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Sam Singh

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Rise of Non-Resident Indians in Canada

Posted: 06/15/11 01:45 PM ET

When US President Barack Obama visited India last November, he remarked, "India is not simply emerging; India has already emerged." He could have just as easily been speaking about another compelling aspect of the country: the growing profile of the "global Indian" diaspora.

Late last week, close to 1,000 delegates attended the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) or "Day of Overseas Indians" in Toronto. Jointly hosted by the Government of India and the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce, the PBD centered around the theme of "Building Bridges: Positioning Strategies for the Indian Diaspora". The two-day event brought together a raft of government ministers, officials, entrepreneurs, academics, business people and others to advance ties between the two countries.

Ostensibly focused on trade, investment and youth engagement, the event was just the latest in the rising narrative of India recognizing the latent value of having 27 million of its descendants scattered around the globe. From North America and the Caribbean to the United Kingdom, South Africa up the Great Lakes region to the Arabian Peninsula, and across the Pacific Rim, from Malaysia to Fiji, it is the largest diaspora in the world after China's (which was mock hissed by one wag during the introductory remarks). Its also grown steadily in stature as well as size: Aditya Jha, convener of the Canada-India Foundation and a major part of this year's organization noted that today's "Non-Resident Indian" or NRI community includes the President of Singapore, Prime Ministers of both Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobago as well as the Governor General of New Zealand.

Despite traditional prohibitions against traversing the "kala pani", the dark waters of the open ocean, India has exported people for centuries, first as traders and merchants then indentured laborers and today as immigrants, students and professionals. Even the country's most famous citizen, Gandhi spent two decades living in South Africa. Yet for decades the government barely acknowledged those who left for better lives abroad.

Characteristic of its newfound "future superpower" status however, India has belatedly thrown the doors open with gusto, becoming one of a handful of nations to establish a ministry for the diaspora, granting citizenship privileges in a confusing alphabet soup of acronyms (NRIs, PIOs and OCIs), and in a recent nod to the youth component, launching the "Know India" programme. Akin to Birthright Israel, Know India is a three-week tour of the country for second and third-generation youth subsidized by the Indian government... despite the fact the country still accounts for 40 per cent of the world's poorest people.

In 2003, the government held the first PBD on Jan. 9 -- the day Gandhi returned from South Africa -- yet only started having them actually overseas a few years ago, starting with New York City in 2007 followed by Singapore, the Hague and most recently Durban, South Africa in a nod to that country's one million strong "Asians."

This year's PBD was part of the "Year of India in Canada", a series of exhibitions and events that started innocuously enough with slick airport bus ads in January then morphed into high level economic and political discussions over the spring leading up to the crown jewel of it all, the International Indian Film Academy Awards (the IIFAs, or the closest thing to Bollywood's Oscars).

Interestingly it was the Indian film industry as a whole that first ventured outside the country with the London premier of the IIFAs in 2000. This year's extravaganza will be held at Toronto's Rogers Centre in front of 60,000 live fans and up to 700 million worldwide on June 25.

Locally, the PBD means the emergence of Toronto on the "Indian global circuit" alongside traditional heavyweights like London, Singapore and especially New York according to Rana Sarkar, president of the Canada-India Business Council.

Though the diasporic communities of Canada and the United States emerged en masse following immigration reform in both countries in the 1960's, and the communities have made similar headway in medicine, law, engineering, IT and other industries, there are subtle differences between them, according to Dr. Alwyn Didar Singh, the Secretary for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs: "In many ways the Indo-Canadian brand is stronger than the Indo-American brand for the simple reason that the Indo-Canadians moved into the political arena much quicker." (Indo-Canadians have been regularly elected to provincial and federal legislatures since the 1980's, with Ujjal Dosanjh becoming premier of British Columbia in 2000, five years before Bobby Jindal became governor of the state of Louisiana and later, Nikki Haley in South Carolina).

Singh continued:


"Because the majority of them are from Punjab you will see Indo-Canadians have a very strong connect and a very strong influence with the northern states of India. So a brand within that context is much stronger than the Indo-American brand in the same area. However If you look at the professional level, at the level of connect for IT, software and financial services you see the Indo-American brand has a slight edge because they came from Silicon Valley and invested back in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai so you have a much stronger Indo-American connect."

Wrapping it up on Friday, Singh called the Toronto PBD "probably the most successful one of all." And while it made some waves in the Indo-Canadian media, everyone knew it was just a warm up for next weekend's IIFAs, the biggest event in the Bollyverse.