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May 19, 1999


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The business of belonging

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S P Udayakumar in Minneapolis

The Person of Indian Origin card is on sale. Ironically, however, even before the "orange card" product hit the stores (Indian embassies and consulates in this case), the producer was voted out of business.

It is too early to assess how the business of belonging is doing in the market or to calculate the dividends of all the parties concerned. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government announced the scheme in 1998 at a conference of PIOs in New Delhi in an effort to placate their "overseas friends" and others who yearn to maintain some sort of official connection with India.

Bringing parity to non-resident Indians and Indian non-residents, the PIO card offers them several economic, financial, educational and cultural benefits. After all, there are almost 15 million to 18 million PIOs around the world, and it is sound business strategy to tap into this gold mine that has been left untouched so far.

The lucrative PIO market attracted the Indian government's attention when the 6.7 million-strong NRI community churned out a whooping sum of $ 4.3 billion for the Resurgent India Bonds issued recently.

Home Minister Lal Kishenchand Advani predicted that some 235,000 PIOs would apply for the card. Since the card is priced at $ 1,000, this would mean an income of $ 2.35 billion for the government. And this figure could go much higher as PIOs up to the fourth generation are targeted for the card.

As far as the government is concerned, this is just a general entrance fee and the real business will take place later. The PIO investments, business undertakings, professional college fees, housing purchases and hosts of such dealings could result in a much higher sum in precious foreign exchange.

PIOs with the card, on the other hand, will no longer need a visa to travel to India, nor will they have to register with the foreigner registration officer. These seemingly simple procedural matters have deep symbolic significance for the PIOs.

Going further, the card also seeks to establish longstanding connectivity and consanguinity by enabling the PIOs to acquire, hold, transfer and dispose of immovable property in India, send children to professional colleges, and avail of various housing schemes.

The revived bonding with their ancient homeland marked by freer travel, easier material transactions, investment opportunities, enhanced opportunities for the Indianisation of their children through education and acculturation, and possible retirement in one's own home in India is by all means an attractive offer for the PIOs.

The most important thing about the PIO card, however, is the feeling of belonging it evokes for the forlorn PIOs. Adding another plastic card that attests to their Indianness to the stack they already carry for all kinds of privileges and securities in life, they can feel less bitter about leaving home. In fact, they can feel better about living abroad and go on living with less guilt and more peace. After all, they are also (almost) Indians.

That the card is all about business and belonging would be clear if we look at the political rights the card offers and the civic benefits the cardholder gains. None! The PIOs "shall not enjoy political rights in India", declared the official government communique. This arrangement obliges the PIOs to feel a sense of belonging to the Indian nation without actually belonging to it fully. The government, on the other hand, would act like it is assimilating them without actually assimilating anything other than their money.

If the PIOs' monies are needed, is it not fair that they are given a say in the management of their resources and the governance of the country? After all, they are not mere international financiers who turn to India for greener markets and better dividends. They do have a special feeling for the country and its development.

Another political deficiency of the PIO card is the unrecorded assumption that all PIOs are equal, but some PIOs are less equal. The government discriminates against the PIOs from countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other South Asian countries without explaining the reason for excluding them or elaborating on its current strategies. According to Advani, the PIO cards will not be made available in the above countries for "obvious reasons".

The pro-Western-PIO and pro-rich bias of the scheme is also quite evident. For instance, how can a Gujarati barber in East Africa or a Tamil fisherman in Fiji afford the sum of $ 1,000?

The arbitrariness of the scheme is painfully obvious. For instance, the foreign spouse of a citizen of India or PIO is covered under the scheme. But it is silent about foreign parents who have adopted Indian children.

Meera Udayakumar, the India Adoption Co-ordinator at the Children's Home Society of Minnesota, gauges great interest among her clients for the PIO card, but points out that many of their questions and concerns are unanswered. Moreover, the scheme fails to talk about the employment eligibility or ineligibility of the PIOs, tax provisions, PIO welfare mechanisms, PIO monitoring agencies, conflict resolution/management set-ups, and so forth.

In the absence of this basic infrastructure, as Professor I K Shukla, a California-based PIO, fears, there will be the danger of encouraging and increasing financial scams that would defy oversight and regulation. Consequently, Shukla continues, international swindling and crime could come to haunt the Indian polity. Another equally serious concern is about anti-social elements producing and marketing counterfeit cards, and terrorists using them to their profit.

The PIO card has met with lukewarm reception in the US, one of the primary targets of the Indian government. Dr Thomas Abraham, president of the Global Organisation of Persons of Indian Origin, says the card is "nothing more than a permit not to register with police in India".

He points out that the whole idea emerged out of the foreign exchange crisis in the early part of Narasimha Rao's rule. When the GOPIO held its inaugural convention in 1989 in New York City, the PIO card idea was non-existent. The GOPIO had demanded dual citizenship.

Dr R C Saravanabhavan of Howard University in Washington, DC, is also unhappy with this half-baked idea of PIO card. He argues that India would gain enormous political power in the US by granting Indian Americans dual citizenship because such an act would create an effective and powerful lobby in the US for safeguarding India's interests. Indians in the US would also gain considerable power by retaining their Indian citizenship and balancing their legitimate loyalties to their home country and the host country.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about dual citizenship, however. Professor Shukla thinks "it opens a big door for subversion of national sovereignty". Expatriates can be the fifth column and act as agents of a foreign power much more openly in the name of democracy and freedom while sabotaging it. Although Indians are among the most successful immigrant communities, they are also notoriously reactionary, politically speaking. According to Professor Shukla, "their money and numerical strength can be a major source of trouble for India".

In the final analysis, one wonders if this business of belonging is a shrewd marketing strategy of the Indian government. Dr Abraham of GOPIO does not think so. If it were for dual nationality, the PIOs would willingly pay $ 1,000, he says.

Pointing out that an Indian visa costs US citizens only $ 240 for 20 years, he posits that India could gain much more by fixing the price of the PIO card at $ 300 for 20 years. According to him, "such a lower amount would help promote tourism and gain commitment from a large number of PIOs to visit as well as do business in India".

In the meantime, being and feeling Indian is being reduced to bearing a plastic card.

S P Udayakumar is a research associate at the Institute on Race and Poverty, University of Minnesota.

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