Letter from New Delhi
The ‘sweeping’ changes in Indian political arena after the Delhi state elections a few weeks ago became the backdrop of the 12th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) conference in New Delhi.
Whether it was the inaugural speech of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the keynote speeches by Indian cabinet ministers or the farewell address by President Pranab Mukherjee, a common refrain of highlighting the government’s achievements over the last decade, especially the last five years, was always present.
Manmohan Singh reassured NRIs by urging them not to despair about its future. To support his contention, he cited an annual economic growth rate of 7.9 per cent over the last nine years and predicted a five per cent growth for this year. He said that India was headed towards better times.
This big picture can be justified in all fairness as the government believes that its successes get swept under the carpet with ensational news about scams and corruption. However, with the coming eections and the acceleration of political temperature with fiery speeches by BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and the breath-taking sweep of Delhi state elections by newcomer Arvind Kejriwal of AAP (Aam Admi Party), with his symbol of a broom, has clearly put the government on high alert for the NRI support, if not for its 11,000 votes. NRIs have been so impressed by AAP that they have contributed significantly in cash and as volunteers for its success.
Although BJP and AAP were not mentioned during any plenary sessions, the two parties were the major conversation topics between visiting delegates and Indians during the breaks. In the three-day conference, a couple of news items appeared in the Indian print media. On news clip was headlined: NRIs see Mahatma Gandhi’s image in Kejriwal. Another was headed: Everybody Praising AAP in Britain.
A media highlight was Narendra Modi’s well-attended speech when he mocked Manmohan Singh. In sharp satire, Modi commented, “I agree with the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Good days are ahead for India. I don’t want to say anything more…” Hinting at the coming general elections when he hoped to form the next government, he added, “We should wait for four to six months.” The jibe was all over the TV networks in no time and later in the print media.
The first day of the conclave was devoted to its major theme of connecting NRI youth to India. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs has been successfully running for some years a ‘Know India Program’ for youth to discover the land of their ancestors. Since India has largely a youthful population with over a quarter aged between 15 to 29 years, the NRI youth can easily connect with them based on common concerns and aspirations. This interaction would result in greater understanding, cooperation, creating of wealth, livelihoods and prosperity, according to Vayalar Ravi, the Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs.
Many youth leaders, both NRIs and Indians, addressed and participated in the different sessions and the major outcome was to the increase the scope of “Know India Program’ and make youth interaction a regular feature of all future PBD meetings. Basically, the aim is to introduce NRI youth to India and enable it to get involved in Indian development projects.
The final session during which the President confers the Pravasi awards is usually a routine affair when leading NRI community leaders, intellectuals and business leaders are honoured.
This year’s ceremony was different for two awardees. A huge cheer went up when Ela Gandhi, the grand-daughter of Mahatma Gandhi, was announced. This peace activist was given the award for enhancing India‘s image in South Africa. A former member of parliament in South Africa from 1994 to 2004, she was earlier placed under house arrest for five years during the country’s freedom struggle. The other outstanding awardee was Ramakrishna Mission in Fiji for community service since 1937 with an active role in education.
This PBD had a great deal of business interaction at the exhibition stalls, a great deal of cross border conversations during the breaks and a great deal Indian culture in the evenings. With the highest participation of 700 delegates after the initial 4,000 for the first such event, it all ended on a bright note. The basic message for NRIs from a young India is: No more Mother India, now she is Miss India.
* * *
Unheralded, Indians in Africa make good money
Indians are quietly making good money in Africa. Unlike the Indians in Britain and the US, they go quietly about it. As individuals or corporations, Indians rake in the moolah, contribute to the local economies and national progress. All these achievements hardly ever make news in India.
The big investors from India are doing very well indeed, thank you. Competing against global MNCs, the Indian investors have established themselves in traditional industries, agriculture and new ones like IT.
Once in a while, the Indian media carries news about Airtel or Tata on their expansion drives or forays into new avenues/countries. The profits they rake in are kept under wraps.
One gets a peek at the Indian settlement and contribution in a new book, “Indians in Emerging Africa” by K. Sital (published by ‘The Indian’ magazine in Hong Kong) who covers Indian involvement in nine African countries: Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Rwanda and Burundi. A successful businessman in Hong Kong, Sital has published and edited an NRI magazine for over 40 years.
Why only these African countries? Because Sital travelled to these countries where he has good contacts and met the leading Indian entrepreneurs and industrialists, and wrote their profiles with an overview of Indian contribution. This personal effort is commendable instead of researching in New Delhi or even worse, surfing the Internet.
Indians are not settled in large numbers in all 52 African countries as some have a few hundred or even less. But in some countries like Zambia, they have a key presence. However, the inclusion of Rwanda and Burundi is laudable because very little is known about Indian activities in these two small countries west of Uganda.
Rwanda has flourished with over seven percent economic growth since 2004 and hailed as the fastest reformer of business regulations globally by the World Bank. The opportunities for profit could not be ignored. In May 2013, a delegation of Indian investors visited Kigali to explore the potential. A top Indian real estate developer has bagged a $135m township development project. The small 2,500 Indian community in Kigali is active in many industries, construction, education and IT.
Burundi is rich in high value minerals like nickel, cobalt, copper, gold and uranium. Burundi also needs assistance in farming. How can these opportunities be ignored? The local Indians, originally from Uganda, are doing what they can and prospering but major Indian investments could reap rich rewards. Both these countries have their embassies in New Delhi.
With a population of 1.3 million Indians, South Africa is the most well-known African nation in India. Since South Africa makes constant news with cricket, flying there to watch the big matches followed by safaris comes naturally. Plus, South Africa‘s aggressive tourism promotion has made it a top safari destination for Indians, never mind that Kenya has far better and more extensive safari attractions. But Kenya does not have the huge funds for massive promotion in India to tap the outbound tourist market.
Nigeria with 50,000 Indians, mostly Sindhis, shows how traders have become industrialists. Kenya, with a population of 100,000, largely Gujaratis, also shows the same trend. After its independence in 1963, Indians traders were given quit notices to make way for Africans; so they started factories to provide jobs for Africans and earn profits. Indian companies have invested in Kenyan horticulture, tea plantations and agriculture in addition to industries.
The Indian story in Uganda is well known. When dictator Idi Amin kicked out the Indians, thousands fled to Britain and other countries. Uganda under President Moseweni started to woo them back in the 1990s. Forty years later, Indians have notched up great successes in Britain. Now with about 30,000 Indians, Uganda has substantial investments from India.
In neighbouring Tanzania, about 40,000 Indians are quietly working as traders in urban areas while some have ventured in industries. India is a top trading partner for Tanzania.
Under President Robert Mugabe’s rule, Zimbabwe still has a community of about 10,000 Indians, mostly traders and small-scale industrialists. Most interesting is the minute Indian presence in Zimbabwe’s government and public life as given in this book that contains profiles and addresses of major Indian businesses in these countries.
India has sponsored two major India-Africa Forum Summits in 2008 and 2011 to further boost its bilateral ties. The Indian entrepreneurs in Africa profiled in this book are probably doing more than the efforts at the government to government level.
Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi
* Published in print edition on 16 January 2014