Shaping India Diaspora Holds the Key

Special Report

The issues of social security, labour issues and employment should be taken up with these countries through modifying existing agreements or striking new ones

India must take immediate steps to integrate its diaspora spread across the globe in millions to be partners in country’s progress. Their participation in both economic and political activities, particularly in the decision making process is essential. Sadly not much effort has been made to foster greater integration of overseas Indians who should not only have the right to vote, but also be represented as nominated members in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament, Rajya Sabha. Suitable amendments to the Constitution should be initiated to give dual citizenship to overseas Indians. The decision to allow political participation of overseas Indians will give them added impetus to invest in economic activities in the country.

Unfortunately, there is no correct estimate of overseas Indians. The government estimates the number at 25 million, others say it is 26 million and some say 27 million. The estimates are based on 19th century and early 20th century migrations. It does not take into account the number of Indians settled in the immediate neighbourhood and beyond, particularly in South-East Asia, Sri Lanka and in other places where native Indians settled in course of trade and cultural relations and establishment of early Hindu kingdoms. This process began between 1st-4th centuries.

The diaspora services division of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs has categorised Indians settled or working abroad into four distinct categories. Among these are Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) who are Indian citizens working abroad, primarily in West Asia and North Africa. The NRIs, being Indian citizens, have their right to cast their franchise in the country. The next two categories are Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) and Overseas Citizens of India (OCI). The distinction between the PIOs and OCI are narrow, both being the legal citizens. The PIOs and OCI are not qualified to vote as the Constitution of India does not recognise extension of dual citizen status to anyone. The last and the fourth category of overseas Indians recognised by the Indian government are ‘those overseas Indians whose forefathers migrated from India in the 19th and early 20th century.’

One of the major challenges to integrate the diaspora into the political and economic mainstream of the country is to give them the right to vote in the country and thus, make them equal partners in the decision making process. There are, however, no legal problems for NRIs to cast their franchise as they continue to be Indian citizens. Only technical hurdles remain that needs to be removed to smoothen the process. First the NRIs need to be registered as voters in their constituency. Next the provision should be made that they can cast their vote in the place of their work. The suggestion of the Minister of External Affairs and Overseas Indian Affairs, Sushma Swaraj for placing Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) in Indian missions abroad does not look as a practical and rational solution, as a busy NRI in a far flung area has to cover distances to reach the Indian mission. Rather online voting through smartphones and computers is a logical and rational solution.

The process of integration of PIOs and OCI into the political mainstream and in decision-making process can only be achieved through a suitable constitutional amendment. A suitable constitutional amendment can also enable them to be nominated members of the Rajya Sabha. There should be an umbrella organisation of overseas Indians in each of the six inhabited continents. Each of these umbrella organisations should select or elect a person to be nominated in the Rajya Sabha.

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had assured overseas Indians at Madison square in US, Allophones’ Arena in Sydney, in Nay Pyi Taw that the PIO card and OIC cards would be merged so that both the categories enjoy the same benefits. At present, OIC card holders has many privileges over the PIO card holders like multiple entries, multi-purpose life-long visa for visiting India while PIO cardholders are allowed 180-day stay. The OIC card holders enjoy exemption from registration with local police authority for any duration of stay in India unlike the PIO card holders. The OIC card holders enjoy parity with NRIs in economic, financial and educational fields, except in relation to acquisition of agricultural or plantation properties, in entry fee for visiting national monuments, historical sites, museums, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries as well as in domestic air fares in India.

The OIC card holders also enjoy parity with NRIs to practice as doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, advocates, architects and chartered accountants as per the laws in the country. Like NRIs, the OCI card holders can appear in All India Pre-Medical Test (AIPMT) or such other tests in India to make them eligible for admissions in relevant institutes. The OCI cardholders can file an affidavit to declare their address in India for the purpose of availing services like securing admission of their children to educational institutions in India, obtaining driving licences, gas connections, residential telephones and mobile phones, electricity and water connections. They get preferences in matters of inter-country adoption of Indian children.

The merger of PIO card and OIC cards will enable the PIOs to enjoy benefits at par with the OIC. Further, there is a need to consider extending many of the benefits enjoyed by NRIs to PIOs and OIC so that greater integration of overseas Indians with the country of their origin is achieved at a faster rate.

There is also a need to do much for the welfare of the NRIs who send back remittances amounting to $70 billion a year – this is a major source of external flow into the country as compared to the Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) that the country has received since 1992, which amounted to $214 billion. India had rightly raised the issue of lowering the tax imposed on remittances to 5 percent at G20 Brisbane Summit. It should now take up the issue with each destination countries of NRIs. The issues of social security, labour issues and employment should be taken up with these countries through modifying existing agreements or striking new ones. Legal assistances and financial help should be extended in their times of need. At home, the government should crackdown on fake recruitment done by agencies for sending people abroad. Marriage frauds of NRIs and other overseas Indians should be discouraged.

The 100 years of Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India from South Africa is to be the focus in the 13th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas meet in Gandhinagar, Gujarat on January 7-9, 2015. Overseas Indian youths are expected to participate in large numbers. The government should speed up the project for setting up of an NRI University, which should have special focus on country’s culture and heritage. Know India and Mano (Accept) India are good programmes of the government that generate pride in overseas Indian youths.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.