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Remarks by Ambassador Sibi George at the Cercle de la Grande Société de Berne on March 27,2019

Posted on: March 27, 2019 | Back | Print

‘India – A land of Billion Ideas, Billion Opportunities’

Remarks by Ambassador Sibi George at the 
Cercle de la Grande Société de Berne
March 27, 2019

Honourable President of Grand Society of Berne Christian Gossweiler, Hon’ble Raoul Blindenbacher, Ambassadors, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good Evening. Thank you for inviting me and my wife today to this Grand Society. It is great to be in this historic place which art historian Norberto Gramaccini stated as among the ‘most beautiful interiors of the 18th century’.

I come here representing one of the oldest, largest and perhaps among the very few continuous major civilizations in the world. I bring to you greetings from 1.3 billion people of India, which is almost 1/6th of the total population of the world. Add to this the vibrant Indian diaspora of over 30 million abroad.

I have been in this beautiful country for just over one year now. In this short period, as Ambassador to Switzerland, Lichtenstein and the Holy See, I was honoured to bring greetings of 1.3 billion people to an Hon’ble President, His Highness Prince and Holy Father Pope. My Ambassador friends here would agree that, for a diplomat, it is no small achievement to think every day about a President, a Prince and a Pope. In fact, I was privileged to call on three Presidents in Switzerland in the last fifteen months, thanks to the unique fascinating democracy that Switzerland has. Again no small achievement for an Ambassador.

I am not disclosing any State secret when I say that population in India dwindles in the months of April to June each year. Why?  Because during these months many of my countrymen travel to Switzerland as tourists. They can be found in large number in Bernese Oberland trying to climb mountains and run around in the valleys. They come in such large numbers here every year as if there are no high mountains, no heavy snow and no matching Bollywood locations in India. From the land of Himalayas, which means the abode of snow, they travel all the way to Alps to see snow. Some even travel to places like St. Mortiz and Montreaux as if there are no serene wedding locations in India, of course contributing to Swiss economy.

My endeavour today is to present to you a glimpse of ‘India – A land of Billion Ideas, Billion Opportunities’. I thought of doing a colourful PowerPoint presentation. I believe that if your points are powerful you don’t need a PowerPoint presentation. Let me start with a story that I heard and said many times. The story of Alexander the Macedonian, also called Alexander the Great. After having crossed Persia, he came to India, met a sage on the banks of the river Indus, who he referred to as a ‘wise man’. This sage sat on a rock and spent all day and night staring at the sky. Alexander asked him what he was doing. The sage replied, "Experiencing nothingness.” The sage asked Alexander what he was doing. Alexander replied, "I am conquering the world.” Both laughed. For Alexander, the sage was wasting his one and only life experiencing nothingness! For the sage, Alexander was wasting his time trying to conquer a world that has no limits, with a sense of urgency that made no sense when one lives infinite lives. It was a moment in ancient history when West and East met. The fact is that, the empire that Alexander built collapsed within a few years of his death. But Indian spirituality continues to attract the world towards her. India and its spirituality continue to be a meeting point of the East and the West.

Now we move from the banks of River Indus to the banks of another river, Holy River of Ganges. The holy festival of Kumbh Mela, a 48-day event which saw a record turnout of around 150 million people in January - February, making it the biggest ever human congregation on earth. Let me quote Mr. Claude Begle, Swiss Member of Parliament who attended the festival. He said, “It is so huge, so well organised”. I am told that to make a Swiss to say ‘it was well organised’ is not easy. It means a lot. This huge spiritual congregation points to the fact that along with its economic and scientific progress, spirituality in India is also on the rise. India continues to embrace its age old traditions and values.

I am happy to note that Switzerland has always been a meeting point for East and West. In 1896, a great son of India Swami Vivekananda travelled all over the world including this land of Alps with a message: “COMBINE THE BEST OF EAST WITH THAT OF THE WEST”. During his visit to Switzerland in 1896 he wrote from Saas Fee, I quote, “I am in Switzerland. It is a miniature Himalayas…. I am intensely enjoying it. I feel so, so uplifted.” Unquote.

Switzerland also hosted another great sage of India, Maharshi Mahesh Yogi, who is the founder of Transcendental Meditation He had his Headquarters in Seelisberg for over thirty years. And in 1931, Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation of India travelled to the banks of Lake Geneva to meet Nobel Laurate Romaine Rolland.

The connection between Himalayas and Alps are stronger than we think. It is not just the connection of our similar foreign policies based on neutrality and non-alignment. It is not limited to Bollywood and Mountains and Snow. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I see an India connect in every corner of Switzerland. It is much deeper than lakes and much higher than mountains. It is one involving universities, business establishments, laboratories, factories, technology cooperation, research, music and dance, you name it. If nothing else, there is the connection of Yoga and Ayurveda.

Now from the largest congregation on the banks of River Ganges, from Kumbh Mela, let me take you to another festival in India. Festival of Democracy. It is the largest festival of democracy in the history of the world. 900 million eligible voters will go to polling booths in April/May this year to elect over 500 members to the lower house of Indian Parliament.

An opportunity for a billion people, 600 million below the age of 25 years, to select their choice in a free and fair manner. It is a bit noisy, but the noise is worth it. We have over 200 TV channels with talk shows and debates and competing for breaking news. The free press of India, now coupled with free social media, makes sure that a billion voices are heard, a billion ideas are aired. There are over 500 million smart phone users in India. There was a time not too far, when by ‘tweet’ we meant a happy song of a bird. Not anymore. Today, millions share their ideas and anger on Tweets, making Indian democracy a bit noisy than that of Switzerland. India today is the largest democracy in the world. But Democracy is not new to Indian society. There are references in ancient Vedas on Sabha and Samiti, democratic bodies which met regularly to advise the rulers. The word ‘Republic’ has been used forty times in Rig Veda.

It is a matter of pride for an Ambassador to stand before an august audience in a model democracy and say with confidence that the economic and scientific transformation India achieved was not under oppressive dictatorial regimes but under a constitution which guarantees liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; equality of status and of opportunity. Very few countries can say this with confidence.
These freedoms of expression, belief, faith etc are very important in a civilisation which gave rise to ancient religions such as Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. In fact, India is home to other many religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Sikhism. In fact, Christianity reached India and flourished there since 52 CE, in the first century immediately after the crucifixion of Christ, much before it reached most parts of Europe. You will see a sizeable number of Indian Christians including me and wife who claim that their ancestors embraced Christianity directly from doubting Thomas, yes, St. Thomas one of the disciples of Jesus Christ. The fact is the Christianity flourished in India for nearly two thousand years. Today India has more Christian population than the total population of Australia. India also has the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia.

Over past millennia, many a conqueror coveted the riches of India but none could conquer Indian culture, traditions or philosophy. Even those that came with a sword were soon assimilated into India’s composite and inclusive culture. History is also replete with examples of India giving refuge to those fleeing persecution in their own lands. The Jewish population came to India in large numbers from Israel in the year 70 CE, after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish community found home in India for nearly two thousand years till the creation of modern Israel. Today, Parsees, who came from Iran, are one of the most vibrant communities in India while some of the oldest Jewish synagogues are still active in India.

In India, we speak several hundred languages, we worship different Gods, we eat different foods, we wear different clothes, but there is a feeling of oneness and common consciousness, a civilizational bond, that keeps us together, make us proud as India. Every diverse culture in India flourishes, every region in India flourishes. Recently we organised a unique festival of SAREE in Berne, traditional Indian costume that dates back its origin to four thousand years ago. Our women are keen to maintain our tradition.

A few centuries ago, India was one of the richest countries in the world. It is not for fun that maritime explorers like Christopher Columbus and Vasco-de Gama went around oceans and seas dreaming to reach India. It was for its wealth and richness. Since its independence from two hundred years of colonial rule in 1947, India has made notable achievements in diverse fields, including atomic energy, space science, agriculture, bio-technology and, of course, information technology, for which India is well-known the world over, including in Switzerland. In fact, cooperation in Science and Technology constitutes one of the main area of cooperation between our two countries. To give an example, in February 2017, a Swiss satellite was among the satellites that India launched into space, a cooperation that we continue. I am happy to note that this year we are celebrating the India Year of Science and Technology in Switzerland.

India today is a land of billion opportunities. India will soon overtake China as the most populous country in the world.  When a billion population grows in standard of living, it offers a billion opportunity for technologically advanced countries like Switzerland. With half of India’s population, that is 600 million people, below the age of 25 years, and about 550 million people as the labour force, India has abundant and youthful human resources. The environment for ‘doing business’ in India is being continuously improved by ushering in stable, predictable and transparent regulations, reducing the time for  registration of businesses and increasing the spread of e-governance.  ‘Red carpet’ has replaced ‘red tape’. In 2018, India’s rank in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business  survey climbed 23 places to 77 among 190 countries surveyed, making it the only country to rank among the top 10 improvers for the second consecutive year. In 2017, India saw a record jump of 30 places to reach the 100th position in the rankings. Major reforms were introduced including the goods and services tax (GST).

Today, India has emerged as the fastest-growing large economy in the world, with a growth rate of nearly 7.5%. It is also a global hub for manufacturing and innovation. It is moving towards a knowledge-based society, which aims to build a five trillion dollar economy by 2022. According to the World Bank and IMF, our growth rate is going to be steady and high. In terms of Purchasing Power Parity it is today the third largest economy in the world. In terms of GDP it is the sixth largest economy.

We are happy that European businesses including Swiss business are increasingly engaging India. In its transformational journey, India regards Switzerland and Swiss companies as natural partners. It is a billion opportunity. There is vast scope to combine our relative advantages, in capital, technology, science and human resources, and to work for mutual benefit. India’s Flagship Programmes like Make in India, Smart Cities, Digital India, Swachh Bharat (Clean India), Startup India, Skill India and other initiatives are resonating well in this land of innovation and competitive edge. We in the Embassy have a special programme MISSP programme aimed at supporting Swiss medium and small companies to engage with India. I am happy that in 2018 we were able to reach out 600 new companies under this programme. Our MISSP 2.0 will be launched next month.

The last few years have been very eventful in India – Swiss relations. We maintain highest level of engagement at political level. We had three summit level visits in the last three years. Prime Minister visited Switzerland in June 2016. Prime Minister of India delivered the key note opening address at the WEF in Davos in January 2018. Swiss President visited India on a State visit in August 2017. Swiss Foreign Minister was in New Delhi and Varanasi in August 2018.

Equally important is our business and cultural engagement with Switzerland which is growing rapidly. Our bilateral trade today is nearly USD 20 billion. It is not cheese and chocolate. It is Gold and silver, it is chemicals and high end precision machines. The engagement between Indian and Swiss companies are deepening. So is the cultural engagement. We just concluded a Festival of India in Switzerland with Indian cultural troupes performing fifteen cities in Switzerland. This year we are again in various cities celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.

We are also working together at the multilateral level. India today is the largest contributor of peace keeping forces to the United Nations.

As a diplomat, one is happy to be in Switzerland. A country which ranks among the top globally in several metrics of national performance, including government transparency, quality of life, economic competitiveness, innovation index, human development, happiness index. I always tell my colleagues, Switzerland is on the top of this list not because most of these lists are produced by the reputed universities in Switzerland. Switzerland genuinely deserved to the in the top. During my travels to the length and breadth of this landscape, I realised that what makes this country the attraction of the world, is that here every Canton, every city, every small township and every village has something unique to offer. Wherever you go, you return with the satisfaction of having experienced something unique. The more you explore, the more you realise that there is much more you need to enjoy and explore.

This is exactly what you hear from those Swiss friends who have been to India. Many have spent a few weeks in some part of India. Most speak about their experience and experiments with Yoga and Ayurveda and their houseboat ride in the backwaters of Kerala. Many share their memorable experiences in Rajasthan and Agra, beaches of Goa, most of them are eager to visit India again. I have brought a coffee table book on ‘Seven Pristine Pearls of India’ on India’s North East states. A mountainous serene landscape that resembles Switzerland in several ways.

I recall a visa application that we received in the Embassy recently. The purpose of visit was given as ‘to see people’. Initially we got wondered. What does that mean? To see people. Having lived in Berne, we understood what she meant and readily issued a multiple entry visa.

I recall during the initial days of our stay in Berne, my wife used to ask me where the people are. Some days you hardly find anyone in the public areas. Then we found most of them in River Are. It was indeed a learning experience to know that Bernese spend considerable time with family in woods, river, lakes, snow, valleys and mountains. There is a balance of work and family. Having lived in India for a few years before coming here, we were missing our 1.3 billion ideas and opportunities. I invite you to visit India to explore the billion experiences that it offers today. Come and enjoy our diversity. Come and partner in our economic and technological transformation. It is a billion opportunities, don’t miss it.

In the meantime, my wife and I will continue to explore each and every corner of this serene landscape, its snow and lakes, its unique culture, its innovation and its Swiss-quality. We will continue our endeavour in ‘Connecting Himalayas with Alps’.

Let me quote Swami Vivekananda again to conclude, “I am in Switzerland. It is a miniature Himalayas…. I am intensely enjoying it. I feel so, so uplifted.”

Thank you very much. If you have any questions my colleague Dr. Piyush Singh will be happy to answer.

Thank you.