The Business of Doing Business

The Business of Doing Business

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India Doing Byusiness

By Bikram Vohra

The relationship between the mother country and the great Indian Diaspora has been ambivalent at best. Hardnosed business acumen and softhearted nationalistic zeal are not necessarily compatible. Foreign based Indians far outnumber mainland Chinese equivalents but only dispatch 20 percent of the foreign earnings sent home by the Chinese.

The reasons for these are multiple. Indians invest largely in themselves and larger family units through land, housing and other property deals. Business ventures still suffer from time lag and the traditional choke offered by bureaucratic red tape. The pillar to post scramble, the exhausting chase for NOCs and a series of signatures has caused many an NRI stalwart to put his hands up, surrender the blueprint and sly out unsatisfied.

Efforts to improve the relationship have been made with the appearance of every new government but they soon fade away and the spasm of hope that maybe this time around there will be tangible changes is usually stillborn.

NRIs have mockingly called them­ selves Not Required Indians and may have unwittingly contributed to the process of distance and disaffection during the ‘foreign goods’ period. In the seventies and eighties Indians abroad were supercilious, contemptuous and judgmental, this social arrogance under­ scored by a fistful of dollars and the craze at home for buying foreign commodities. Even as Indians at home resented these ‘visitors’ they slocked to buy their used goods… just because they were made abroad.

That desire has largely evaporated in India but the residual suspicion re­ mains.

An across the board fallback from the ultra protectionist days also promotes a feeling of deep alienation from the industrial base in the region under recce towards the foreign based Indian entrepreneur. Local industrial echelons believe NRIs demand too much concession. NRIs feel that indigenous companies are mollycoddled and afraid of competition. In this list of negatives, the inconstancy of subsequent governments and the very real fear that fragile governments create fragile policy has a role to play. NRIs need assurance and adequate guarantees. To expect them to invest out of stirred up guilt is unfair and unacceptable. Why put money into arrangements that might collapse with the government in power?

On this canvas it is unlikely that NRIs located largely in the four blocks of the Far East and Australasia, the Gulf and Middle East, Europe  and the UK and the Americas will heed the call   of the annual budget incentives (another one in  3 months) without some more tangible evidence that the incumbent government understands the texture of the relationship and has a special feel for the NRI status and its unique  problems.

Some visible and immediate window dressing will be vital to get this issue to sly. The first genuine step would be to activate the right of franchise beyond its current scope. There is no explicable reason why Indians with domestic passports should be denied the right of franchise either by postal means or by  presence.

This constitutional premise would, ipso facto, emphasis the sense of Indianness and reduce  the political isolation that ground level NRIs are bound to feel when called upon to rally around but not given the courtesy that should go with  it.

By that very token the next imperative is to upgrade the concept of an NRI cell within certain central ministries and convert it into a proper and vibrant ministry with, at least, a minister of state commanding a council of representatives. For years there has been an unheeded call to elect or appoint through the President, two Members of Parliament who are NRIs. Since this cannot be done without franchise and there are some very real logistics problems to voting for individuals around the world the appointment could be done from distinguished NRIs who are now back in India. That would suffice until a system evolves for democratic elections.

Until the infrastructure is recognisable and valid the budget promises are likely to stay notional. It is not so much the lifting of limitations in percentage points that counts in these circumstances but the lack of confidence in the promises. The overall attitude must change.

Finally, an eighth factor does not load the NRI with the baggage of emotional blackmail.

Chauvinism is not a professional element. If the mother country means business  the NRIs will do business.

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Somanjana Chatterjee

Somanjan Chatterjee is San Francisco based consulting editor