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NRI Conference 2006: sweet and sour

Three-day NRI Conference in Hyderabad for 25 million diaspora provided the opportunity to voice NRI and PIO concerns.

india Updated: Jan 18, 2006 13:09 IST

"Good first steps but let's go beyond," is how a non-resident Indian (NRI) from Chicago summed up the fourth Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, India's annual conclave to engage with its 25 million diaspora in 110 countries.

The three-day meeting in Hyderabad, Jan 7-9, raised the old NRI grouses voiced in the first such meeting in New Delhi in 2003.

The NRIs and PIOs (persons of Indian origin) who spend thousands of dollars to attend the meetings complain they get little chance to voice their concerns during lengthy plenary sessions.

They have to listen to Indian leaders and celebrities even in the interactive sessions that are dominated by Indians. This criticism has not been adequately dealt with. After all, the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is mainly for listening to the voices of NRIs and PIOs.

The Hyderabad event provided plenty of other reasons for diaspora participants to moan about the creaky organisation. It started on the wrong foot with the registration process - the names of many participants were missing and the conference kits did not arrive in time.

Then the venues for various events were not clear as the new conference complex was handed over to the organisers just one day before the event!

As usual, most front rows were reserved for Indian leaders, officials and VIPs. Members of the diaspora who had paid for attending this event were relegated to the back.

Answering these complaints, Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Oscar Fernandes kept explaining that his was "a young and small ministry". The lower attendance was explained by the delay in announcing the venue, the terror attack in Bangalore and the fact that Hyderabad's was not a major international airport.

The overseas participants were bombarded with pamphlets trying to promote various investment options.

"Seems India is only after our money," said one irate NRI. In fact, no less than 11 chief ministers of different Indian states attended the event to try and attract diaspora dollars to their states. Eyeing the massive remittances of NRIs - over $21 billion last year - they wanted a slice of this pie.

Each chief minister presented his state as the best destination for investment, including the new incumbent of Bihar who set aside his prepared speech and made an off the cuff emotional appeal for overseas investment. So intense was the competition among them that the chief ministers of Gujarat and Maharashtra even had a confrontation on the incentives and enabling investment climate offered to NRIs by their states.

Yet, despite the complaints, the 2006 Pravasi Bharatiya Divas took a historic step of actually conferring on two members of the diaspora the first set of overseas Indian citizenship (OIC) by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He also made other announcements such as the possibility of granting voting rights in India to NRIs in the Gulf since they cannot become citizens of those countries and enhanced insurance benefits and smart cards to assist them.

Plans for dual citizenship were announced in the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas four years ago and has materialised now. More than 8,000 applications have been received for dual citizenship and 50,000 are expected, mainly from the US, said minister Fernandes.

The grant of voting rights for Gulf NRIs is also a major step towards letting them have their say in Indian affairs. The insurance scheme and the smart card for Indian workers gave the impression that the 2006 event was more focused on Gulf NRIs since co-host Andhra Pradesh was one of the leading states sending workers to the Gulf.

Another dramatic announcement was the new "instant" money transfer facility to India. This electronic gateway will enable NRIs to transfer money to any bank in India and choose the instruments or products they would like to put it in. The demonstration of this system by UTI Bank with the ministry took everyone by surprise when the transfer took place in 20 seconds. Normally, it would take 24 hours. Other banks like ICICI, Citibank and State Bank of India have offered this system but in its new form it covers any bank anywhere in India.

The speeches of the prime minister and President A.P.J. Kalam were quite inspiring.

Some other positive developments also took place in Hyderabad, but with the millions spent by the central and state governments, as also the private sector, the event could have been better organised and provided more scope for active participation by NRIs - not mere attendance.

The best part of such events is the avenue for networking among NRIs themselves.

But Pravasi Bharatiya Divas desperately needs slicker event management and more scope for airing NRI views. The pure Hindi name for this event can hardly be pronounced by most NRIs - all these need a makeover.