The biggest problem is there has been lack of focused attention to the area of knowledge transfer, says Ambassador J. C. Sharma

The biggest problem is there has been lack of focused attention to the area of knowledge transfer.  There was also no dedicated agency to deal with this question, says Ambassador Sharma in an interview with Dr. Sadananda Sahoo, editor of Roots and Routes.

Ambassador J.C. Sharma you have been one of the key architect of India’s diaspora policy ever since you took over as the Member Secretary of the High Level Committee on Indian Diaspora. One of the pioneering works is the Report of the High Level Committee on India Diaspora under the chairmanship of L.M. Singhvi and you as Member Secretary. It has been 11 years since then and how do you retrospect and assess the development in terms government and community engagement, success stories etc.

The biggest achievement of High Level Committee (HLC) has been to make diaspora an important component of India’s foreign policy agenda.  We also succeeded in achieving our objective of making both diaspora and people of India conscious of the concept of global Indian family.  The report provided a blue print for our engagement with diverse Indian diaspora.  We have achieved good success in some areas, however, lot more could be done in some other sectors particularly science & technology and knowledge transfer.  Greater attention should also have been paid to non English speaking Indian communities abroad.

In Part III of the High level committee report, several interim reports were submitted to the Government of India where you have strongly advocated for Persons of Indian Origin Card (PIO Card) Scheme. How far you feel the initiatives reach by now.

PIO and OCI Card have been very successful schemes.  Because of legislative process, it took some time to put the OCI scheme in place.  There is now much greater awareness on the part of the overseas Indians to acquire OCI card.  The biggest problem now is the long period it takes in processing the applications and dispatching the cards from India.  We lose a lot of goodwill because of inordinate and avoidable delay.  In my view, the process can be simplified in respect of a very large percentage of applicants, particularly first generation migrants.  We must also give little more discretion to the Heads of the Mission.  There a number of cases of descendants of Indians had migrated as indenture labour, where there is no doubt about their Indian ancestry.  However, it is difficult for them to produce all the required documentation.

What achievement the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas achieved so far. What are your suggestions if any?

Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) was the single most important factor in creating consciousness about the concept of global Indian family.  It also created a web like relationship between India and various Indian communities abroad.  It made people much more aware about extraordinary diversity of Indian diaspora.  Prior to PBD, there was very little awareness about communities in places like Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion Islands and Madagascar etc.  People also had very little knowledge about places like Surinam.  It also created much more awareness about secondary and tertiary migrants like Surinami Hindustanis in Holland or Indian migrants from East Africa in various parts of the world.  

PBD also identified the focus areas of co-operation.  It also provided a forum for exchange of views between Indian policy makers and the diaspora.  It has also emerged as a forum for redressal of grievances by overseas Indians.  Thanks to PBD, the government carries out a review of the commitments made in the past and assesses the state of implementation.  The problem with PBD has been that it has become a very routine exercise.  There is no innovation.  It has also not paid required attention to knowledge transfer, and science & technology and healthcare.  In recent years, PBD has become very gulf centric.  The other positive fallout of PBD has been the events organized by some of the States to coincide with PBD.  Vibrant Gujarat has been a major success story.  The biggest criticism of PBD which I have heard from a very large number of overseas Indians is no involvement/association whatsoever of the opposition in the event.  Every single PBD held outside Delhi has been in a UPA run state.  Excessive attention to some sections while ignoring other large components has been other major criticism.  The event should not be treated as yet another routine conference. 

What is your opinion on Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Awards for the Indian Diaspora?

The awards were conceived with two objectives in mind.  One, to officially recognize those who have made contribution to enhancing the prestige or development of India and/her Diaspora.  The other reason was to also make people aware that the awards given by some unscrupulous organization with commercial motives had no official recognition or sanctity.  Unfortunately there have been a few controversies about awards given to certain individuals.  This must be avoided at all costs.  I also feel that with this award, the Pravasis should not be eligible for Padmashree and Padma Bhushan.  We must clearly deliver the message that this award is in the same class as Padma Bhushan.  A PBD awardee should be considered only for Padma Vibbhushan and Bharat Ratna in case of extraordinary achievements.  If my memory serves me right, the former Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee had minuted on the file that the Pravasi Samman awardees should not be considered for Padma awards.  In my view, giving Padmashree to Pravasi Samman awardees devalues the Pravasi Samman.

What is your opinion about Indian diaspora in neighboring countries? The report of the high level committee has a special section on the Indian diaspora in the neighbouring countries. What is your opinion about it?

We had consciously avoided dealing with the Diaspora in neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka etc. for obvious reasons.  I think these countries are a class apart and we must understand the political sensitivities.    We can at best consider Indian citizens working in these countries as our Diaspora.  Even this has to be dealt with very carefully in the case of Nepal.  We, therefore, considered in some detail only the case of Myanmar which does deserve attention of the government for historical reasons.

What is your view on Diaspora Philanthropy? Which are the areas do you find have already made some impact and what lessons we can learn from them?

Diaspora Philanthropy has not been sufficiently tapped.  It is primarily in the areas of religion, healthcare and education.  A lot more could be done in education, healthcare and rural development.  We have not developed hassle free mechanism without compromising the security.  I have heard many stories where people have had to bribe junior officials for getting the required approvals.  The area we have neglected most is higher education.  You would recall that at one time the IITians in US had offered to set up an IIT in India.  We did not encourage the idea and wanted to keep the government control.  I strongly believe we must give incentives for such initiatives.  Indian School of Business, Hyderabad has emerged as a premier institution of management education, yet it continues to receive completely unnecessary queries from organizations like AICTE.  The other concept which we have yet to develop in higher education is donation of time.  A large number of Indian academics abroad would be happy to give one or two lectures a week through video conferencing.  We have done nothing to do this in an organized manner.  Similarly, many Professors are willing to be co-guides of Ph.D students.  Retired scientists and academics can be of immense help in knowledge transfer.

Please tell us about the Indian diaspora organizations. Did they create any meaningful impact in engaging with India? Did they create any impact on development?

Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) founded in 1989 was a very good initiative.  Unfortunately, it got divided.  They have served a useful purpose in creating awareness about violation of human rights of people of Indian origin in places like Fiji, Caribbean, and Malaysia etc.  They have also taken up some of the issues of concern to the community like surrender of cancelled passports etc.  They have not been able to do much in areas like business development, knowledge transfer and philanthropy.  In India, Antar Rashtriya Sahyog Parishad (ARSP) was the pioneer in developing relations with old Diaspora and brought out some useful publications.  The Conference of PIO Parliamentarians was particularly noteworthy.

There are several initiatives in the past such as Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals (TOKTEN), Diaspora Knowledge Network (DKN) etc. by International agencies and Government agencies in India which have not made any significant impact.  What lessons can we learn from them?

The biggest problem is there has been lack of focused attention to the area of knowledge transfer.  There was also no dedicated agency to deal with this question.  Even now, it receives hardly any attention in the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs.  In HLC Report we had made detailed recommendations for cooperation in areas like science & technology, healthcare and education.  Unfortunately, very little work has been done for the implementation of those recommendations.  When I was Secretary, I was convener of a group constituted for promoting scientific cooperation in selection areas.  We had identified areas for collaboration with Diaspora Scientists in Washington D.C.  We must follow the mission mode for such cooperation.  Some areas/technologies can be identified for joint work by Indian and Diaspora scientists.  

India receives the largest amount of remittances in the world but unfortunately there is no proper plan to utilize these huge resources. There are studies which mentioned that Philippines and Bangladesh have better policy to utilize the remittances in more meaningful way. Do you suggest some new insight into how to utilize this and what are the best international practices?

I entirely agree that we have not developed a mechanism for channelizing the remittances in development activities, particularly in infrastructure sector.  We had recommended issue of bonds on the pattern of Israel and had even suggested those who contribute substantially to these bonds can be given PIO card on gratis basis.  I am confident that we could have received substantial contributions for bonds for highways and power sector.  Israel has raised billions of dollars through Israel Bonds.  We need to emulate that example with suitable modifications for our needs.

Any other important issues you would like to highlight?

One of the major recommendations of the High Level Committee was to create a detailed data bank of the Diaspora.  It is essential to have details of all diaspora organizations in every field.  The data bank must include the achievers of the People of Indian Origin (PIO) in areas like science & technology, education, business and entrepreneur, healthcare and other important professions.

One area which we have not touched in this interview is the engagement of youth of the Diaspora.  We must pay focused attention to engaging the youth.  Education can play a very useful role.  We must have India Study Programmes of different durations in selected Indian Universities particularly in the States like Gujarat, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.  MASA programme of Israel is a very good example of engaging the youth of Diaspora. 

It is important that regular round tables are held on some identified areas rather than concentrating entirely on PBD.  It is absolutely essential that PBD’s level is once again raised to the First and Second PBD and the event is held in a completely non partisan manner


 

Ambassador J.C. Sharma, Former Member Secretary of the High Level Committee on Indian Diaspora, which brought out a 576 pages report titled “Report of the High Level Committee on Indian Diaspora” submitted in the year 2001 to the Government of India.  It was an outcome of detailed discussions with the diasporic scholars and community organizations across the globe. Ambassador Sharma was also the Member Secretary of the Organizing Committee for the 1st and 2nd Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Indian Diaspora Day) celebrations.  Ambassador Sharma has research interest in wide range of areas starting from foreign policy, diaspora, Education Diplomacy and India’s Cultural linkages with South East Asia particularly old Hindu Buddhist monuments. 



Interview Date:   Tuesday, Oct 30, 2012
Person Name:   Ambassador J.C. Sharma

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