Talking to a country of one billion

HOMAI SAHA represents a country that is home to more than one billion people, several hundred languages and dialects and numerous religions: India. Her homeland’s experience has massively influenced debate about cultural diversity around the world, and the recent vigour of its economy, which promises to become a top performer in the region, has been exciting both investors and economists.

India's Ambassador Homai SahaIndia's Ambassador Homai Saha (Source: Jana Liptáková)

HOMAI SAHA represents a country that is home to more than one billion people, several hundred languages and dialects and numerous religions: India. Her homeland’s experience has massively influenced debate about cultural diversity around the world, and the recent vigour of its economy, which promises to become a top performer in the region, has been exciting both investors and economists.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Indian Ambassador to Slovakia Homai Saha about some of the challenges and prospects that Slovakia and India share.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Slovakia has been struggling to reform its education system while aiming for a balance between providing a decent general education and at the same time responding to the needs of the labour market. What is India’s experience with education reform and also the interlinking of academia and business?

Homai Saha (HS): Achieving an education system that responds to the needs of society is a challenge for every government. With a country the size of India and with a population of more than a billion people, the problems become more complex and providing universal education remains a priority.

But then in India, just as in Slovakia, the challenge is always to create an education system that not only provides good general education but also responds to the specific needs of industry. Slovakia, in recent years, has seen high growth rates, which has stretched the limits of its trained manpower. In India, too, growth rates of 7-9 percent have created a great demand for more trained young people, especially in the area of information technology.

We are trying to meet these challenges so that young people emerging from higher educational institutions meet the needs of industry. Industry is also aware that a lack of trained manpower will inevitably slow its growth and is thus organising in-house training.

After gaining independence, we benefited from the vision of our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who realised that people are the country’s most important source of strength. His unique legacy is an emphasis on education. He inspired the opening of new colleges, universities, scientific research institutions and the Indian Institutes of Technology. These 'new temples of learning’, as he called them, gave India high-quality scientific and other trained personnel for future development. India, by some estimates, has the fourth largest reservoir of scientific manpower and the second largest reservoir of English-speaking scientists. Indeed the skilled manpower trained in India is able to work anywhere in the world because of its knowledge of English.

These institutions provided India with the skilled English-speaking labour to compete in the international IT arena. Here, however, I see potential for growth in Indo-Slovak economic relations and I have been pursuing this idea since I took over as Ambassador in August 2007: India has expertise in information technology, especially IT training, both within the industry and also through training centres which should ideally be attached to universities. Slovakia needs well-trained IT professionals. This would be a perfect match. Currently, a leading IT training institution from India is exploring, with the help of dynamic Indians living in Slovakia, precisely this potential.

TSS: The Indian Council for Cultural Relations offers 1000 scholarships a year to foreign students from over 70 countries. What are the most significant academic areas in which Indian universities excel and which are the most popular with foreign students?
HS: The Council offers scholarships and fellowships to international students in a broad range of studies: humanities, sciences, performing arts, agriculture, engineering, applied economics, biochemistry, business administration, law and religious studies among others; but also for learning Indian classical music and dance, painting and sculpture. Two scholarships in various disciplines are offered to Slovak students annually. Since 1997, we have received seven Slovak scholars in India. Most recently I have discovered that some Slovaks are interested in studying international relations at Indian universities.

TSS: Several Slovaks have also been granted scholarships to study in India. What areas have Slovaks have been interested in? And what has been the response so far?
HS: The Government of India provides scholarships both for short-term and long-term courses under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) Scheme. Today, we offer 10 scholarships to Slovaks who have shown the greatest interest in attending computer and IT programmes and related training and courses in English. But, Slovaks have also taken up courses in specialised subjects like remote sensing and banking. To date, 42 Slovak nationals have used these scholarships.

However, we would like the education exchange to be two-way. The Slovak government is offering two scholarships annually but these have not been used because the support does not fully cover the costs of the student’s stay. The other issue is that there are not many courses offered in English at Slovak universities. We have two students in Slovakia right now doing research.

TSS: Slovakia is now a major car producer and the car-making industry has attracted some considerable investments, along with a network of well-functioning sub-suppliers. India has already grown into a major world manufacturer. Is the Slovak automotive industry interesting for Indian investors or producers?
HS: India is a growing and promising market for the automobile industry. The Indian automobile components industry is one of the fastest growing manufacturing sectors in India. Global sourcing of components from India is expected to reach almost $6 billion this year and more than a third of auto components exported from India go to Europe. A large number of cars in Europe and the United States carry Indian brands under their bonnets, so the potential for Indian automotive components manufacturers in Slovakia is enormous.

A standard measure of growth for a country is FDI inflows, and you will always see reports of foreign investments into India. But what is probably less well known is that India spent $32.7 billion on overseas acquisitions and mergers. The most publicised recent deals include Tata Steel’s acquisition of Corus and Tata Motor’s acquisition of Jaguar. So, to answer your question, yes, Slovakia would be a very attractive investment destination for Indian automotive component companies.

TSS: Slovakia is now a European Union member and in January will adopt the joint European currency, the euro. For many Indian manufacturers and producers the country could in fact serve as a gateway to EU markets. Is there interest on the part of Indian businesses?
HS: Slovakia’s location in the heart of Europe, with access to the entire European market is definitely very attractive to Indian investors and, now, with Slovakia joining the eurozone in January 2009, it will be even more attractive.

India had a lot of links with countries of the former Soviet Bloc. Our trade links with Czechoslovakia were very strong but, after Slovakia became an independent nation trade and other contacts dropped. One of the reasons is perhaps that Slovakia was preoccupied with building its identity as a nation and was more focused on joining Euro-Atlantic structures. Another reason is that the visa regime was discouraging for Indian investors and businessmen. Now that Slovakia is part of Schengen, more and more Indians are coming and looking at opportunities here. If you are walking around the city centre over the weekend you will find a lot of Indians here.

SS: What areas of Indian industry could be attractive to Slovak businesses?
HS: Indo-Slovak bilateral trade increased to $228.414 million in 2007, up from $124 million in 2005. Major exports from India are drugs and pharmaceuticals, leather footwear components, finished leather, cotton and yarn, garments and metals. India imports from Slovakia machinery, pharmaceutical products, artificial resins and plastic materials, organic and inorganic chemicals, transport equipment, iron and steel. These areas still offer huge potential.

IT also offers huge potential for cooperation since we have world class IT training centres. I have been mentioning this even at a regional level: that we have people who are willing to come here and set up centres, even at universities, which would be a win-win situation.

Pharmaceuticals are another area where India is a strong player since we produce high quality generics at lower costs. Today we have a fully TRIPS compliant patent regime and India has about 100 medicament plants approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, which is the highest number in any country outside the USA.

TSS: India’s economy has been exciting both investors and economists over the past couple of years, promising to become a top performer across the whole region. What has propelled India’s recent economic growth and what are the greatest challenges that your government is facing in terms of making this growth sustainable?

HS: Progressive liberalisation of government policies, an increase in FDI, global competitiveness, increased investment in infrastructure, as well as rising domestic and international demand for Indian goods and services have contributed to this growth. India has the advantage of high scientific productivity, the youngest population in the world, a large reservoir of scientifically qualified manpower, and an IT-driven society.

The challenge for India in the early years of independence was choosing a development path that would best suit our own circumstances. India had to quickly build up an industrial infrastructure, develop a scientific and technological base, promote education, develop the agricultural sector, and start social-economic programmes for the population.

While we drew from socialist models to ensure that investment in critical sectors was not neglected, our economy remained essentially a market-driven one. While a number of industries were owned by the government, private initiative was allowed to flourish.

The major challenge India faces today is that a large number of people live on less than one dollar a day. Our challenge is to ensure that development must be inclusive, basic services, such as clean drinking water, health facilities, sanitation, education and infrastructure, must be accessible to everybody.

The task is no small one. But there is no other country of a billion people, with such cultural, linguistic and religious diversity, that has tried to modernise its society and transform its economy while being a functioning democracy.

TSS: Immigration and brain drain has been a seriously debated issue within and outside India and it is indeed a challenge both for countries that produce immigrants and for those that receive them face. What are your thoughts about it?

HS: There has been a lot of debate in India about brain drain and the fact that you educate people and invest a lot of money in their education and then they leave the country. For example, at the time I went to university, I paid a very small amount, something like $ 2, and the rest was covered by the state. So there was criticism that educated people who acquired their education at public cost were leaving India. But ultimately, I think, it paid off for the country. These people became well known in their fields of research, CEOs of companies and in many cases, for example as in the US, set up a number of technology companies.

They have, in a sense, created huge goodwill for the country everywhere in the world. Today they are coming back and investing, both their time and money, in India. Today young and trained people are no longer leaving in such numbers because they have opportunities in India as well.

TSS: Indian culture has been massively influencing the cultures of continental Europe since the very first contacts between them. How receptive are Slovaks to Indian culture?

HS: Slovaks have traditionally shown an interest in Indian philosophy, language and religion. For instance the literary scholar Tomaskov made compositions in Sanskrit in the 19th century, and the Slovak Academy of Sciences has preserved manuscripts of Portuguese voyages to India. Mahatma Gandhi is highly regarded in Slovakia.

Indian fairytales have been translated into the Slovak language and the Institute of Oriental Studies in Bratislava conducts research on Indian literature and philosophy. All this gives a firm foundation for the appreciation of Indian culture here.

We have a Cultural Exchange Programme, which provides the framework for cultural activities between the two countries. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations sponsors performances of Indian classical dance troupes, musicians and folk dancers in Slovakia. Deepti Omcherry Bhalla, a well-known Mohinyattam-style classical dancer, performed this March to very appreciative audiences at the National Opera House in Bratislava and at the Banská Bystrica Cultural Centre. I am also planning an exhibition of paintings by contemporary Indian painters next year.

As for bringing Slovak culture to India, the Štúdio Tanca dance group from Banská Bystrica performed in India in December 2007. After their return, the artists exhibited the photos they had taken in India, revealing the impact the visit and India had had on them. I would like to see more Slovak culture reaching India.

TSS: Several Slovaks have been given scholarships to study the Hindi language in India. Have you seen a lot of interest in studying Hindi? Who are the Slovaks who have chosen to study it?
HS: Learning the Hindi language has been an area of interest for young Slovaks as a part of their academic programme. We provide scholarships at the Central Institute for Hindi in Agra, a city close to New Delhi. Students from all over the world spend nine months at this institute, which also leads many of them to pursue studies in Indian culture and philosophy.

TSS: Cultural diversity is at the very heart of India. Globalisation poses some challenges for nations, such as how to preserve what is culturally most precious, and how to define ethnic groups. How has India faced this challenge?
HS: In India we are an inclusive, open, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual society. It is, perhaps, this ‘idea of India’ - an overarching unity embracing an immense diversity - that appeals most to people. Globalisation and the media revolution tend to reduce cultural diversity, but I believe these values will remain preserved.

Through our history we have had waves of military conquests which bring a new cultural infusion followed by assimilation of the foreigners. We are a very resilient and tolerant society and have reconciled opposing elements. We have preserved our languages. For example, we allow the civil service examination to be written in any of the languages guaranteed under the constitution. While Hinduism is the religion of the largest number of people in India, all religions coexist together. I myself come from a community, the Zoroastrians, of which there are only 70,000-80,000 left in the world; we have preserved our culture and traditions.

TSS: Bollywood is a cultural and business phenomenon which crossed India’s borders long ago. It is no longer only Indian expatriates in the United States or in other countries who are watching and seeking out Bollywood productions. What, in your opinion, makes Bollywood such an interesting cultural phenomenon? Could Bollywood movies also appeal to Slovak audiences, for example?
HS: The Bollywood film industry makes over a thousand films a year: the largest number of films in the world. Bollywood films are mostly musicals, with catchy song-and-dance sequences providing a sometimes three-hour long experience of comedy, tragedy, drama and romance. In May 2007, the Embassy, in collaboration with the Slovak Film Institute, held a very successful film festival in Bratislava. Bollywood films in essence appeal to all cultures as the themes have a universal charm. These movies have also been evolving. There are now dance sequences no different from western music videos and in fact, western videos also copy dance movements from Bollywood, so I guess there is globalisation there too.

TSS: India is a major world tourist destination. Has the tourism potential between the two countries been fully explored? What aspects of Slovakia could be potentially interesting for Indians? Is there any room for cooperation in this area?
HS: Unfortunately, tourism between India and Slovakia has not been adequately explored. Slovakia has stunning natural beauty. India, an ancient civilisation, has tremendous diversity to offer to Slovak tourists: from historical sites and monuments to adventure tourism, beaches and the Himalayas. The last meeting of the Indo-Slovak Joint Economic Committee identified the potential for increasing tourism. Unfortunately, up to now there has not been much travel from India to Slovakia due to the strict tourist visa requirements for Indians, but since Slovakia joined the Schengen zone I have found more Indian tourists visiting Bratislava. I also hope that Indian tourists will soon start looking beyond Bratislava, at the tourism potential in the rest of the country.

General facts

Political system:Federal republic
Capital:New Delhi
Total area:3,287,590 sq kilometres
India Independence DayAugust 15

India has 28 states and 7 union territories. Its diverse economy ranges from traditional village farming to modern industries and software services.

Source: CIA Factbook

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