There are a record number of 13 female Ambassadors and heads of mission in Helsinki at the moment. The diplomatic community is becoming more diversified and less male-dominated, and with it could come a different and fresh approach to communication which could bring cultures and countries closer. In this Q&A series, Helsinki Times interviews these Ambassadors about their countries and their views of Finland and the situation of women in the diplomatic service.
HT: Tell us about yourself, your background and how you ended up here as Indian Ambassador to Finland?
Ambassador: I’m from south India, a state called Telangana, and I’ve done my education in humanities. I did a BA, and then I did MA in political science, and some how you know I did not have an aptitude for physical sciences. And if I had maybe I’d become a doctor or an engineer, but I didn’t have interest in those subjects, and my parents were very instrumental in motivating me to become a civil servant. Either sides of the family, neither my mother’s nor my father’s side, nobody is a civil servant. So they were really keen that I should attempt the competitive exams and I did that, and passed and got selected for the diplomatic service.
After you get selected, there’s a long training process for almost 2 years in the Foreign Service Institute. So we get trained there and then you’re allowed to choose one foreign language that you want to learn. I chose Spanish, and I went to Mexico for my first posting, that’s where I learnt Spanish in the university half of the day, while working at the Indian embassy the other half. Every diplomat in India has to learn one foreign language.
So we have a fairly long training process that involves attachment with the army, the navy, the Air-force, visit to the border areas with Pakistan and China, then also visit to the interior parts of India. It’s a very demanding training.
HT: And after Mexico?
Ambassador: After Mexico I went back to Delhi and then I did a posting in Sweden. Then I took a 2.5 year sabbatical to do my masters in California. Then I went back to India for another posting. Then I went to Israel, I was the deputy Ambassador there and after that posting I went back to Delhi again for 3 years before coming here.
So, I’ve spent about 24 years in the diplomatic service so far and in our service, after completing this many years, we are considered ready to be ambassadors to represent our country.
HT: Did you choose Helsinki or did the organisation choose for you?
Ambassador: It’s a bit of both actually, the Foreign ministry circulates the list of places that are available for ambassadorial postings, and then we are asked to give our choices. I applied for posting as the head of mission, and Helsinki was one of the options I gave.
HT: And how do you like it so far, had you been in Finland before?
Ambassador: Because I was posted in Sweden about 15 years ago, I came here as a tourist from Sweden. Helsinki is a very good place to settle in, it’s very easy to live in. There are people who complain about the weather, but I think that is a small factor. It’s not a too large city, so you can kind of slide in to the place, and I like that you can get to know the people more easily than in some other countries. They are accessible. They are very open to communication, and I also like the fact that there’s a balance of work and life outside work, which is really commendable. It has been a pleasure to be here so far.
HT: You arrived last summer and this was your first winter?
Ambassador: My first, Yes, I think it has not been as harsh as I expected. I’ve lived a long time in Delhi, and Delhi can be very cold in the winter.
HT: I suppose before you come to Finland, you also studied Finland - India relations, how do you see its progress? And what are your wishes for it during your term?
Ambassador: Yes, in India, you know the perception of Finland is that it’s a highly developed country and one that has done remarkably in the social field and also in some of technologies related to clean-tech development. Nokia is one of the biggest brands that you brought to India. And the people have a very fond association with that brand. Also Angry Birds and Linux. What many people don’t realise is that Finland is so close. It only 6.5 hours by flight. Yet there’s a perception that it’s extremely far and not really easy to travel to. In that sense there’s a lot of gap in the information on both sides about Finland in India, and about India in Finland. And we have an excellent relationship, there are no differences that we have to handle. And we have enjoyed Finland’s support on many issues of concern to India. But there’s a lack of high level visits, we don’t have enough ministers visiting each other’s countries.
HT: Why is that?
Ambassador: I don’t know, but possibly it’s on both sides. For India, the focus is on our immediate neighbourhood and also engagement with some of the more developed economies. And as the Indian market is developing, a lot of focus is also on the domestic market itself. Finland’s interaction is also specific to the EU and maybe your immediate neighbourhood. And it’s also time for both sides to look beyond their immediate circles and neighbourhoods.
India is now on a growth path. We are expecting a 7.2% growth rate in the economy, which is remarkable by any standards. And Finland itself has done quite well in the last couple of years. I think it’s time both of them start engaging with each other more, and here as an ambassador I will be focusing on that to increase the dialogue between the two countries at the government level. And also to focus the attention of our respective economies on each other. Again another disparity in the market, is something that we are aware of, country of 1.3 billion and you are 5.5 million.
So, it may not be a good approach to look at Finland as a market. I think it would be wiser for Indian companies to look at Finland as a country which has done extremely well with the innovation and knowledge based industry, and to learn from that experience. And also perhaps for the Finnish companies to look at knowledge and technology partnerships with Indian companies. So we will be trying to do that. And of course promoting tourism from Finland to India and more culture engagement.
In the coming months will be bringing some dance and music groups from India to perform here. And we also want to take our events and activities out of Helsinki.
HT: Finns are traveling to Thailand and other far east countries more often. India has always been a destination for specific groups and to specific areas, but do you think that more should be done to promote tourism to India?
Ambassador: At the moment, about 25000 to 30000 tourists from Finland travel to India every year. This is a very small number. The number of tourists are much higher from other countries with similar population as Finland, even though all the elements are in place for increasing the numbers. There’s a direct flight between Helsinki and Delhi, which takes only 6.5 hours operated by Finnair and there are some other airlines also which have started a lot of good connections; like Qatar- and Turkish Airways.
But you are right, Finns are primarily traveling to Goa and to a lesser extent to Kerala, in southern India, It also has beaches and a lots of very nice destinations for spa treatments. Another popular destination is the so called Golden Triangle in Rajasthan. Rajasthan is state of palaces and many attractions.
These are preferred destinations, but we also like to see them travel to other states in India which are so different from what people know as parts of India, and we also have a lot of ancient architecture, natural parks, forest, etc.. North-eastern part of India is totally unexplored; even by Indians. It’s more green, and you have the Himalayas in the distant east. Also the culture in the north-eastern area is very different, much closer to the south-east Asian Part of the world.
India is also now starting to promote tourism to those states, we have 7 states in the north-east and everyone is different from the other. Assam for example, is the home to the rhino, and it also is home to one of the biggest rivers in India called Brahmaputra. It’s as grand and magnificent as the Ganges, but people don’t know it. So we would like to see more tourism to these hidden parts of India and also north-eastern areas.
In fact to promote this we simply organised series of lectures called India Travel Dairies in which Finnish persons who often travel to India shared their experiences. And these were very well received. They spoke more about their personal experiences and why India attracts them. That was a different perspective. They spoke about why India being so different in culture, attracts them and why they go year after year. Maybe we’re going to do more of that in future. And we also participate in “Matka” travel fair every year.
We have also introduced something call E-Visa. Which is very easy to obtain, you don’t have to come to the embassy, you apply for it online and then you get a visa confirmation by mail from our home Ministry.
HT: Right now, there are thousands of IT vacancies in Finnish companies and recently more IT engineers have been coming from India to Finland for work. Do you expect the import of human resources from India to Finland to increase?
Ambassador: Actually Indian IT professionals and skilled professionals have been working in Finland for several years now. At the peak times of Nokia we had the largest number of Indian IT professionals here, and since then the number of IT professionals has come down but there are Indian professionals who are getting employed in other high-tech sectors as well. So, also we must understand that in an increasingly globalised Economy, mobility of labor is happening both ways. And Indian skilled professionals not just in the IT sector, have been moving to many parts of the world including the U.S, U.K, Australia, New Zealand, even Ireland. They’re being employed by both Indian companies with offices in that foreign country and also by global companies like; Microsoft and Google. Partly it has to do with the kind of education that Indians have. Traditionally in India engineering has been a very favourite topic of graduate and also undergraduate education. We produce a large number of engineers every year.
HT: Is there a surplus inside the country?
Ambassador: It’s not so much because of surplus of skilled professionals but it’s because of the demographics. At the moment we have a very young population, and by 2020 the average age of Indians will be 29 years which is very young. So this large segment of youth in India, are looking for jobs. Our government is also mindful of that; our services sector is currently very predominant contributing for more than 50% of the GDP last year. But the government is focusing now on the manufacturing sector. We want to increase the contribution of the manufacturing sector from 17% right now of GDP to 25%. So that should generate lots of the employment opportunities for the youth.
But, I would also like to highlight that at the same time Indian IT companies which are abroad are also making investments in foreign countries and are also creating jobs. In the U.S for example there was a study last year by one of business Chambers (Confederation of Indian Industry), and they found that the Indian IT companies invested about US$80 billion in the U.S and created more than 113.000 jobs.
HT: Do you see those kind of investments in Finland as well; is there some interest from Indian companies?
Ambassador: At the moment Indian investments in Finland are greater than Finnish investments in India - Finnish investments in India are about US$419 million and the Indian investments are much more than that. For example last year there was just one big investment from an Indian company called Motherson Sumi systems, and they invested about half a billion Euros, acquiring a Finnish company called PKC Group, for 571 million Euros. So, in just one investment we equaled as much as all Finnish investments in India. Yes, the trend is growing; we have more than hundred Finnish companies operating in India and the number of Indian companies operating in Finland is much less. We have another major investment by this Indian group called Mahindra which bought resort properties in Finland. And they also invested about 35% in a Finnish harvester manufacturing company.
HT: how about the domestic situation in India, we hear some worrying news regarding Hindu nationalism and conflicts.
Ambassador: I think the perception about India in the media and society are largely based on media reports. And again the focus is on social and religious issues, but India is much more than that and India is going through a very interesting phase. There’s a very young population and they are the driving force in India. The current India is modern and aspirational, and it’s increasingly integrated with the world much more than 50 or 20 years ago. The internet and so many other easy channels help people get information about global trends and global events, cuisine, fashion, everything.
India is becoming a more modern society. People’s perception about India is also that it’s an ancient civilisation, very complex and maybe complicated to understand, but the more you live in India and travel in India as a foreigner, you’ll understand that there’s uniformity in the culture and in social and legal issues.
We are a very liberal and a multi-religion society. If you look at the demographics; about 80% of the population are Hindu and 14% are Muslim, but India is the home to the second largest Muslim population in the world: 160 million and growing. Also Christianity is the third largest religion. And India has always been home to several other religions such as Buddhist, Sikh, Jains and so many other.
Freedom of religion is in fact an Article in our Constitution. You’ll see that the people of all faiths live amicably and they all grow up together. I grew up celebrating all festivals. It’s that kind of society where we celebrate Diwali, Charismas, Eid, everything together.
There are fringe elements which are responsible for some incidents in recent times, but the government and the Prime Minister himself have called for tolerance and our PM has stated very clearly that these incidents are not tolerated.
So it’s very misleading I think, to look at media reports and then judge our country. That’s why we keep telling Finnish companies and others too that; they really have to travel to India and understand the place, the country, the people, the traditions and that’s very critical and it’s part of the process of making our decision about business operations and the market.
HT: Tell us about the positive developments happening in India right now?
Ambassador: We have seen that in some of the sectors development has really leapfrogged; we have skipped certain stages of development all-together and moved to the next stage. For example the smart phone revolution in India is very fast based. Large number of Indians who never had a landline telephone at home, have moved directly on to mobile phones and smart phones. And it’s empowering them in a way that it was not imaginable before. They are able to connect with people outside and get information.
And there are many government programs and also others which are giving information on mobiles to people. And the second area where we have made a huge transformation, is the digital transaction. Again mobile phones are allowing people to make digital payments, and there’s large segments of the population which have totally skipped the stage of credit or debit cards and they are exclusively using mobile phones for payment. And one of the other huge initiatives that the government has taken is to introduce an identity number to the residents of India a 12 digit number – presently about 1.2 billion people have been issued this number called Aadhar. In facts it’s the world’s biggest such program that has been started by government.
Again using Aadhar the government started using something called financial inclusion program. Because in India many of the poor did not have bank accounts at all because traditionally a bank account demanded a lot of documentation and a minimum balance, so they took a very radical decision about 2 years ago - saying that just with this Aadhar identity people can open bank accounts.
HT: how about social status of women? How do you see that changing in the Indian society?
Ambassador: I think the change has been very positive and there has been a significant improvement in indicators regarding women. Women are doing extremely well in various segments of the society. I mean let’s talk about diplomatic services, in my Indian foreign services about 22.5% are women, and several of our ambassadors in the European regions are women. Literacy of women is improving and some of the programs of the government are also aimed to promote education to the girl child. That has been a very big commitment for the government. So the government has started several programs to construct washrooms in schools, particularly for girls so that there is no reason for them to drop out. Women are receiving small loans of something like 800$ to 1200$. It’s a small amount but it gives them enough capital to start a small business. It’s like micro-financing, particularly for women.
More and more women are graduating and getting access to the labor market. The perceptions are changing, and there’s no career now in India which is not open to women. In Air-force we have women pilots including 3 fighter pilots. Presently there is an all female sailing expedition from the Indian Navy, which is traveling globally.
From over 29 states, 3 are now headed by women. We have a system that states are headed by chief-ministers. The chief-ministers are something like governors in the U.S. they are directly elected, and 3 of them are headed by women included the one in Jammu and Kashmir.