PBD Sydney unable to engage

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Meagre attendance and few program sessions with mass appeal mar diaspora event, reports PAWAN LUTHRAAustralian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop   in New Delhi, India, Monday, November 18, 2013. (Photo/Mustafa Quraishi)

 

If the mission statement for the Regional Pravasi Bharitya Diwas (Overseas Indians Day) in Sydney was “Connecting for a Shared Future – the Indian Diaspora, India and the Pacific,” sadly, the event does not appear to have achieved its objective.

Poor attendance, unrealistic costing, a skew towards business in the program sessions, and less than satisfactory execution have been cited as factors.

With more than 800,000 Indian diaspora in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Island nations, Day One on November 10 saw less than 150 people in attendance. Numbers picked up on Day Two to about 350, but dwindled to about 200 on the last day.

The Sydney Convention Centre with its capacity of over 2,000 looked strangely desolate as key note speakers, some of them highly accomplished in their fields, made their addresses.

 

The concept of the Regional PBD

Regional PBDs are organised by the Indian Government’s Ministry of Overseas Affairs to provide a platform for the Indian community in a selected region of the world to contribute to the relationship between the countries of their region and India. Last year, the event was held at Port of Spain, Mauritius.

Earlier this year, there was much excitement in Australia’s Indian community as Sydney was picked to host the convention. An Indian High Commission communique said it expected “1,000 participants from within Australia and from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Fiji, New Zealand, PNG, Hong Kong, Phillippines and the Pacific Islands”.  The Premier of NSW Barry O’Farrell showed the same enthusiasm, declaring that he foresaw “an estimated $2.8 million worth of economic activity for NSW”.

In the end, no more than 350 delegates attended, of whom 140 were invited speakers. Most attendees were local Sydney-siders, with only a smattering from other states, predominantly Victoria. The overseas delegates made up a negligible number.

 

PBD Sydney: Highlights

At the very outset, it must be said that hosting the seventh Pravasi Bhartiya Divas in Australia presented a great opportunity for the Indians in the region to connect with the motherland and with each other. Attendee Raj Natarajan, past UIA President, pointed out, “PBD Sydney was a perfect opportunity to present issues of concern in the local diaspora to the policy makers both in Australia and India, because we had the ears and eyes of the highest office in States, the Premiers and some of the highest offices at the Federal level like the Immigration and Trade Ministers”.

A significant platform was created by Australia’s nomination as the venue for the 2013 Regional PBD.

As well, attendees were afforded an excellent opportunity to listen to speakers with some great stories to tell. The passionate and emotional speech by the former Prime Minister of Fiji, Mahendra Pal Chaudhry, particularly stood out. Equally well presented was the warm welcome by NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell who hosted the delegates at Government House, speeches by the Premier of South Australia Jay Wetherill and the Deputy Premier of Queensland Jeff Sweeney, and the warm and friendly Pallavi Sharda, Australia’s own Bollywood celebrity. Well-known recluse and cricket legend Steve Waugh turned up as well, to share his experiences in India.

From the Federal level, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison and the Minister for Trade and Investment Andrew Robb found their way to the PBD even as their new government sat its first week in Parliament.

Two of the plenary sessions, one on languages and the other on media, went down particularly well. Never has the PBD discussed the power of Indian languages in the Indian diaspora; seeing this on the programme was indeed heartening, and sets a positive precedent for future PBDs. The session on media was efficiently handled by moderator Sushi Das as she led the participants through a structured session yet allowed flexibility in the various discussion points.

Flying in two accomplished performance artists such as santoor maestro Shiv Kumar Sharma and acclaimed vocalist Meeta Pandit also added a deeper dimension to the cultural engagement of the PBD. Both artists thrilled the crowd, however small, at their performances.

Perhaps most successfully, the convention turned out to be a great opportunity for delegates to network with community members from other states and nations. Faces were put to names already known, as people got to know each other.

So what went wrong?

The Chief Guest, India’s Minister for Overseas Affairs, Vayalar Ravi looked stunned as he stood at the dais to address the nearly empty Sydney Convention Centre in his opening speech. He fumbled his way through his address, which he attributed, somewhat strangely, to ‘poor stage lighting’. Speaking to Indian Link on the last day, the Minister did comment on the poor turnout, citing “the vast distances people would have had to travel, which would have added to the cost of attendance”.

Unfortunately, more things went wrong than right for this much-anticipated event.

For starters, the organisers chose an overly bureaucratised ‘top-heavy’ approach, about which much comment has already appeared in community media. Decisions were made out of Canberra, not exactly the greatest hub of connectivity amongst the local India population in Australia. Sydney and Melbourne seem to have more than a third of the targeted audiences of the PBD, and it is input from these concerned pravasis which should have been sought.

Perhaps the eligibility for membership in the managing committee should have been, a non-GPS drive to centres of influence within the local Indian community, say Harris Park in Sydney. This would have verified the candidates’ credentials in terms of how connected they are to the bulk of the Indian community! (Take for instance, Senator Lisa Singh, who sat on the organising committee. While she is deservedly admired for making it to Parliament through sheer dint of hard work, her in-depth knowledge of the Indian community here is questionable).

Jokes aside, the organisers simply could not excite the community about the PBD.

Perhaps the marketing could have been better, to reach a wider section of the targeted audience. Instead, thousands of dollars were spent on the venue and on brochures distributed at the event.

Sydney resident Rajesh Kumar wrote on Indian Link’s Facebook page, “There was absolutely no marketing. If people (or organisations) want to sell something, they first have to spend money to spread the word. Generally our people have this habit in India of relying on the population, the quantity but not the quality; the Indian government has to realise that the quantity stuff with no quality can work only in India and not outside India”.

The figure of registered delegates bandied about was 600; however even at the peak of the conference on Day Two, it was obvious that there were less than 350 people in attendance. When questioned about this, organisers responded that there had been 600 registrations, and perhaps people chose not to attend. Hard to believe, as there are not too many people who would forfeit the attendance fees of $425.

The cost of $425 per delegate was deemed extreme even by those who did attend. Not only was this amount prohibitive to most in Sydney, interstate and overseas visitors would have had to add travel and accommodation fares as well.

“I found it very pricey,” said one Sydney resident who chose not to attend. “There seems to be little idea of the income and lifestyle pressures of the local Indian community”.

He added laughingly that one organising committee member tried to entice him with the attraction of food: two grand lunches and two dinners, besides quality speakers at the sessions.

(Reporting on the event in Indian magazine Kerala Today, delegate Treassa Joseph commented that most of the attendees were members of the Indian community who were closely connected to the Indian High Commission or organisations that were already engaged in bilateral relations with India).

The decision to run the event over weekdays was another point of contention. This meant that many could not attend due to work commitments. Much of the Indian diaspora works in an employed category, and for most to take two out of their allocated 20 annual leave days to attend a conference, or take unpaid leave is difficult. The weekday choice is more conducive to a business programme where attendance suits the business community.

The heavy focus on business programmes was robustly criticised by most of those attending.

Sources within the organising committee pointed the finger at Canberra’s micro management of the whole affair. With just a couple of individuals who had the ear of the High Commissioner Biren Nanda, there definitely was a strong bias towards business, with less emphasis on issues which concern and connect the local diaspora with India and within the region. Business sessions of opportunities in services, business opportunities in resources, business opportunities in primary commodities, business opportunities in infrastructure etc. would have all been well appreciated in an Indo-Australian business forum, not in what was an essentially a forum for the diaspora to connect.

Saba Zaidi Abidi, the founder of Vision Asia network services was outspoken in her views. “The Australia India Business Council was heavily involved in the planning and execution of the PBD event along with the Indian High Commission and dominated most of the sessions,” she wrote in a letter to Indian Link. “This makes one wonder as to what was the objective of this whole exercise? If the purpose of the PBD was to promote B2B relationships between governments, then yes, it did achieve that objectively to some extent. But if it was about people coming together to celebrate their common heritage, share experiences and bring to focus their current problems and issues, and highlight the needs of the pravasi community at large, it fell short of delivering that. There was hardly any P2P or people-to-people contact”.

Some break-out sessions saw no more than 20-30 people attending. On one occasion, an organising committee member was seen imploring attendees to return to the auditorium, even as they stood outside lamenting the lack of relevance.

Most sessions ran late – even the cultural performances. Well-known santoor artist Shiv Kumar Sharma could not help commenting that Indian Standard Time seemed to have crossed international boundaries, as he patiently waited to start his show as part of the opening day entertainment. Members of the event management company that helped put the conference together were heard muttering in frustration as the organisers took time to get the event underway.

 

A note to organisers

It was clear to all those who attended that while it was an excellent opportunity to network, PBD Sydney could perhaps have been better thought through.

A press release by the organisers sent out upon the conclusion of the conference described it as “a very successful first-ever Regional Pravasi Bharatiya Divas held in Sydney”. They can continue to live with the delusion that it was “very successful,” or consider some of the following as suggestions. If they are not already doing such analyses, the community out there definitely is, and these suggestions are compiled from them.

The costing should have been reconsidered. Daily pricing or separate pricing for attending relevant forums would probably have brought in more attendance. A more suitable venue could have kept the prices down. Would a weekend PBD have been better? A solid publicity plan should have been put in place, much in advance, to ensure the message of the PBD got through clearly to the community at large. A more transparent way of working and organising the conference ought to have been adopted, rather than isolated decisions taken on the advice of a few who are largely not connected with the local community. Other minor plans to create goodwill in the community could have been implemented, such as free entry to attend the cultural performances (rather than have the maestros perform to empty halls).

 

The implications of Sydney PBD

The message that the Indian government will probably get out of the Sydney PBD, is that the Indian community in Australia (and the region) is too small, and/or too uninterested, for them to bother with.

Deplorably, this is far from the truth. The Indian community is strong and fully capable of making a difference, as mainstream politicians in Australia have already found out. Their strength, and this is not just in their numbers but also in terms of their influence, is set to grow in the very near future. The Indian government has been slow in engaging with Australia, and a strong Sydney PBD would have indicated to

them that the diaspora here could be relied upon to help them take the relationship further. Regrettably, this opportunity was missed.

On the other hand, the message that the Australian government will get out of the event, is that the organising committee could not engage the Indian community here. Both sides of the political divide are constantly on the lookout for strong Indian figures that they can count on to reach the community, a viable vote-bank. Perhaps the organisers were not those that the local diaspora look to as the true leaders of the community?

And finally, the message that the Indian community is going to take away from the Sydney PBD is this: the powers-that-be within the Indian government representatives here, as well as those within the community, need to be better in-touch with the community they serve, or hope to represent.