Why India should pay more attention towards the engagement of PIOs?

Author:   Niranjan Marjani

Why India should pay more attention towards the engagement of PIOs?

Niranjan Marjani

Indian Diaspora is the largest Diaspora in the world today. It is divided into two categories – the Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and the Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs). As per the data of Ministry of External Affairs the Indian Diaspora stands at 30,843,419 as on December 2016. Out of these the NRIs are 13,008,012 while the PIOs are 17,835,407. It can be easily calculated that the PIOs form almost sixty percent of the total strength of Indian Diaspora.

Today Diaspora forms an important and integral part of India’s foreign policy. The policies with respect to Diaspora have undergone a drastic change in about past three decades. And while increasing importance is being attached to Diaspora during this time period by successive governments, it is also true that the NRIs have been ahead of the PIOs with regards to connecting with the home country.

This fact is stated not as a fault or a drawback of policy. It is the result of the circumstances that have naturally created this difference. The NRIs are the result of post-colonial migration mainly to the Western countries, the Middle East and the Oceania. The NRIs never lost connection with the home country because they did not relinquish their Indian citizenship and they had their families and homes in India. They attracted attention on account of remittances sent by them back home. As a result when Indian government started changing its policies towards Diaspora, it was easier for both the government and the NRIs to reach out to each other. Besides the economic reforms of 1991 paved way for the NRIs to make investments in business ventures in India. Therefore when Diaspora was given consideration in India’s foreign policy the NRIs could take quick and better advantages of the opportunities presented to them.

But it was not the same with the PIOs despite being the part of the Indian Diaspora and despite having greater presence in terms of numbers and across various countries. The PIOs had lost almost all the contact with India since they had migrated during colonial period which was at least four to five generations back. They were (and are) the citizens of their respective host countries. Besides after independence the Indian government distanced itself from the Diaspora citing that being citizens of foreign countries they were not India’s concern.

The PIOs neither sent remittances nor were all of them economically at par with the NRIs which would have enabled them to contribute to India’s economy.

Without doubt Diaspora has become an important part of India’s Foreign Policy today. It is increasingly playing a crucial role in diplomacy. However India would benefit immensely if full potential of the Diaspora is realized. It implies giving stress on engagement of Diaspora in countries with significant population of the Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs).

Engagement with the PIOs in these countries will not only expand India’s Diaspora relations it would also help India forward its strategic and economic interests in these countries and even in the region.

To begin with India can identify some countries (for greater and focused engagement with the PIOs) where migration took place during colonial period. Then framing policies for the Diaspora in those countries which would further facilitate framing policies for the countries and ultimately for the region where these countries are located. These countries would be Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, South Africa, Mauritius and Fiji. The regions covered would be Caribbean and South America, Africa (and also one part of the Indian Ocean) and Asia Pacific.

All the countries mentioned above except South Africa have a considerable percentage of PIOs population. Following table (Table 1) shows the proportion of PIOs population to the total population of these countries:

Table 1


Total Population* (2016)

Population of PIOs** (2016)

Percentage of PIOs to Total Population

Trinidad and Tobago












South Africa













* Total Population of all the countries taken from the website www.worldometers.info

** As per the data of Ministry of External Affairs, Population of NRIs and PIOs as on December 2016

Focusing on countries with high PIO populations could give India several advantages. PIOs are rooted in their host country. They are a part of the society there with presence in social and political institutions. This affords India an opportunity to mark its presence in those countries. It is different from those countries where there is limited Indian Diaspora and where India has to go through the governmental channels to forward its diplomatic interests.

As mentioned above engagement of the PIOs would lead to closer relations with their respective countries. This would in turn provide India with a basis to extend its influence elsewhere in the region. In case of Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname India would get more access to the Caribbean and the Latin American region. Strong presence in these three countries would further induce expansion in the neighbouring countries as well.

Similarly in case of South Africa and Mauritius, mobilizing the PIOs there would again give India an advantage in Africa and even in the Indian Ocean Region. It would help India’s cause that Indian Diaspora has a strong presence in Kenya apart from South Africa and Mauritius.

Concentrating on PIOs in Fiji would give India an access to Asia Pacific.

All these regions are strategically important, especially the Indian Ocean Region and Asia Pacific since they fall in the vicinity of India. Also both these regions have been subject to intense rivalry of China and the United States. But now United States being considered as reluctant to get involved in the Asia Pacific, it gives China an opportunity to expand its influence. However India should also take this opportunity to further its strategic interests in Asia Pacific, Indian Ocean and elsewhere.

While formulating policies for PIOs, twice migrants from countries like Fiji and Suriname offer opportunities of reaching out to the Diaspora in two countries at a time. For example there is large population of Indo-Fijians in New Zealand. So while engaging the PIOs from Fiji India may well extend the same policy to the Indo-Fijians in New Zealand. Same applies to the Indian Diaspora in Suriname and Indo-Surinamese who have migrated to the Netherlands.

In the entire process of developing and following a strategically proactive policy Diaspora could prove to be an important part. The participation in Know India Programme and Study India Programme could be monitored and more and more involvement of PIOs could be ensured.

While culture is the binding factor between India and Indian Diaspora more often than not it is the Indian culture (which most of the time means Indian movies and Indian artists which include actors as well as singers) that is popular with the Indian Diaspora. However in order to connect the PIOs with India efforts should be directed towards making the PIO culture popular in India. For example, inviting Caribbean artists to perform in India.

At the time when countries are adopting restrictive migration policies, the presence of PIOs could prove beneficial in forwarding India’s cause. Economic factors have been dominant in framing of Diaspora policies and these will continue to remain dominant. However engaging the PIOs would add a strategic dimension to India’s Diaspora Policy that can prove beneficial in the long run.


Author is an Independent Researcher based in Vadodara and can be reached at [email protected]


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