McKinsey have their own reports with wishlists for reforms. Yet another article is titled "What Gives Kapil Sibal Sleepless Nights?" which describes a tangle between Indra Nooyi and Kapil Sibal in one such jamboree.

        CommentedVenu Madhav

        @VS, maybe this forum probably limits you and your capabilities to spell out all the desired economic reforms in detail. So I would make a plea for you to write an essay with specific economic reforms that you seek and the specific results we can all expect to get the ball rolling.

        CommentedV S

        Oh and for the ballsy idea: if you happen to come across Tharoor or someone like him, ask him about his govt's plans on economic liberalization and fundamental reforms. Ask him why they don't sell off PSUs and focus on public goods - infrastructure, power, law and order, etc. And, please make fun of the next welfare scheme that's named after a Gandhi or Nehru. Its essential for the intelligentsia to put pressure on the govt to prioritize properly.

        That will do much more than another save the girl program. We have plenty of those and charity donations are a good way to help immediately. For the longer term, economic policies will have a greater impact on this issue too.

        CommentedV S

        Oh, please, the quitters won't bother commenting here. And, don't know about others, but I have to live in India, so I can't quit. :)

        One can choose to pick a problem and try and fix it. Its interesting you picked welfare and social problems. The problem is that this approach helps tackle only one side of the problem, the other side of which is the fundamentally weak economic structure. For a fundamental, long term fix, social problems are best fixed by economic growth or at least a proper economic policy foundation (especially when economic liberty is severely compromised in a previously socialist democracy like India). The gains will be short-lived if this other side isn't take care of. We can't rely on state-driven economic growth when we have 1 million people joining the workforce every month. That's the first basic economic principle that the govt and politicians have to get right.

        This point is especially relevant in India because the politicians typically want welfare schemes that appear to solve a symptom or a surface problem, to buy votes. And, the populace is uneducated enough to not know that the welfare scheme isn't going to do anything for them in the long term.

        Let the govt commit to economic liberalization and fundamental reforms, and NRI money will flow in anyway. No jamboree needed. The PR exercise is needed only if the govt doesn't actually want to reform itself but wants to continue to have the money flow through it. That is why my disgust at the jamboree. One can even take the argument further: if there was no FDI or NRI money, we would be talking much more urgently about governance improvements and economics. Over the last two years, domestic businessmen have openly slammed the govt for not pushing reforms, and as a result, we see domestic capital leaving shores to find better investment opportunities outside India. Isn't this then hypocritical and isn't it really a matter of finding new bakras based on emotional connections?

        Lets talk economic principles first and foremost. What an NRI may or may not want to do should not be facilitated by a socialist, rent seeking, govt's jamboree.

    4. CommentedHamid Rizvi

      What is the point of all this Shashi? A great infomercial of some state sanctioned event to highlight India's insecurity and dependence on whoever can lend a helping hand, so that India keeps shining to the outsiders. Like a typical South Asian, India will not let go and Indians the NRI's would not let go, unwilling to cut the umbilical cord of mutual suspicion and a heightened sense of insecurity. Yet, according to estimates 35% of the 1.2 billion remain ever ready to migrate out of Mother India at a moment’s notice.
      These numbers then Perhaps, indicate there is hope for the millions of South Asians who never grow out of their parents shadows and parents whose insecurity compels them to keep their brood about the nest forever. A sordid relationship defined of mutual misery.
      You are damn right only in India and for the Indians there is this unique term NRI. Because, most self respecting nations and peoples would not stand for it. I may be an Indian but, I am who I am and defined by my person rather than by a brand of nationality. Perhaps it’s time for the Indians to move on with life and give a new meaning to the term NRI; (not relying on India or Indians).

    5. CommentedV S

      An annual jamboree to find 'bakras' to invest in govt-led programs, while the govt doesn't keep its promises either to the NRIs or the Indian citizens. Forget about promises, it doesn't even have a vision beyond insufficient, incremental 5 year socialist plans. Why doesn't the Indian govt allow dual citizenship and be done with it?

    6. Commentedsrinivasan gopalan

      The celebration through the congregation of the Non- Resident Indians (NRI) by now an annual jamboree, as captured by Mr Taroor in his incisive way, has the sting in the tail. The comparison with the expatriate denizens of the Middle Kingdom and their Indian counterparts does strike a jarring but a meet chord because that is the stark reality. Whenever such gatherings of the wealthy emigres occur here, invariably the loudest demand is what better facilities the NRIs could compass for themselves, instead of proffering their willing and solid contribution to the building up of India's creaky infrastructure, both social and physical. While the former is a blot on the country's growth story, the latter cries out for faster action on the ground as the extant ones have become binding constraints plaguing the economy. It is high time the well-meaning and wealthy NRIs did come forward to contributing their mite, just as the overseas Chinese did for their swanky economy today, so that India's perennial problems of poverty, illiteracy and pathetic public health infrastructure could get the requisite wherewithal. It is no use praising the NRIs by periodic holding of their meeting here when the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, tasked with the remit to help and get helped by the NRIs, should do out-of-box thinking to find ways and means to make them share a scintilla of their unbounded riches and vast expertise for addressing the basic maladies of the body polity here. As Kennedy once famously said ask what the nation is doing for you but ask what you are doing for the nation, the NRIs should contribute to the coffers of the Indian economy in whatever way they can with a spirit of solidarity and generosity so that posterity would remember them kindly--just as China is proud of its widespread expatriates from Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and from other far-flung places including Africa where China is making huge investments now! G.Srinivasan, Journalist, New Delhi

    7. CommentedTachi Wu

      I find out that there are lots of similarities in policy from both Indian and Chinese governments to expatriates and diaspora; however, Chinese government has successfully attracted lots of investment and technologies from oversea Chinese for the past 3 decades, even from legacy foe - Taiwan.

      the major reason behind is to wake up the potential patriotism deep in every heart of oversea Chinese (strictly speaking, Han ethic Chinese).

      I think it is hard to do so for India government because of its pluralism policy. Any way, India government is still on the right track to have a better policy to attract resource and support from expatriates than China - Slowly but Fairly with less risk for expatriates.

    8. CommentedVenu Madhav

      Dear Dr. Tharoor, a nice article consummately explaining how the "Indianness" remains intact. Lest we forget, Dr. Tharoor himself belongs to the group of eminent Indians, who have made a difference at a global level and will go on to make more.

      The PBD as it is celebrated annually has an underlying theme that evokes the fundamental character of India, which is: "Diversity in Thought, but Unity in Action"
      For an Indian, be it inside/outside the country we all have a right to our voice and a responsibility towards a common cause and goal that can bring greater good.

    9. CommentedSoren Dayton

      It is an interesting point. While Israel doesn't have a formal ministry, this is handled quite effectively by civil society. Here, FICCI is recognizing that and providing support, as they do in other ways.

    10. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

      There is a much bigger number than the quoted 25 million of Indian descent living abroad. What of those who are now Pakistani or Bangladeshi? What of those other countries that were historically part of British India? Are they NRIs?