India And Its Diaspora

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Aug 15 2002, 05:30am hrs
During the dotcom bubble and pre-Enron euphoria, you couldnt find an international journal which did not carry glowing reports on Indian entrepreneurs and their billions in Silicon Valley. They were fawningly profiled by the Indian press, and we listened to the desi-boy-made-good-overseas telling us what to do, from economic reforms to national security to school syllabus. Many of these super achievers are now in deep trouble, if not deep debt. Varsha Rao, founder of Eve.com and a regular speaker at Indian investment conferences in the US, is now fighting various bankruptcy-related litigation, Giriraj Deshpande of Sycamore has just been named on Fortunes rogue list, and even Lakshmi Mittal of the Ispat Group has seen his influence in the UK plummet after revelations about his lobbying with Tony Blair.

The heady days may be over, but what remains is more long-term attention on overseas Indians as a global community of social, political and economic importance. By rough counts, there are at least 20 million overseas Indians, constituting a politically significant minority in some countries, such as Malaysia (7.5 per cent of the population) and Singapore (10 per cent). Even in far-away New Zealand, Indians now make up 1.5 per cent of the population. And in the US, Indians are the fastest growing Asian group, displacing the Japanese along the climb up.

Contrary to common perception, not all are computer nerds. There is an academic diaspora, a corporate diaspora, a trade diaspora and a workers-class diaspora. Indians account for 40 per cent of retail sales in the UK, own over 150,000 of the three million ethnic-owned businesses in the US, and comprise over 35,000 doctors in the US. But wherever and whatever, they tend to have higher household incomes than almost any other group. In the US, Indians have the highest per capita income. And their income is 15 per cent higher in the UK and 20 per cent higher in Canada than the national average. Total diasporic income is probably in excess of $400 billion, roughly equal to Indian GDP.

These are impressive figures. What is not so impressive is their economic engagement with the mother country. In China, almost 75 per cent of foreign investment is by overseas Chinese, but in India this is just 15 per cent. Even this figure is debated, with the suspicion persisting that a large part is actually Indian black money flowing back in a laundered form. In trade, the diaspora is largely absent. The only tangible contribution of overseas Indians is via deposits and forex repatriation, critical lifelines in the past. But India is no longer on the edge of an external crisis -- quite the reverse, with much of Indias bloated reserves now embarrassingly earning 4 per cent in New York banks -- and software now earns more than Gulf repatriation. Consequently, there has been a steady dilution of earlier reverence towards non-resident Indian money.

Have overseas Indians become superfluous to India Just as earlier expectations were exaggerated, any neglect would be equally wrong. While their investment is tiny, the diaspora provides a certain comfort level, especially in times of trouble like in the post-Pokhran sanctions scenario. And a substantial part of Indias international image makeover and political success is due to their presence, lobbying and success abroad. In many areas, overseas Indians have played a key role as facilitators of foreign investment and agents for lucrative contracts.

The story of the Indian diaspora remains an intriguing work-in-progress, with many of them still closely connected to India by a constant interchange of people, images and ideas. Overall, Indian diasporic networks are less economic and more in terms of migration support, and certainly do not have the financial clout of the sophisticated Chinese bamboo networks. And Singapore is probably the only country where India can expect the diaspora to successfully and regularly influence overall bilateral relations. But a whole new generation of overseas Indians is now slowly coming into its own, in areas like media, politics and social activism. With or without any largesse from New Delhi, overseas Indians will remain an asset for India, as long as we keep both, our fantasies and scorn in check.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors