Kerala, Gujarat and Punjab show that states can play an important role in diaspora relations.
States are maneuvering around foreign policy considerations by reaching out to Non Resident Indians (NRIs). Foreign Policy is considered the domain of the Union Government however, some state government have proved adept at working around this by focusing on selected areas of outreach. One of the primary ways that states play a role in foreign policy is by reaching out to diaspora. As NRIs are an important source of remittances to the states, the states benefit from solving the issues faced by NRIs. States are also better poised to engage with diaspora as they have direct links with them and can devote more resources than the Union to deal with issues. One of the ways in some which states have done this is by forming a public sector undertaking which can work with relatively more freedom than the state administration itself.
More and more states have begun to institutionalise NRI relations through specific departments, divisions or boards. The states with the most developed institutional structures are Kerala, Punjab and Gujarat. These three states that stand out are not surprising given that they have huge diaspora spread out in different parts of the world. The states have tailormade their policies according to the interests of the diaspora which allows them flexibility and innovation.
The State Government of Kerala has expressly looked at institutionalizing administrative processes with respect to the interest of non-resident Keralites (NRKS) through a department called Non-Resident Keralites’ Affairs Department (NORKA). However the real work is done by a PSU established under the Department called NORKA ROOTS. Kerala which receives the highest remittances in the country has been working on making its diaspora employable from arranging pre-departure orientations, easy authentication of certificates, skills upgradation programme, financial assistance, rehabilitation projects for returnees, job portal, travel assistance etc.
On the other hand Gujarat has set up an NRI division under the General Affairs Division which merely allocates funds and decides the composition of the Non-Resident Gujarati Foundation (A Government of Gujarat Undertaking). The NRGF looks at how NRIs can play a vital role within the state and has set up district committees for NRIs in every district to deal with any problems, to provide financial aid to the Gujarat Samaj, create a database of NRGs etc.
The NRI Affairs Department in Punjab has an intensive mandate from coordinating with the Home Ministry, liaising with NGOs, providing grants and waivers for NRI investment, focusing on twinning of cities such as Derby with Kapurthala and Jalandhar with the Borough of Hounslow, cultural exchanges etc. Punjab has gone a step further and allowed NRIs to vote in state elections (though they have to return to India to cast their votes).
There are some common strands across the policies of these three states such as the outreach to diaspora, creation of databases, grievance addressal and encouraging investment. The state governments of Kerala and Punjab have set up NRI cells under the respective police (though for Punjab, this has been upgraded into an NRI wing with cells in every district). While Gujarat has not set up similar institutions, it has set up an NRI cell under the State Women’s Commission to deal with complaints related to harassment of women abroad. While the grievances of the NRIs generally fall under the Home Ministry, the states have ensured their own jurisdiction by making BRI grievances a law and order issue pertinent to the state.
All the three states have also focused on issue identity cards to NRIs. The issue of cards such as Non-resident Keralite, Non-Resident Gujarati and Non-Resident Punjabi pushes for the sub-national identity which has generally subsumed under the larger Indian visa. This also reinforces the regional identity of the NRI and gives them a stake in the domestic affairs of the state.
States working in diaspora relations is a crucial and overlooked part of foreign policy. Increasingly, states have started looking to their diaspora for several reasons. Even states with relatively smaller diaspora such as Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have started engaging with diaspora so that they can be important stakeholders of the state. The role played by states in diaspora relations is an important one because it eases some of the burden that the Union bears in dealing with all these problems. It also acts as a bridging mechanism between NRIs and the Central Government. Other states in India should also consider similar mechanisms (or those more contextualized to its needs) so that they can tap into the advantages of their residents in a globalised world.
This post is the first of a series of blogposts on ‘States in Foreign Policy’.
Hamsini Hariharan is a Research Scholar with the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @HamsiniH