“I want to improve the conditions for my people settled abroad”

Letter from New Delhi

— Sushma Swaraj, Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs.

Just minutes after she settled into her chair at the Ministry of for Overseas Indian Affairs, Mrs Sushma Swaraj, Indian Minister for External Affairs, was interviewed by Sayantan Chakravarty, the editor and publisher of the NRI magazine, Indian Empire.

In this, her first interview in her capacity as Overseas Indian Affairs minister, Mrs Swaraj talks about the focus of the Modi government on matters relating to overseas Indians.

You are now helming two ministries—-External Affairs and Overseas Indian Affairs. Does it mean that now we can expect India’s foreign policy to look towards the Indian diaspora in a more aggressive way?

I have taken charge of the Ministry of External Affairs today morning. And now in the afternoon I have just taken charge of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs. MEA is a big ministry. MOIA is a smaller one. But for me, the importance of the MOIA is even more than that of the MEA. But the MOIA is one Ministry whose interactions are directly with the people. At the MEA I have to undertake journeys to meet leaders from different countries, some of them big. I have to talk about the strengths of our country before those leaders, and improve relations. But here at the MOIA, my own people are settled overseas, for whom there are no caretakers, no one to inquire about their plight. I want to improve their condition, and for that I have been entrusted this ministry. The satisfaction that I will receive from this ministry is far greater than anything else.

You will be working closely with the missions.

With these two ministries remaining with one minister, the biggest work will be – and I was just sharing this with the secretary and others — to sensitize the missions. Whatever work needs to be done will have to be done through the missions. There are various schemes which the MOIA has that are running through missions. The missions also should feel that the Government has changed. And there is someone who wants to ask about them. I am very happy, therefore, that though the Ministry may be small, from the point of view of importance it is very big.

The diaspora is very diverse. How will you address this diversity?

I have made this decision today itself that I would first get a list of Indian states from where maximum emigration has taken place. I will subsequently invite the MPs of those states, and ask each one of them about the exact problems faced by the people who have migrated from their states. As leaders and representatives of the people, they would directly be in the know of such problems.

In the first week itself we would be writing to these Parliamentarians from whose states maximum emigration has taken place. Each one has different problems. Those going from Punjab have problems different from those going from Andhra Pradesh. Those going from Kerala have different problems, the ones that have gone to the Gulf, their problems are different. The ones who have gone to developed countries, their problems are different. I will talk directly to the people’s representatives, identify the problems, and then work out how best we can deal with those problems through the MOIA.

The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas needs to be scaled up. It was started by the BJP Government. It is time once more to ensure that the numbers that attended the first PBD, about 4,500, are restored. Over time, those attending the PBD have come down.

It is a matter of taste and liking. Numbers have dwindled since those people have not been able to get a taste and liking for the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. They did not feel like coming. They felt there is very little use for them at such an event. They come, listen to lectures for three days, meet one another and go away. Now we will tell people that PBD has a big role, and big benefits. Also, if someone is attracted, he comes. If there is no attraction, he stops coming. Now, they will once again feel the essence of what the initial PBD had provided. They will be there in large numbers. You will see how many more people attend the PBD. It will be a very purposeful meet.

You said there will be more people attending the next PBD. Now Gandhiji, once a Pravasi Bharatiya, returned from South Africa to India in 2015. January 9 will mark the centennial of Gandhiji’s return to India. He landed in Bombay, but he is from Gujarat. Where do you think the PBD will be held?

We have yet to decide. But there is a possibility that it can be held in Gujarat.

Next year in Gujarat one will also have the Vibrant Gujarat function.

That is different. Let’s not mix Vibrant Gujarat with the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. Vibrant Gujarat is a state-specific event. MoUs are signed with businesses that relate to the state. It relates to those who want to invest, set up industry and businesses in Gujarat. The PBD is different. This time it will be well thought out.

So you are assuring that this time PBD will be on a very large scale?

It is definitely going to be so. There has been an air of expectation for many years. They have been expecting this Government to come, and then they have been waiting to renew their engagement with India with fresh energy, and vigour.

How much time you will be able to dedicate to this Ministry, given that you will holding the position of Minister for External Affairs as well, and will be on the move?

I will be here regularly. I will be sitting here. It is not as though I will be sitting in the Foreign Ministry and doing the work of this ministry from there. I will come here. I will be meeting the MPs here only. That ministry has its own importance, as I said earlier. We have to meet leaders and improve relations with other countries. I will have to travel for that. But it does not mean that I will, in any way, be ignoring this ministry. This ministry will be given due importance. This subject is close to my heart. There will be no deviation from this. This Ministry is for our people who are overseas.

Contributed by Kul Bushan

Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi

 


* Published in print edition on 6 June 2014

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