Community, Featured

Parthasarathy Pillai, Renu Khator receive the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas award

Indian American duo among 13 NRIs from around the world honored in New Delhi.

By Deepak Chitnis

Partha Pillai (far left), Pres. Pranab Mukherjee (center), and Renu Khator (far right)
Click to enlarge — Partha Pillai (far left), President of India Pranab Mukherjee (center), and Renu Khator (far right).

WASHINGTON, DC: Indian American community leaders Renu Khator and Parthasarathy Pillai are among the recipients of the prestigious 2014 Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) award.

In its 12th iteration this year, the awards were handed out on Thursday in elaborate fashion at Vigyan Bhavan, in New Delhi. The award was established in 2003 to honor Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) who make significant cultural contributions in their overseas communities that further the development of India.

According to the PBD award committee, Khator was awarded for “enhancing India’s prestige abroad,” while Pillai was honored for “fostering closer relations between India and USA.” The theme of this year’s conference was “Engaging Diaspora: Connecting Across Generations.”

Khator is best known as the president of the University of Houston, a job she has been at since 2007. She is the 13th president of the University of Houston System of colleges, the first female president in the school’s history, and the first Indian American to be the president of a major research university anywhere in the United States.

Last year was a major one for Khator. She established a tier-one scholarship at UH using $100,000 of her own money, she was named the 2013 recipient of the Quasar Award for Exceptional Leadership in Economic Development, a key award given out by the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership (BAHEP), and she was named as the Deputy Chair of the Dallas, Texas branch of the US Federal Reserve, one of the country’s largest financial entities.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in 1973 from the University of Kanpur, her Master’s degree in political science in 1975, and her Doctor of Philosophy degree in political science and public administration in 1985, the latter two from Purdue University. In 1985, she began working for the University of South Florida. She would stay there for 22 years, ultimately serving as provost and senior vice-president of the University at the time of her departure.

Khator currently lives in Houston with her husband, Suresh, who also attended Purdue University with her and holds a Ph.D. in engineering. They have two daughters, Pooja and Parul, who are both ophthalmologists.

Pillai – a resident of College Park, Maryland – has been a vocal proponent of Indian American culture throughout the region. He earned his B.S. in biology from the University of Madras and his BEd in education from the University of Kerala, followed by his M.S. in agriculture from Sardar Patel University in Gujarat and his Ph.D. in plant physiology and biochemistry from Banaras Hindu University.

He worked as a chemist for the US Department of Agriculture for several years, at their Beltsville, MD Agricultural Research Center. He has served as the chairman of the Prince George’s County Coalition of Asian Pacific American Democrats of Maryland, along with several other local Democratic Party organizations.

He was the president of FOKANA (Federation of Kerala Association of North America) during the 1990s, and has established several community organizations to help victims of natural disasters in India, such as the Gujarat Earthquake and 2004 tsunami victims. In 2010, the India Abroad newspaper called him the “godfather” of community leaders in Washington, DC.

Most recently, Pillai has been spearheading an initiative to establish an Indian American community center in the Washington, DC metro area. He also organized the first Indian American Youth Conference in 1991, and was instrumental in getting legislation passed in Maryland that enforced harsh penalties on the discrimination of Indian Americans.

Present at the PBD ceremonies was Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, who handed the awards personally to each recipient.

Other recipients of the award are: Satnarainsing Rabin Baldewsingh of the Netherlands, Vasdev Chanchlani of Canada, Swami Tadananda of Fiji, Lisa Maria Singh of Australia, Shailesh Lakhman Vara of the UK, Shamsheer Vayalil Parambath of the UAE, Kurian Varghese of Bahrain, Bikas Chandra Sanyal of France, Sasindran Muthuvel of Papua New Guinea, Ela Gandhi of South Africa, and Shihabudeen Vava Kunju of Saudi Arabia.

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