Musings from Chicago: Giving Back to the Motherland

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Chicago – From Hindi songs like “Chitthi aayi hai aayi hai, chitthi aayi hai” to a movie like “Swades,” Bollywood has always painted Non Resident Indians (NRIs) as people who are emotionally and psychologically attached to India and are constantly making an effort to reconnect with their Indian roots. While the examples from Cine World may have some ‘masala’ added to it, from my experience of more than 12 years abroad, I can safely say that a larger part of the NRI community is very passionate about giving back to the country of their birth.

With close to 25 million in number, the Indian Diaspora spread across the globe is very diverse in terms of migration, places, culture and languages, but India acts as the umbilical cord to all these communities. People of Indian origin (PIO) living in countries like Mauritius, Fiji and the Caribbean group of islands migrated more than a century ago and maintain a symbolic and spiritual connection with India. While, NRIs of Middle East, Europe and Americas are into first or second generations and maintain active ties with India and many of them feel invested in India.

The affinity towards your country intensifies once you settle outside. The desire to make a difference and bring about a change in India is common among NRIs. This desire is further supported by their ability to take a more neutral stand towards India’s problems by looking at them as an outsider. Comparing India to the outer world gives them a much wider perspective of the issues in India.

So how NRIs give back to the country of their birth or ancestry? It is very common to see NRIs associating themselves with a charitable work in India. This may be in the form of giving time and or money to a cause of their liking through informal channels or via registered NGOs. Increasingly, Indian NGOs –particularly bigger and well organized ones- have established overseas chapters and hence able to tap NRI contributions. Prime examples include Pratham, Akshya Patra, Ekal Vidyalya. Another way for NRIs is to create non-profits in their country of abode to specifically serve India. US-based left –leaning Association for India’s Development (AID) is one such prominent example, but numerous smaller non-profits exist.

Education (literacy) and health are the two main themes that attract NRIs to serve India. Cultural and religious exchange and preservation of heritage is another area of interest. Hindu Swayamsewak Sangh, Chinmay Mission, ISCON, and Swami Narayan sect have active global presence. Similarly, gurudwaras outside India act as platforms for active exchange of ideas and help for the community scattered in India and abroad. Some organizations have also come up to promote Indian languages (example, Sanskrit, Hindi) on foreign shores.

Over the years, Indians settled abroad- more so young generation- have become increasingly interested in political activism and civic engagement in India. The lethargic pace of development in the country despite continuous remittances from the NRIs has probably made them realize that little can be changed without improving politics of the country.

Rise of India against Corruption (IAC) movement in 2011 was a shot in the arm for the NRI community. It channelized their brewing anger and gave them a platform to fight against corruption. Later, when it took shape of a political party in the form of Aam Aadmi Party, NRIs came to support it like a beeline. Similarly, NRIs rooting for Narendra Modi is another example of NRIs’ eagerness to bring about a change via politics.

NRIs also use the channels of academia and advocacy in an effort to give back to their motherland. In today’s era of internet, active exchange of information and knowledge is possible. American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) is one readily available example. And as people of Indian decent get into political establishment of countries of adoption, that would come as strength for the respective countries and India.

Indian diaspora is a valuable asset to India. Acknowledging this and in order to tap the potential, government of India started organizing an annual Pravasi Bhartiya Divas (PBD) several years ago. But much more needs to be done to capitalize upon the vast resources. The cumbersome and sometimes doubtful mechanisms back home discourage the NRIs to fund well-meaning projects in India.

Easing out and simplifying visa rules would further assist the people to come back and contribute whole heartedly to their homeland. The long standing demand of dual citizenship by the people of Indian Diaspora also needs to be re-looked into more comprehensively.

Similarly, NRIs have been demanding that they (those who still retain Indian citizenship) should be able to cast their vote without the need to come to India. This would greatly boost their interest towards the country and give them a sense of pride and ownership.

Dr. Munish Kumar Raizada
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Dr. Munish Kumar Raizada is a Chicago-based practicing physician (neonatologist) and a socio-political commentator

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