Mr Jiji Thomson, former Chief Secretary and founder CEO of  Norka Roots
in conversation with B.Balachandran, Executive Editor, Brand Kerala.

Qn: NORKA Roots , a pioneering initiative in India, was conceptualised during your tenure as NORKA secretary. Can you recollect the thoughts that led to the formation an exclusive outfit for NRKs?
The basic thought that led to such an initiative was from the common knowledge that government departments would not be able to implement programmes of the government in a very speedy manner. You look at various departments of government of Kerala, for example, the Industries Department. It has a field agency called KSIDC. The government department would visualise the plan but the implementation part has to be given to the field agency which should be free from government clutches. Most often we find typical bureaucrats in government offices, whose focus will be mainly on rules and budgetary constraints. We need to have an open minded approach to get things done in a swift manner. In case of insufficient budgetary allocation, the  public sector chief  can adopt his own ways to gather resources and implement the programme. Keeping these benefits in mind, we formed a Section 25 company which was partly owned by government and partly by NRIs. I, being the secretary of NORKA, approached prominent NRIs like Mr. Yousaf  Ali, Mr.C K Menon, Mr Anirudhan and a few others and requested their participation in the project by investing some money, and they responded very positively to it. With a 50- lakh fund from five NRIs and a Government aid of another 50 lakh, we  raised a capital of one crore and thus began the operation of  NORKA Roots, India’s first company exclusively for the welfare of NRKs. We recruited people who are young smart and can execute things in a speedy and effective manner. It had a separate board of directors including the five NRI investors. The name is also of significance, “Root”s because, pravasi’s are rooted in Kerala,  but work elsewhere, earn money and send it back just like a peepal tree which takes in  moisture and sends it to the roots. That’s why we selected the logo of a peepal tree with roots.

 2. When looking back, what do you feel about the activities and initiatives of NORKA Roots. Do you think it really worked for the benefits of  NRKs?
NORKA is now almost 13 years old or young as one perceives. Organizations can succeed only when it has a chief executive, who can drive the organization. So, the selection of a chief executive is very important. It should not be just to accommodate a government officer who wants to shift to the State capital for various domestic reasons. This happens quite often in the government. The best and the most recent example for this is the appointment of officers in Coastal Police. When the  Okhi cyclone wreaked havoc on the coastal belt, the general public shockingly realised that most of the officers in the force even do not know how to swim. The DGP in charge is also not a swimmer! See, instead of putting the right people, what happens is, if somebody wants to come to Trivandrum for personal reasons they are put into available vacancies without taking into consideration the requirement of skills needed to head a position. In the case of NORKA Roots also, the appointment of a person with a compassionate attitude and the strong will to work for the  benefit of NRKs is the most important aspect.  When I was the secretary, I started a government programme, Sutharya Keralam, an online portal initially conceived for NRI’s to meet the chief minister and submit their grievances and find solution to their problems in a stipulated time period. Then, a time slot in Doordarshan was allotted for the same and this interactive programme was an instant hit among the expatriates. Being the anchor of the programme I also became popular and people started recognizing me in public. My point is that most of the programmes of the government after a great start limp only because it is not being driven properly and it get diluted over years. If NORKA has failed to achieve its objectives, I will put its first blame on this factor only. One should come with imaginative programmes.  For example, we came up with first NRK Conference titled Samavayam.. Then programmes like Ente Gramam, Ente Abhimanam, (My Village, My Pride) where NRI’s adopted their native village and improved its facilities and another one Ente Bhasha Ente Abimanam (My Language, My Pride) for popularising Malayalam through an online programme for the children of  NRI s. On demand from Keralites residing in other states of our country, we coined the term NRKs and special programmes were devised for this section also. We could conduct some brilliant programmes for NRKs in metro cities aimed at popularising our mother tongue among their children. Unfortunately these programmes are not happening now mainly because the people who handle it do not have the passion and imagination to set things happen. 

 Qn: The Union Government has dissolved the erstwhile Ministry of Overseas Affairs and made it a part of the External Ministry. Do you really think that a separate ministry is required for foreseeing the affairs of NRIs scattered across the globe?

3. Definitely we need one. It was a very unfortunate decision of Govt. of India to dissolve it . Actually the Union Governement started the Overseas Affairs Ministry following the success of the NORKA in Kerala. Mr. Jagadish Tytler, who was the first Minster for the same, invited me to make presentations on the functions of ministry. Though the minister wanted my services in Delhi, the then Chief Minster A K Antony, who was very fond of me, was reluctant to send me to Delhi. So I couldn’t go, though I wanted to do some work on this because I was into this work for long time and was familiar with the hardships of people working abroad. Many a times I felt broken-hearted realising the problematic situations they encounter. Under scotching sun they sleep under trucks spreading newspapers, toil day and night to ensure that their dear ones in Kerala live comfortably. We should be compassionate towards the families of NRK’S. I am proud to say that I have done my best for them during my days in NORKA. People even used to rang me up to solve their personal problems, some of them were really embarrassing as well as interesting. I still remember a call from a Valliamma (Aunty) from Kochi, who consulted me for marrying off her NRI daughter and another man, from Oman, who wanted my help to safeguard his wife living in Kerala who was being ill treated by his own brother. These are just few examples from umpteen number of the problem solving situations. 

Qn: The NRKs in general are a vulnerable group subject to various types of exploitation. Do you think that this situation will change if they become an electoral force by gaining the rights to vote and thereby having a say in the political spectrum of the country?

Absolutely, I agree. Actually we have been campaigning for their voting rights. See, if one could link Aadhar Card with Electoral card, there is no need to come to India to cast a vote. Electronically one can cast vote from the place you reside outside India. If politicians are really interested in NRIs, this kind of linking should be done. This can stop fake votes to a great extend. May be malpractices have become inevitable for various parties during elections and that may be the reason for lack of an initiative in this regard. It if comes into being, NRIs will definitely become a force to reckon with and may even become a deciding factor in elections. 

The major chunk of the NRK population is in the Middle-East.  With the upcoming threats in oil industry and pushing of  native workforce campaigns in the GCC countries, there is a sure possibility of us witnessing an exodus from the Gulf sector in the coming years. Will Kerala be able to accommodate this crisis?

This is the biggest problem which we are going to face, because the gulf bubble has almost burst. There will be hundreds and thousands of people who will be moving out from the Gulf. Let me tell you a very personal example. My son in \"law , who is  now in a fairly good position in Dubai, has started thinking of relocating himself either to Australia or Canada. He says, after five years it will be very difficult as business is very poor, going from bad to worst. So, this is the condition. If I have any say in decision making, I will advice the government to set aside the big projects and start a statistical home work on the same. We should have a clear figure on the number of  people likely to come back and segregate them on the basis of skills, say, how many techies, how many nurses etc. Anyhow exact number is not possible but approximation would do. Then we can think of how to make use of them in some projects in Kerala. Accordingly, we have to device a programme which can intake these people. See, it is not possible to accommodate everyone, but many can be relocated to other safer parts of the world depending on their skills. China can take in a lot, so it’s high time we learn Chinese. Keeping the current market in view it’s better to take initiatives to start a Chinese University rather than an Arabic University, or a proposal for a University of Foreign Languages where people can learn all potential languages would be most welcome.  

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