THE grant of dual citizenship to persons of Indian origin living in specified countries should go a long way in connecting the 20-million strong Indian diaspora scattered across the globe to the birthplace of their ancestors.
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee granted the long-standing demand at the first-ever Pravasi Bharitya Divas in the capital which attracted a few thousand Non-Resident Indians and Persons of Indian Origin.
The three-day conference, which ended on Saturday, also saw the grant of major sops aimed at boosting confidence in the Indian economy.
But the dual citizenship first. The impact of Vajpayee’s announcement at the inaugural session of the meet was somewhat muted by the proviso that dual citizenship would be available but only to PIOs living in a few select countries.
Though the details were still to be worked out, it was disclosed that the scheme would be restricted to persons of Indian origin living in just seven countries, including the United States, United Kingdom and Canada.
The other countries were yet to be named though official sources indicated that these could well be Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia.
However there was speculation that countries of the European Union too could be brought into the ambit of the dual citizenship scheme.
Admittedly, the US, UK and Canada account for a large majority of the Indian diaspora.
Given the lukewarm response to the earlier scheme to grant PIOs a special card, it cannot be certain that most NRIs would queue up for dual citizenship.
For, the dual citizenship does not offer voting rights and the right to get elected to public office.
Yet, it will offer them dual nationality. Which gives the PIOs or NRIs based in the specified countries the right to live, work and buy property in the country of their origin.
Admittedly in some countries dual nationality eventually leads to full citizenship rights but the Indian Government had no such plan at this stage.
But most NRIs would be quite happy with the dual ''citizenship'' if it offered them a passport establishing their links to the motherland.
Some NRIs, particularly from countries such as Mauritius, Surinam and East African countries, espied in the dual citizenship scheme a clear “dollar bias.”
They argued that the only reason they had been denied the right to dual citizenship was that the NRIs in the select few countries were relatively better off and had surplus incomes to invest.
But the concerns of security seemed to have weighed heavily with the Government while devising the dual citizenship scheme.
None of the countries in India’s neighbourhood with which she shared common cultural and historic ties figured in the scheme for obvious reasons.
Indeed, a negative list of countries would have made more sense for the purpose of dual citizenship rather than a positive list of a mere seven countries.
For, not long ago when India was beset with the Sikh insurgency problem, most loud support to these terrorist groups had come from the so-called Khalistani groups based in the US and UK.
Another tangible proof of the dollar bias was provided by Finance Minister Jaswant Singh who while addressing the distinguished gathering of NRIs and PIOs sought to further connect the national economy with the global one and thus help the Indian diaspora to look homewards.
Resident Indian individuals, companies and mutual funds were allowed, for the first time since Independence, to make equity investments in listed foreign companies.
Indian individuals can now make unlimited investments in shares of foreign companies while domestic companies can invest up to 25% of their net worth in listed foreign companies which have at least 10% stake in any listed Indian company.
For mutual funds the foreign investment cap has been put at US$1bil (RM38bil).
The decisions, announced by Jaswant Singh on the second day of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference, took the Indian rupee a step closer to being fully convertible on the capital account.
Specifically for the NRIs, the present limit of US$1mil (RM3.8mil) was hiked ten-fold on the repatriation of proceeds abroad from sale of property or other assets listed in their names in India.
For sure, the liberalised foreign exchange regime was made possible by a US$70bil (RM266bil) forex mountain which was growing higher still.
Experts however felt that the current slump in the western stock markets and the relatively poor returns available on overseas investments would act as a damper on Indians investing abroad, though the cash rich individuals and corporations might go legit in owning up their real estate in foreign lands.
The glittering inaugural function also saw Prime Minister Vajpayee bestow the first Pravasi Bharatiya Samman on 10 members of the diaspora.
Among them was the Mauritius Prime Minister Anerood Jugnath and Works Minister Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu and former Commonwealth secretary-general from British Guyana, Shridath Ramphal.
Two Nobel laureates, V. S. Naipaul and Amartiya Sen, were among the 2,000-odd delegates drawn from 60 countries.
One of the most pleasing vignettes of the meet was the - jugalbandi - of two Bharat Ratnas (India’s highest civilian awards, namely, the sitar wizard Pandit Ravi Shankar and Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan.
The Government used the occasion to showcase India’s development.
Central and State Ministers “sold” India to NRIs, though the most oft-heard remark these past three days was that the Indian diaspora was no where near the Chinese Diaspora when it came to investing in one’s country of origin.
As more than one delegate observed maybe NRIs will set up shop in India once it gets its act together, cutting red tape, doing away with endemic corruption and creating a viable infrastructure for faster economic growth.
Nonetheless, the three-day jamboree at least helped renew the emotional bonds of the NRIs with the country of their origin.
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