One of the first things I noticed when I moved to Sweden was that people take off their shoes when they visit someone's home. This is very similar to what we do in India. Do you see similarities in culture and values between India and Sweden?
Yes, it is quite remarkable that you have noticed this. I did the same. I think there is a cultural connect. I think when we do business with each other, it is important to understand each other culturally and to bridge cultural gaps.
What I found when I came here is that Sweden is already quite close to India and us Indians in their value systems. We are both democracies. We both believe in the rule of law. We are free market economies. We believe in human liberties, openness and transparency. I think it is this connection between the people of Sweden and the people of India that we must strengthen and take forward, because at the bottom of doing business is also friendship and understanding each other culturally.
Sweden and India have been business partners for decades and this economic exchange has grown in recent years. How do you see this cooperation growing?
Sweden is a global leader when it comes to innovation and technology. They are very strong in the kind of technology that India needs. We are the largest market in the world as well as the fastest growing economy. So there is a natural partnership and synergy. Swedish companies came into India in 1905, when Ericsson opened its first office in India. Since then it has been a win-win for both countries.
There are some sectors, like engineering for example, where we have worked particularly well together. There are companies like ABB, SKS Sweden, Alfa Laval. There are also big automotive companies like Volvo and Scania. And now there are companies like Ikea and the apparel chain H&M. All of them are expanding in India. All of them find the size of the Indian market absolutely stupendous. So there is a huge opportunity for Swedish companies to come into India.
But there is also another factor on why they should be coming into India apart from the size of the market. That is the pool of skilled manpower that we have, which is beneficial to both sides. There are opportunities for Indian skilled force in Sweden as well because this is one of the most globalized economies in the world. At the same time there are huge opportunities for Swedish companies in India. I see this only getting strengthened into the future because of our natural synergies.
What is your key priority as ambassador of India in Sweden?
My priority are those that are the priority of the government of India and we take our direction from the government. The government of India has noticed how the Nordic region, and Sweden as the leader of the Nordic region, is extremely significant and can make an important contribution in terms of the innovative technologies that can be brought to India to strengthen our own growth story.
For instance, if we look at sustainable technologies, if we look at the flagship initiatives of Prime Minister Modi – Smart Cities, Swachh Bharat, clean water, digitization programmes and the healthcare sector – these sectors are the strengths of Sweden and these are the technologies we should be working on to bring from Sweden to India, provided these technologies are made affordable and adaptable.
Sweden is in the midst of a tech boom. Yet it is facing a shortage of at least 40,000 skilled IT workers. This number is expected to jump up to 70,000. Do you see Indians filling this gap, given that they have the skills, and the English language background?
Yes indeed. Our professionals are second to none. When they travel all the way from India at the invitation of Swedish companies to be part of the workforce here and to make their contribution in this country, I am sure a lot of thinking goes into that. Our Indian professionals are doing extremely well here. The other good thing about Indian diaspora is that we are law abiding, tax paying people. I know that the contribution of Indian professionals who come in is well appreciated. I can only think of this relationship between Indian skilled force and Sweden strengthening in the days to come.
And as you rightly said, there are huge gaps here. There are vacancies. In fact the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce informed me that the average IT professional is an Indian. So there is no reason why more Indian professionals cannot come to fill the jobs for which they are suitably qualified. Also it is not just about being a professional and meeting a certain job requirement. It is also about the entire civilizational and cultural affinity that we are talking about. In my understanding Sweden would rather have Indian professionals working with them because we understand each other better. We are democracies, we believe in similar human value systems, so there is an affinity and a cultural closeness that is very important when we look at strengthening our businesses. When Indians come into Sweden they are also happy to be here because of the comfort level they have. Similarly Swedes are happy to receive Indian professionals because we understand each other better. So I think it is a mutually advantageous scenario from both sides.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in Stockholm. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
One of the key concerns from immigrants and expats is the news of work permit applications or renewals being rejected, which has led to deportation of foreign workers over minor errors. What are your thoughts on it and what is India's position on its people facing such a situation?
In my interaction with my Swedish interlocutors, I have always found them to be extremely appreciative of the highly skilled Indian professionals who come into Sweden. Now there is a growing number of students who are coming into Sweden to pick up technology-related degrees. Yes, there are work permit and student visa related issues that have been plaguing both sides for a while now.
It is also understandable that for other extraneous reasons the Swedish migration office had also slowed down its own operation to take care of the influx of a lot of the other immigrants who were coming into the country at a particular point of time. But this is an issue that we are ceased of. We have repeatedly, at the highest political level, taken up this matter with Swedish authorities. We are hopeful that a result will be evident sooner rather than later, because the gravity of the situation has been conveyed to them repeatedly. Our Swedish friends have assured us that some solutions will be found to this problem shortly.
We spoke about economic exchanges. In terms of cultural diplomacy, what levels of exchanges have we seen and will continue to see the near future?
I have always believed that even business and industry form the spine of our relationship, even to do business it is important to understand each other culturally. So people-to-people interaction, people-to-people ties must be strengthened. As part of that exercise, both Sweden and India have made significant efforts. Sweden runs the Nobel week in India, where they try and take science and technology to various schools in India. They do a lot of outreach activities and try and introduce innovative practices, especially among the Indian youth.
As far as we are concerned, we have always believed in reaching out across the spectrum on Indian culture. We have done this, for instance, through the festival of India that was organized in August 2017 in Sweden as part of the Stockholm cultural festival where India was the focus country and we had over a hundred Indian artists and craftsmen and weavers who came into Stockholm for this festival. This festival attracted close to 100,000 visitors. This was focused on the arts, cuisine and Indian crafts. We have otherwise been engaging with Swedish schools and universities to take outreach events to them on Indian culture. We also try and bring Indian cinema to the people of Sweden because cinema has gained a lot of popularity over time.
Recently we commenced celebrations to mark the 150 birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, and we are taking various activities to the youth in Sweden including lecture, talks, seminars, essay contents, quizzes. We are gifting books to various schools in Sweden as part of the special programme we have initiated. I hope we can strengthen this expertise further and that we should be able to not only geographically reach out to as many institutions and people as we can, but also go deeper into bringing the Indian culture and way of life closer to the Swedish people.
In Sweden there is a growing movement towards sustainable foods, a vegetarian diet, yoga and holistic wellness. These have been part of Indian tradition. How do you think they can be promoted further?
I see a fascination among Swedes for our ancient wisdom in yoga and Ayurveda. The Swedes have always been interested in holistic healing and wellness. In fact they are probably among the fittest people in the world. They are always looking for alternative and holistic therapies, alternative healing and also for mental and physical fitness. So there is a huge attraction towards yoga and Ayurveda. As the embassy of India we are happy to see where we can be catalysts in bringing some of these ancient Indian practices closer to Swedish hearts.
Rupali Mehra is a communications strategist and a former television anchor. She moved to Sweden in the spring of 2017 and runs communications company Content People AB.