The Other NRIs Come to India
By Naeem Mohaiemen
The Subcontinental
January 22, 2004

Mumbai: A week before the WSF meet began in Mumbai, Prime Minister Vajpayee inaugurated the second Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas (PBD)-- an annual conference for the global Indian Diaspora. The conference is one among many attempts by the government to woo the two categories of diaspora: PIO (Persons of Indian Origin) and the more famous NRI (Non Resident Indian). Nearly 1,500 PIOs and NRIs attended this year's meet, representing 55 countries. Recent reports show that NRIs send home $13 Billion, the single largest remittance flow in the world. By contrast, the Chinese diaspora sends back only one-seventh of the Indian total. Small wonder that the NRI is being so aggressively courted by Indian governments. Praising the unparalleled financial muscle of the NRI, Vajpayee said in his opening speech, "Who would have thought that the average income of an Indian American would be 50% higher than the national average in US, especially since most of the Indian emigrants who went there in the '60s and the '70s had less than $10 in their pockets."

A week after PBD, a very different meet-- the annual WSF-- took place in Goregaon, Mumbai. Although the World Social Forum was primarily focused on the developing world, NRIs from America and Europe were also very visible at the event-- as delegates, speakers and volunteers. Over the last ten days, I met many diaspora delegates of Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin. These delegates included Farida Jhabvala (Mexican-Indian helping run Media Center and translating for Latin American delegates), Rinku Sen (Publisher of ColorLines magazine), Theeba Soundarajan (Media Director for Berkeley-based Third World Majority), Jasbir Puar (Gender Studies professor at Rurtgers University), Amit Srivastava and Nadia Khastagir (both of India Resource), Sujani Reddy (WBAI Radio), Melanie Alfonso (London-based Workers Against War), and Prerana Reddy (freelancer for Free Speech TV). One of the prominent speakers on Iraqi reconstruction efforts at WSF was Pratap Chatterjee, a Bengali-Sri Lankan who is head of CorpWatch in California.

The contrast between the WSF diaspora and the PBD diaspora is fairly obvious. The PBD focuses heavily on Indians who are in high corporate positions-- IT firm heads, investment bankers, and industrialists. When Asians in the arts and culture are invited, they are usually global marquee names such as VS Naipaul (who attended last year, but was a no-show this year). By contrast, the diaspora that attended the WSF was tilted towards non-profit workers, academics, activists, media professionals, and artists. This tends to be a community without a lot of financial clout, which is a key distinction.

In fact, money is the cornerstone of the appeal of the NRI for the Indian government. It is because of their ability to invest in dollars and euros that the NRI has become the cornerstone of the "India Rising" branding campaign. In December, India's foreign exchange reserves crossed the $100 billion mark, helped in large part by the record $13 billion remittance by NRIs. There are 20 million Indian professionals living abroad, and their average earning is much higher than any other immigrant group. The highest remittance is from US-based NRIs, averaging $1,104 per person from January-December of 2002. Lagging far behind them were the next highest remitters: Pakistan ($790 per person), Mexico and Philippines ($400). Besides this huge financial flow, NRIs have been crucial in establishing India as the world's IT destination. Not only have dozens of technology companies opened research offices in India, Indian firms have emerged as the number one destination for outsourced business. Recognizing long-standing NRI demands, the government granted dual citizenship rights to NRIs from 16 countries. NRIs in Gulf nations were excluded, but were given the compensation of compulsory insurance, reserved school seats for their children and elimination of some school fees.

Looking at the Indian government's lukewarm response to the WSF, in sharp contrast to the exuberant reception given to the PBD event, it is clear that the progressive section of the NRI community has yet to establish leverage in India. If anything, government functionaries may consider the progressive NRI population to be a nuisance because they have opposed NRI funding of right-wing groups, multinationals' environmentally destructive activities, and over-rapid liberalization. At a time when the government is holding up Coca-Cola's sales record in India as a magnet to attract other US investment, a NRI-led campaign pointing out Coke's environmental record is not very welcome. One delegate summed up the contrast to me: "The traditional NRI is a Fortune 500 Company CEO. He is the pocketbook of India. We progressive NRIs who work in nonprofits are the conscience of India. But in a time of rapid growth, no one wants to be slowed down by conscience."

In the past, one successful progressive NRI project that was linked to pocketbooks was "The Campaign To Stop Funding Hate." This project targeted NRI funding of right-wing groups in India (nicknamed the "Saffron Dollar"), and highlighted the human rights record of those groups. Many NRIs were unaware of these abuses, and once it came to light, stopped funding those groups. However, as several speakers have pointed out at this year's WSF, progressive non-profits cannot be defined only by what they are "against." The next step for progressive NRIs is to create their own financial clout, possibly by creating "socially responsible" investment funds that will focus on Indian corporations with good environmental and labor records. There are already American variations of this, such as PaxWorld, Domini, Green Century and Morningstar, which can serve as a model for implementation. If implemented properly, progressives may be able to use NRI investment as a tool to promote socially responsible capitalism in India. If done right, we may find the Indian government to be much more welcoming by the time the WSF returns to India in a few years.

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