Premier NRI event needs big shake-up (Diaspora Watch)

November 27th, 2008 - 10:10 am ICT by IANS  

In these weeks, selected overseas Indians from across the globe are being invited to attend the annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) Jan 7-9, 2009, in Chennai. Meant to network with more than 25 million non-resident Indians, called NRIs, round the globe, this is the seventh flagship event of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA).In January this year, over 1,500 participants from 50 countries attended the PBD 2008 conference. Out of these 1,500 delegates, a significant number were Indians, mostly businessmen and exhibitors, who wanted to reach out to the visiting overseas Indian delegates. Thus, the real NRIs were much fewer, just a few hundred of them.

Why do so few NRIs come to this event? As a high profile event, with the prime minister at its opening session and the president at its closing session when the PBD awards are bestowed, with a number of senior cabinet ministers addressing the delegates, why is it not more popular with NRIs? A number of top rung cultural events with India’s reigning cultural czars are presented during these two days. This event also boasts an impressive exhibition of Indian services and goods targeted at NRIs. So one would expect thousands of NRIs to flock to attend it, but they don’t. Why?

First, what is an NRI going to get by attending the PBD? Getting in touch with the latest developments in India and how the country is emerging as a global power - right from the top leaders who are at its helm. Fine, but any NRI can get all this information from the web and the media.

Second, discussion on issues of special interest to NRIs. This is a prime reason to attend PBD. But are these issues of interest to individual NRIs? Or, of special concern for their countries of residence? Yes, these are discussed and mostly left at that, claim many who have attended past PBD events. The follow-up action, through various ministries of the Indian government, takes a long time.

Third, networking with other NRIs. Many delegates feel that they are meeting other members of the diaspora round the year at other venues and events, and so getting to know a few more from the few hundred that attend the PBD is not such a major attraction to attend this event.

Fourth, the message of investing in India amounts to overkill. Not every NRI is a multi-millionaire and cannot invest huge sums, but are doing what they can. Now MOIA has realised this and is setting up a system through which the NRIs can also contribute their expertise for India’s progress.

Fifth, the dates for the event, Jan 7-9, are not really suitable for NRIs. The date is very appropriate and significant in its historical context as Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa on this date. But most NRIs who come to India during the Christmas holidays return before the New Year as the schools for their children re-open in Britain and East Africa, among other countries. Thus, if the dates for this event is fixed just before Christmas or between Christmas and the New Year, hundreds more will attend as they are already visiting India at this time.

Sixth, the promotion for this event needs a big push, especially through non-government channels. The Indian embassies have tried to attract NRIs and the results have not been satisfactory after seven years. In addition to their efforts, it is high time that selected NRIs organisations, or better still, notable local NRIs community leaders are assigned as ‘ambassadors’ for this event.

Thus, they will promote these events in the local context in their own way and lead sizeable national delegations to participate. They will gladly spend their own resources and use their initiative to promote this event when they get this assignment from the MOIA. If given a target number for their delegations, they will try their utmost to meet it or even exceed it, knowing their commitment and zeal for their motherland.

For a start, 10 countries that have sizeable NRI populations but are not represented in high numbers can be targeted: the US, Britain, Canada, South Africa, Australia, Kenya, Malaysia, Mauritius, Singapore and Germany. These countries have large human and financial resources that can be harnessed further for India’s development. The US needs three such ‘ambassadors’ for East, West Coasts and the Central Zone.

Seven, the issues selected do not always coincide with the priorities of the delegates. The next event will focus on issues of interest to NRIs like the preservation of language and culture and health concerns of the Indian diaspora. Here again, the local ‘ambassadors’ can call meetings to get an agenda for their delegations for discussion at the main event.

PBD needs a big shake up before it fizzles out. And the time is now.

(Kul Bhushan previously worked abroad as a newspaper editor and has travelled to over 55 countries. He lives in New Delhi and can be contacted at kb@kulbhushan.net)

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