Tue, Jan 10, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Rich, overseas Indians revisit ancestral roots

CASH COWS Members of the nation's overseas diaspora complained at a forum for Indians living abroad that only their finances were treasured in their home country


Hundreds of overseas Indians eager to reconnect with their ancestral home, many for the first time, found to their annoyance at the weekend that India views them mainly as sacred cash cows.

While the Indian prime minister offered political rights to Indians living in the Persian Gulf at an annual conference for non-resident Indians, most official speeches portrayed expatriates as cash machines.

"Our balance of payments is healthy because I know you are there to keep it healthy," Finance Minister P. Chidambaram told the forum that aimed to reach out to an estimated 22 million overseas Indians.

The event, which drew 800 people of Indian origin from around the world to the hi-tech southern city of Hyderabad, made little secret of the fact that New Delhi would like to tap the investment potential of the vast Indian diaspora.

India, with its rapidly growing economy, already receives nearly US$22 billion a year from Indians abroad and is believed to be the largest recipient of money transfers from overseas migrant workers.

While many ethnic Indians overseas are members of the working class, the conference focused on financial success stories, such as Indian scientists and engineers who have made it big in the US.

"Some of the best globally renowned venture capitalists, investment bankers, software engineers, doctors, entrepreneurs and scientists are Indians, and we are truly proud of you," said Andhra Pradesh state chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy.

Emphasis on money

But many of the guests, who said their reasons for coming were emotional rather than entrepreneurial, said they were troubled by the emphasis on money and investment.

"Many of us are not just interested in business or technology," said politics student Aveva Israel, 24, whose Indian Jewish family migrated to Israel when she was nine. "We are interested in history and the arts or volunteer work."

"We are here to find our history," said Colette Minienpoulle, a descendant of Indians who were taken to France's Reunion Islands to work on sugar cane plantations generations ago. "Colonization made us lose our language. Our parents gave us French names ... so emotionally, it is very important for us to be here."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made one of the rare references to working-class Indians, including many of the three million people of Indian origin who live in the Persian Gulf region, in his inaugural address.

In a landmark move, he promised voting rights for Indians in that region, saying the change was "at an advanced stage of consideration."

"Overseas Indians in the Gulf are unique," he told the forum. "These are non-resident Indians who will never be naturalized."

"They have left families back home and thus have a vital stake in local governance, including who should represent them in the national parliament," he said.

In another first for expatriates, the prime minister also bestowed Overseas Citizen of India documents on two Indians, giving them lifetime visa-free entry, but not the right to vote or stand in elections.

"The Indian government has taken a big first step," said US citizen Nivruti Rai, the first person to get an overseas citizen card. "Voting rights will be the second step."

Others at the event who have become naturalized citizens of other countries also viewed the vote announcement as positive.

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