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Don't forget the Gulf NRIs: They send India more money than all other expats

A lot of talk over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to the United States has focused on the relationship India has with its diaspora. Modi actively caucused and engaged with those of Indian origin in the United States, and his grand performance in New York’s Madison Square Garden was seen as a way of thanking and celebrating his electoral successes with those who had supported him all along. Accompanying that came plenty of commentary about the nature of the Non Resident Indian and whether their support for Modi and India actually translates into anything.

But the commentary mostly missed one key thing: America isn’t home to the bulk of our NRIs.

The United States and Canada are home to a lot of those with Indian descent, but the vast majority of these are people who have expressly left India with a desire to make another country their home. They may be excelling as a community there, but their connection to India naturally changes as a consequence of a decision to alter citizenship. Mostly when we talk about NRIs in the North America, then, we are referring to People of Indian Origin.

Data: Ministry of overseas Indian Affairs

The biggest group of NRIs, as such, live much closer to home: in the Persian Gulf. Official government estimates peg the number at almost six million Indian citizens based in the six countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council. That’s a huge bulk of Indian nationals living abroad and they also send the largest number of remittances to India, at around a third of all money remitted to India annually.

Data:World Bank

There is also one crucial difference between this community and those Indians that travel to North America. None of the GCC countries allow naturalisation, so there is no equivalent of a green card for anyone who has left India to live in Saudi Arabia or Dubai. Even if you have spent more than two decades in a place like the United Arab Emirates, you have no automatic path to becoming a citizen of the country, and have to prepare to return to the country of your origin once you no longer work there.

And yet, Indians continue to travel there in droves. This suggests that those who are going are primarily motivated to leave because of the various failures of India’s job market and the likelihood of getting better pay and a more stable job in the Gulf. What they actually end up getting often tends to be less lucrative than what they had been led to believe, often involving inhuman working conditions and discrimination, and yet there are still many who would prefer to work there than in India.

Not only does the Gulf then include the largest set of Indian citizens (as opposed to People of Indian Origin) outside the country, it could also be said to have one of the least enfranchised Indian communities we have.

Unlike the rich, influential American or British lobby that Indian politicians are always keen to court, the influence of Gulf Indians is limited to the southern state of Kerala. Though their citizenship, compared to the PIO status of many Indians in the US and UK, should give them privileges through voting rights, India has no system of absentee/postal voting. This means that, to exercise their franchise, the seven million citizens in the Gulf would be required to fly home to their constituencies during elections; a tall task for a middle-class NRI in the Gulf, let alone the tens of thousands of labourers who live there.

Moreover, because they are ostensibly spread across several different countries, many of whom New Delhi is dependent upon for oil, their rights and interests are rarely brought up or dealt with by the Indian government. Reports regularly point out the inhuman treatment meted out to Indian citizens in the Gulf, yet even though Indian populations are often larger than the numbers of locals in these countries, New Delhi rarely has enough leverage to insist in better treatment.

Recognising that the Ministry of External Affairs spends more of its time dealing with policy in the West, the previous government set up a Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, which was meant to focus primarily on this diaspora. At the moment though, the MOIA has been folded back into the MEA and the portfolio is being held by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.

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