Need for more reforms to increase India’s engagement with its Diaspora

India's federal and state governments have been endeavouring to strengthen relations with the Indian diaspora numbering about 30 million, including some 13 million Non- Resident Indians (NRIs) and 17 million Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs).

The principal objective of the state governments for organizing conferences with their diaspora has been to attract investments from them. The central government’s perspective, on the other hand, is somewhat wider as it is well aware about the economic and political strength of the diaspora.

Indian diaspora. Source Connected to India

Diaspora’s contribution to India

The diaspora’s annual remittance, on an average, of about USD80 billion significantly helps India’s balance-of-payments position. With their huge investments in India, and benevolent assistance to the areas of their early domicile in India, they have been greatly contributing to the country’s socio-economic development.

The diaspora’s political heft in the important countries like the United States and the United Kingdom also helps in improving India’s relations with those nations. Thus, the diaspora being a great asset, the government of India has been taking active interest in their legitimate concerns.

Pravasi Bharatiya Divas

Since 2003, the Indian government has been organizing Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) which is attended by over 3,000 members of the diaspora. While the Prime Minister inaugurates the PBDs, the President of India presents prestigious awards to some for them who are most distinguished achievers in their fields.

During these conferences, visiting delegates express their concerns and difficulties. Ministers of the government of India present on the occasion take note of their issues with the intention to sort them out.

The government also organizes, from time to time, Regional PBDs (RPBDs) in different regions of the world where a large number of the Diaspora might have settled. The 10th such RPBD was held in Singapore in 2018. During these RPBDs also, delegates bring up  their concerns, and the Indian authorities present in these conferences respond to them.

A Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Award. Source: Connected to India

The Indian government’s provision of Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) Cards for the diaspora enables them to enter and stay in India indefinitely without the need for an Indian visa.

Voting for NRIs

The present process of voting for NRIs holding Indian passports, requiring them first to register as Overseas Voters and then to be personally present in their constituency to vote, has been found very cumbersome by them. It is reported that out of 13 million NRIs, only about 10,000 of them exercised their franchise in the last general elections in 2019 as most of them would not like to spend a huge amount of money to come to India and just cast their vote.

With a view to mitigating NRIs’ difficulty to vote, in the 2018 Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) passed a Bill providing proxy voting. But the Bill could not be considered in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament) and hence it lapsed.

A high official of the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), recently said that NRIs would be enabled to vote in the next general elections in 2024. One hopes that even this somewhat controversial provision of proxy voting is expedited so that a larger number of NRIs can vote also in their State Legislature elections preceding the Indian general elections of 2024.

Separate Ministry for Diaspora

It will be worthwhile for the Indian government to revive a separate Ministry for the Indian diaspora as it was there earlier during the previous UPA government. A separate Ministry with a full-fledged Cabinet-rank Minister, as earlier, can look after the issues of the diaspora more effectively.

In this connection, it is learnt that the countries such as Bangladesh, Armenia, Georgia, Haiti and Mali have Ministries specifically for their diaspora.

A representative of diaspora in Parliament

One of the most important diaspora organizations, namely Global Organization of the People of Indian Origin (GOPIO), has been pleading for a representative of the diaspora in the Indian Parliament. Countries like France, Italy, Portugal, Croatia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Algeria, Angola, Cape Verde and Mozambique are understood to have made provision, for their citizens abroad, for their representatives in their national legislatures.

Thus, the government of India can also consider a proposal for the President to nominate an NRI to the Rajya Sabha so that he or she can give expression to the concerns of the Indian Diaspora as a whole, i.e. NRIs as well as other people of Indian origin who may be holding even foreign citizenships.

Indian diaspora at an event. Source: Connected to India

In short, relations between the Indian diaspora and their motherland India can be promoted for mutual interests if the following steps can be considered by government of India:

– To organize Pravasi Bhartiya Divas (PBD) every year, in place of it being organized biennially since 2015, as it would provide higher opportunity for interactions between the diaspora and government authorities.

– To revive the earlier policy of having a separate Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs under a Cabinet-rank Minister in place of the present Overseas Indian Affairs Department which is a part of the Ministry of External Affairs. This will strengthen India’s bonds with its diaspora.

– Apart from taking necessary steps to expedite the required legislation in Indian Parliament about proxy voting for NRIs which has been already decided by the Cabinet of the government, other methods of voting such as electronic, postal ballot and voting at Indian Consulates/Embassies may be considered so that a larger number of NRIs can exercise their franchise.

– To consider nomination of an NRI to the Rajya Sabha by the President of India as such a representative can voice the concerns of the Indian diaspora as a whole more effectively.

Note: The author is thankful to student Ms Ratna Bharati for research inputs.