Fix the Pravasi Bharatiya Samaans, or get rid of them.
|Once again this year, controversy has erupted around the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, the annual awards conferred by the Indian government on eminent overseas Indians.|
This time, according to Indian media reports, the Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi is accused of circumventing the award’s committee and replacing all the recommendations of the Indian Embassy in the United States with his own nominees. The Hindustan Times reported that Ravi confirmed to the newspaper that one of the awardees was a personal friend, at whose home he frequently stays in Chicago, although he insisted that he was not involved in the selection process, which is baffling, considering that his ministry vets the candidates and he serves on the committee that ratifies the final list.
While it is difficult to ascertain the validity of the allegations making the grapevine and the Indian media, as officials are unusually tightlipped, the griping grows ever louder every year, creating an unseemly spectacle at the annual proceedings in January celebrating overseas Indians.
In previous years, the awards have been bestowed upon such overseas Indian stalwarts as Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth of Mauritius, President Bharat Jadeo of Guyana, former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday of Trinidad & Tobago, the late U.S. astronaut Kalpana Chawla, Fijian golfer Vijay Singh, British novelist Vikram Singh, United Nations diplomat Shashi Tharoor, reputed British scholar Bhikhu Parekh and Hollywood film director Manoj Night Shyamalan, among others. It is inspiring to celebrate the diverse accomplishments of these overseas Indians in the arts, sciences, literature, politics, business, etc.
At the same time, especially in recent years, the awardees have included several lightweights with marginal achievements, at best. Increasingly, it seems, there is ferocious lobbying for these awards, most intense, it appears, in the United States. This is a demeaning and unhealthy practice; surely anyone who campaigns for these awards is too small-minded to be worthy of it.
This year, four of the 15 awardees hailed from the United States. Indeed, ever since the awards were instituted in 2003, almost a quarter of the 67 recipients have been Indian American, which is almost three times their proportion in the overseas Indian population. While no one is arguing for geographic quotas, it bears recognition that the Indian settlement in the United States is relatively recent, whereas the Indian communities have been entrenched in Africa, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia for almost two centuries and parts of the Middle East and Europe for 50 years.
Given the heights so many overseas Indians have scaled, it is difficult to see the merits of conferring these awards – intended to honor exceptional and meritorious contributions by overseas Indians in their fields – on modestly successful overseas Indian entrepreneurs or physicians, unless they are recognized trend blazers in their sectors, professions or regions.
The number of these awards has also proliferated – from 10 in the first year to 12 in the second and now 15 each in the past three years – perhaps to accommodate the frenetic demand for them among aspirants. It might be healthy to reduce the number of these awards, at least in the short term, both to elevate their stature and also to tamp down on the unseemly lobbying.
The nomination and selection process needs to be revamped. Under the current system, names are submitted by Indian embassies in different parts of the world to an internal committee in the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs. It short-lists the candidates for final approval by a committee comprising of the vice president and the ministers of overseas Indian, external, and home affairs, as well as the principal secretary to the prime minister.
This all-government process is limiting in scope as well as fraught with the potential for politicization and influence peddling. The nomination process should be expanded to attract a broader range of candidates and a mix of prominent governmental officials and independent individuals should conduct the vetting and final selection.
Only a more transparent process can restore any semblance of credibility to these awards. In the alternate, it would be far better to get rid of them than perpetuate this embarrassing and divisive farce.