The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (European edition) held at The Hague on September 19 was a grand success according to the organizers, who termed it a sellout event. What were your impressions of the event?
It was a well-organized, sold out event. What amazed me was the attention the audience paid to all the speakers. The house was full for the entire day, nobody left, they were interested in all aspects of the programme. For the organizers it was very gratifying. I was very pleased that our former Prime Minister (Ruud Lubbers), Minister of Social Welfare and Employment (Piet Hein Donner) and the Mayor of The Hague (Jozias van Aartsen) were there. Unfortunately, our Prime Minister (Jan Peter Balkenende) had to leave for the USA just before the PBD. It also was the first big event in The Netherlands in which the Surinamese Hindustanis and the Indian (NRIs) group worked together. So the event contributed a lot in terms of the unity of the two communities. Also, the City of Hague was very much involved in the event. They put up a good show. Interestingly, 10 per cent of the population of The Hague is of Indian descent, and they are very well integrated in society.
What are the key areas in which you are furthering and strengthening ties between The Netherlands and India?
The focus of the embassy is economic relations. That means emphasis on trade, investments and science and technology. That really involves the bulk of the work. These include areas like water management and infrastructure, life sciences, bio-technology, pharmaceuticals, renewable energy and agriculture, including food processing. There are areas where we find that not only is India an interesting market, but also where there is potential for cooperation in technology and knowledge sharing. We also have cooperation in areas like architecture, design and fashion.
Does part of this strengthening process include the involvement of the significant Indo-
Surinamese population as well as the NRI population in Holland, especially the ones who can be drawn from the pool of highly qualified professionals?
I think it is one of the strengths that can help leverage our relationships further. I have spoken on several occasions to the Indo-Surinamese community and we really feel that there is a great potential to do much more than we have in the past. There is a natural connection between our two countries because of their presence, importantly there is a willingness on that side to expand ties with India. We also have people from the Indo-Surinamese community who are in business based in India, and they are here because of their language and cultural affinity.
What about educational opportunities in The Netherlands?
We have the knowledge workers for whom Holland can be a great experience. We want to avoid brain drain (from India), and, therefore, we would encourage them to pick up work experience in Holland, and then return here to work under the framework of Dutch companies and cooperation programmes. Besides, such workers have a choice of moving over to places like UK, Canada, US and Australia. Indian workers and students feel at home in Holland because of the presence of a large Hindustan/Indian community and many Indian restaurants, including those that serve vegetarian meals. Holland is also a big English speaking country, in fact 90 per cent of the population is able to respond in English which makes Holland the largest English speaking country outside the U.K. within Europe. There are close to 1,500 university programmes that run in English. We have study in Holland desks at Ahmedabad and Chennai. Studies in Holland are multi-disciplinary, there is a connection between what is taught in the classroom and what is applied in the real world. So students are far more trained for the market than by other study programmes elsewhere.
What steps are being taken to attract investment initiatives from India into Holland? Similarly, with events like the PBD, do you see a greater interest level among Dutch businesses to invest in India?
Sometime back we realized that not enough was being done to attract investments into Holland. So in 2006, The Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency (NFIA) was set up. Our focus is on attracting investments in ICT, pharmaceuticals and automobile sectors. Our argument for attracting Indian companies to set up business in The Netherlands is three-fold. The first is that Europe starts here. If you want to move into the European market we are a good base, you can reach almost every important destination in Europe through land and air. We back our connectivity up with top quality service centres, distribution points and even world headquarters. Second, we have very transparent taxations laws. They help you to avoid unnecessary risks, as it is there are enough risks in business. Thirdly, we have world class facilities and international schools that are attractive for families intending to move to Holland. Also, maybe the world is not as flat as Thomas Friedman once thought it to be. For if you are required to be active at the higher end of business, you need to be closer to your customers in providing high-end solutions. That is why big businesses like Wipro, TCS, Infosys have set up base in Holland.
Now when it comes to outgoing foreign direct investments from India, the foremost destination is Singapore followed by Holland. The other way round we are number five. The first is Mauritius, which is mainly for tax reasons, then the USA, UK, Singapore and then Holland. So we are an important source of FDI into India and most of our important companies are all here—Royal Dutch Shell, ING Vyasa, Phillips. The last named now has a research laboratory in
You have seen bilateral relations between The Netherlands and India evolve over the years. What views do you have on this?
If you go back into history, our bilateral relations started with trading posts, and India was much more important to us, than Indonesia. For two centuries we remained in trading, and then we exchanged Dutch trading posts in India for British trading posts in Java. We left in 1824, and returned in 1947. India was the biggest receiver of Dutch development aid, soon after. Now, after 400 years, we are much more focused on economic/trade cooperation, it is a nice circle that we’ve completed. When Minister Chidambaram came to Holland and was asked about bilateral relations, he quipped ‘we are very pleased that the country never tried to colonize us.’
We have room for improvement, our trade relation is growing but not fast enough according to me. We should look at more quality in the trade basket.