Pravasi Bharatiya Divas

By Sushil KC Khushiram

Expectations and Aspirations of the the Indian Diaspora from India
Tomorrow, Mauritius can hope to engage with India even more intensely as a hinterland than a motherland, as both countries deepen their integration with the global economy

The road travelled since the 2001 Report of the High Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora is truly impressive. A robust and diverse architecture is now in place to sustain close ties and meaningful exchanges between India and overseas Indians at all levels, under the leadership of the Ministry of Overseas Indians of the Government of India.

A propitious chapter in the relationship between India and its diaspora is unfolding, and the mutual benefits are increasingly visible, notably in the growing inflows into India of remittances and investments from overseas Indians.

I would like to recall the views of the Singhvi Report that “the expectations of the Indian communities abroad are modest – merely to enable them to preserve their age-old culture through a continuing and smooth relationship with their mother country”, and that “the members of the Indian diaspora are keen to pass on their value systems, which have been an essential part of their success, to coming generations and they would welcome the mother country’s support in this endeavour”. In the same vein, the Report states that “Mauritians of Indian origin harbour a commitment to maintain their linguistic and cultural heritage”.

To this day, the affirmation of cultural identity, and the reinforcement of a sense of pride and faith in one’s ancestral heritage remain, I believe, of consequential relevance to the expectations and aspirations of Mauritians of Indian origin, from India. The concept of a diaspora is almost invariably connected with fears of a loss of identity, and the disappearance of cultural customs and practices. It therefore invokes a deep need for preserving cultural distinctiveness, a collective identity, and close links with the country of origin.

In Mauritius, as in other historic disaporas characterized by dispersion under the pressure of poverty, the intergenerational transmission of identities and the long term preservation of community culture and values are of determining influence in shaping the relationship with India. Moreover, these identity and cultural issues have at times not been devoid of religious and political connotations.

But pervasive global trends are at work, and the traditional view of the diaspora is undergoing dramatic change. What is emerging today is a transnational community of migrants who acquire dual or multiple citizenships, maintain several identities and loyalties, retain family and community bonds with the country of origin through advanced modern communications, and are interlinked across the globe. Members of this transnational community are often relatively well educated, with professional skills, and are financially resourceful.

The wider use of the term overseas Indians rather than Indian diaspora already reflects the changing nature of the concept to include the transnational element. Whereas the diaspora focuses on aspects of collective identity and culture, the overseas Indian is in a greater measure concerned about cross border mobility, and social and business networks.

As an agent of global forces driving cross border exchanges of labour and capital towards the evolution of an integrated world economy and society, the overseas Indian is primed to embrace the liberal outlook of a global citizen. The key dimension of the overseas Indian thus becomes primarily economic, less steeped in cultural and identity notions.

Too often, culture and identity are associated solely with religion or ethnicity, to the exclusion of other vital traits of a global culture and a plural identity. Which country other than India would know better about the diversity and complexity of religion and culture? Indian Parsis, Sikhs, Jains, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus have a shared history, with Buddhism being a dominant religion for a millennium, and Islam also marking its presence for a similar period.

Mauritius too, with its diverse religious and cultural background, has responded to the challenges of nation building by developing its homegrown version of unity in diversity. Our societal governance framework has sought, not without occasional strains, to win the allegiance of the secular and global citizen, while also giving due recognition to religious and cultural identity and values.

It is revealing that the approach of the African Union to the African diaspora is a Pan African one that is centred entirely on the diaspora as an economic asset, an actor of development policy. The African Union has defined the African diaspora as “consisting of people of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality, and who are willing to contribute to the development of the African continent and the building of the African Union.” The first ever Global African Diaspora Summit was held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in May this year, under the aegis of the African Union.

How does this evolving transnational interpretation of the overseas Indian, with its emphasis on economic interactions, influence our relationship with India?

It certainly imparts a greater economic slant to our expectations and aspirations. Strong and sustained growth in India and China in recent decades is shifting the world’s centre of economic gravity eastwards. For Mauritius, a tiny island endowed only with human resources, all of overseas origin, India represents a hinterland of tremendous business opportunities.

The relative geographical proximity of Mauritius to India and its strategic location in the Indian Ocean have contributed to boosting the island’s fortunes earlier in its history, on the strength of a flourishing trade in spices. More recently, following the economic liberalization measures adopted by India in 1991, Mauritius has built up a prosperous financial services industry based on structuring global investment flows into India.

Tomorrow, Mauritius can hope to engage with India even more intensely as a hinterland than a motherland, as both countries deepen their integration with the global economy. Some clear areas of opportunity are surfacing. For instance, Mauritius can serve as a competitive business and financial structuring base for Indian companies, as they expand their global activities, including to Africa, our home continent.

Owing to its limited resource endowments and market size, the Mauritian economy will always be expected to offer a relatively favourable tax and business environment to domestic and foreign investors. Other advantageous location factors relate to the quality of the country’s physical, legal and institutional infrastructure, which are already well advanced.

Even as Mumbai rises over time as a leading international financial centre, Mauritius will still be able to provide comparative advantages to Indian businesses. Singapore and Hong Kong co-exist with Shanghai and help Chinese companies to compete globally, just as Caribbean islands bring indispensable competitive benefits to US multinational enterprises.

To serve the growing and sophisticated needs of global business, Mauritius will have to conduct a strategic re-engineering of its financial services in the years ahead. The expansion of global asset and wealth management and other activities, the development of new financial products, and the internationalization of the stock exchange constitute some of the essential components of this far-reaching exercise.

Mauritius will thus have to entice new and varied global players in financial services, and attract greater numbers of foreign financial professionals with specialized skills and expertise. Indian financial firms and professionals will also have an opportunity to actively participate in the development of our financial services industry. Mauritius has a population of close to 1.3 mn, which is growing by only 0.4% annually. If Singapore and Dubai provide a model, Mauritius will inevitably have to plan for more foreign skilled human resources to constitute a significant percentage of its population in the future.

Our hopes and expectations, of those persons of Indian origin and of all Mauritians, lie in a mutually beneficial strategic partnership with India that is focused on taking advantage of the huge potential in economic opportunities. Besides the mutual benefits stemming from our existence as a centre for international business and financial services, the joint exploitation of our marine resources in the Indian Ocean represents a highly promising agenda for cooperation between our two countries.

While we hold dearly to our common heritage, we must recognize that shared economic interests will bear increasingly on defining our relationship with India. Our aspirations should find their most gainful expression in an invigorated economic partnership and a renewed determination to do business together.

(This is a longer version of the address made at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, Mauritius 2012, Plenary Session One)

* Published in print edition on 1 November 2012

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