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Overseas Indians: GREATER INTEGRATION CRITICAL, By Ashok B Sharma, 23 Dec, 2014 Print E-mail

Round The World

New Delhi, 23 December 2014

Overseas Indians


By Ashok B Sharma


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 and also be represented as nominated members in the Upper House of Parliament, Rajya Sabha. Suitable amendments to the Constitution should be initiated to give dual citizens to overseas Indians. The decision to allow political participation of overseas India will give them added impetus to invest in economic activity 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 other places where native Indians settled in course of trade and cultural relations and establishment of early Hindu kingdoms. This process began as early as between 1st to 4th century.


The diaspora services division, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs has categorised Indians settled or working abroad into four distinct categories. These are: Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) who are Indian citizens working abroad, majority of whom are 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 two is narrow, both being legal citizens. The PIOs and OCI are not qualified to vote the country as the Constitution does not recognise extension of dual citizen status to anyone. The last and fourth category of overseas Indians recognised by the Government is “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 and thus make them equal partners in the decision-making process. While there is no legal problem for NRIs to cast their franchise as they continue to be Indian citizens, only technical hurdles remain that need 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 Minister of External Affairs and Overseas Indian Affairs Sushma Swaraj for placing electronic voting machines (EVMs) in Indian missions abroad doesn’t really 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 smart phones and computers could be 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, which 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 and each such organisation should select or elect a person to be nominated to the House.


Recall, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had assured overseas Indians at Madison Square in US, Allophones’ Arena in Sydney, 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 have many privileges over the PIO cardholders such as a multiple entry multi-purpose life-long visa for visiting India, while the latter are allowed only 180-day stay. The OIC cardholders enjoy exemption from registration with local police authority for any length of stay in India unlike the PIO cardholders.


Additionally, the OIC cardholders enjoy parity with NRIs in respect of 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.


Further, they 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 cardholders can appear in All India Pre-Medical Test (AIPMT) or such other tests in India to make them eligible for admissions in relevant institutes. They can file an affidavit to declare their address in India for 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 have 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) 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% at G20 Brisbane Summit. It should now take up the issue with each destination countries of NRIs.


Further, 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 assistance and financial help should be extended in their times of need. At home, the Government should crack down on fake recruitment done by agencies for sending people for being employed abroad. Marriage frauds of NRIs and other overseas Indians should be discouraged.


The list is long raising the big question whether the Government will have more to offer at the ensuing 13th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Gandhinagar, Gujarat on January 7-9, 2015, which commemorates the 100th year of Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India from South Africa. The Government’s programmes of Know India and Mano (accept) India, are good to generate pride in overseas Indian youth, who are expected to participate in large numbers. The integration of overseas Indians is critical for the country’s progress as it seeks their greater participation in economic activities. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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