NRI Resident Indian Captain Sunil James |
Captain Sunil James |

Today India celebrates “Pravasi Bharatiya Divas” or the “Day of the Non-Resident Indian”. Organised under the aegis of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the event is aimed at engaging the Indian Diaspora across the globe. It is a big day for the government of India – international conferences, elaborate statements by dignitaries, signing of accords, grand cocktail dinners, hobnobbing of the bigwigs, etc. The government puts in its best efforts to showcase the country for returning NRIs and PIOs, encouraging them to set up businesses with large investments.

The theme of this year’s Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is “Engaging Diaspora: Connecting Across Generations”. Quite touching and insightful! However, one look at the recent events can bring down the grand jumbo jet of NRI pipedream and slam it to ground reality! The arrest of Indian sailor Captain Sunil James and Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade are still raw in our collective memories. Particularly, shocking is the difference of treatment in getting these two NRIs released!

In July 2013, Captain Sunil James was wrongfully arrested in Togo on false allegations of helping pirates who had attacked his ship, MT Ocean Centurion. While his family made desperate attempts to secure his release since then, only the death of his child arouse the nation’s consciousness. Soon the government woke up to this personal tragedy and made some efforts. In contrast, the reaction to Devyani Khobragade’s arrest was violent. Both the government and the political opposition were frothing in anger against this injustice meted out by the careless US federal government!

Anyway, let’s return to the larger issue of who are NRIs and PIOs, and how well are they living abroad. While the rest of the world calls them as expatriates, we prefer to call them Non-Resident Indians! An NRI is an Indian citizen who holds an Indian passport and has temporarily immigrated to another country for six months or more. A Person of Indian Origin (PIO) is a person of Indian ancestry born abroad whose ancestors emigrated from India long ago. A PIO is not a citizen of India who has subsequently taken the citizenship of another country.

According to the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, there are around 10 million NRIs living abroad as on 31 December 2012. Similarly, there are 11.9 million PIOs who have settled in 205 countries since the 18th Century when one of the earliest Indian immigrants left the country for greener pastures. Some of their stories are really interesting!

The Great Indian Diaspora Infographics

India infographic on NRIs

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Then came the large wave of migrants who were taken as bonded labourers by the British across their vast empire in the 19th Century. Sugarcane farms in Mauritius, Guyana, East Africa, the Caribbean and Fiji islands were filled with cheap Indian labourers indentured by debt. More prominent immigrant communities across the world were:

  • Gujarati Banias who went to Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, and South Africa
  • Malabari Moplas who went to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the Emirates
  • Tamil Chettiyars who went to Singapore and Malaysia
  • Bihari Bhumihar and Kayasthas who went to Mauritius
  • Punjabi Sikhs who went to Canada

Despite their widespread presence, the largest concentration of PIO communities are found in a few countries. Being fourth to fifth generation descendents, most of them have lost touch with Indian language, culture and religious rituals. They are:

  • Malaysia and Sri Lanka with nearly 3.5 million PIOs residing there (mostly Tamilians)
  • The US comes next with the most diverse set of PIO communities – 1.3 million
  • South Africa also has a diverse set of PIO communities – 1.2 million
  • Canada comes next with large number of Punjabi Sikhs farmers – 0.8 million

Surprisingly, the NRI population that has been settling abroad since 1947, has grown rapidly to be on par with the PIO communities. The biggest NRI populations are seen in:

  • Saudi Arabia – mainly skilled workers and engineers for oil industry – 1.8 million
  • The UAE – mainly skilled workers and engineers for construction industry – 1.7 million
  • The UK – mostly well qualified doctors and engineers – 1.5 million
  • The US – mostly well qualified doctors and engineers – 1 million

While we are not concerned about PIOs since they are well settled in another country, the current state of NRIs is of utmost concern to us. Not only because we love our expatriate brethren, but also their money! The most noteworthy aspect about NRIs is their remittances to India. It would be surprising to note that NRI remittances in 2012 matched the total export revenue of the entire Indian IT industry!

According to the World Bank’s Migration & Development Brief-2013, India was the world’s largest recipient of foreign remittances, earning $71 billion. It was followed by China with $60 billion and the Philippines $26 billion. Obviously, the GCC countries (the Gelf money, boss!) had the lion’s share with 48%, with the US following way behind with just 13%! Again our IT guys have fallen behind. I had expected our Andhraite and Kannadiga IT engineers in the US to be minting dollars!

First published with our media partner – the Indian Republic

Factfile –

Levine Lawrence
Stuck inside an air-conditioned cubicle... i yearn to ride into the countryside... under the open blue skies, where farmers toil in the field, smell mitti ki khushboo, fill more greenery into the picture... travel across the world, meet more people, bring smile on faces... and finally, work for world peace. Just like those Miss World statements! I am a veteran media professional with 12 years of diverse experience in business media and research in India. Apart from my full time job as a researcher, I have been an avid travel photo-journalist, who has covered the art & cultural aspects of South India. Further, I am actively involved in the voluntary organisations working on energy efficiency, organic farming and environmental issues.
  • Prasad

    So what are you saying? You want the NRI’s to be back because of their money? Nonsense.. If they come back and start taking up responsibilities then the govt will keep doing what it is doing.. “Nothing!!!!!!”

  • this is lot of helpful information. Money sent up by NRI seems to be helping economy. wondering how expats returning due to strict laws in some gulf countries will adjust back home.

  • Hi Amar/Prasad,
    Thanks for your comments. even i am surprised by the amount of money sent back by NRIs. however, things are not rosy anymore, due to higher unemployment among youth abroad. so many NRIs might have to return soon.
    No, i am not at all professing NRIs should return to India and do business. That’s what the indian government wants!
    All i want is the government to take care of NRIs when they are in trouble, like Capt. Sunil James case