OPINION: How India and Sweden can find new ways of looking at each other

For two nations starkly different in every studied aspect, the similarity of situations between Sweden and India is uncanny. Rupali Mehra, shares her experience from Sweden's Almedalen political festival where she worked on a series of seminars for [email protected]

OPINION: How India and Sweden can find new ways of looking at each other
Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi and his delegation pictured during a working lunch in Sweden. Photo: Pontus Lundahl / TT

This year, as India made its debut at the Almedalen Week, the focus was on sustainability. It is increasingly clear that sustainability goals cannot be achieved in isolation defined by international borders. Unconventional approaches and new ways of collaborating are needed at multiple levels; nation to nation, region to region, and people to people. 

The [email protected]: Future Urbanisms seminar series at the 2019 Almedalen Week was one such attempt towards a collaborative partnership. Hosted by the Indian mission in Sweden and Uppsala University Campus Gotland’s Future Urbanisms Programme, the aim was to explore common challenges and possible pathways to a more sustainable and resilient future. 

READ ALSO: The Local interviews Sweden's Ambassador to India

Interview: 'India and Sweden are very different in size, but similar in principles'
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting his Swedish counterpart Stefan Löfven in Stockholm in 2018. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

“Sustainable urban development has been identified as one of the most important areas of cooperation between Sweden and India,” said India’s Ambassador to Sweden Monika Kapil Mohta.

“If we look at the acceleration of the economic boom in India, the purchasing power of the people and rapid urbanizations, all this has put pressure on the existing urban infrastructure in India” she added.

“There is a pressing demand for a transition from the present infrastructure to a sustainable infrastructure which will help us move into a healthier, sustainable urban environment. India needs smart cities that are sustainable and resilient and can a provide better quality of life. This is a huge challenge and also a great opportunity.”

A case in point is the mobility challenge. According to studies, a person in Bangalore spends 21 working days stuck in traffic in a year while for a Stockholmer, it's 13 working days. Bangalore might be many times the size of the Swedish capital, but both cities are grappling with the question of how to design intelligent, clean and sustainable transport systems.

The seminars also looked at the housing challenge, and lessons these two countries could learn from each other. Sweden’s ambitious housing programmes of the 1970s, the 'Million Programme' is an example of how to overcome a housing shortage for a growing urban workforce.

Participants at the seminars also praised Stockholm for its smart approach towards clean tech, including electricity generation and waste management. A total of 42 percent of the city is devoted to green areas and parks. Can Indian cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad, in the cusp of rapid development, take a cue from Stockholm’s planned development?

And the energy and water challenge could be another two-way learning curve. The Indian farming community in the drought-prone area of Hiware Bazar in Western India has found solutions to recharge their water table and reverse water stress. So could Gotland, which has been witnessing its own water table deplete, engage with and learn from Hiware Bazar? 

The Swedish island that's suffering a water crisis
Visby in Gotland, which has been battling a water crisis for years. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT


A person or small business in Bangalore faces similar challenges to their counterpart on Gotland: both have been grappling with shortage of water for the last few summers, and both feel the impact of an unsustainable world. At a national level, India and Sweden have been engaging in a host of technological initiatives. The seminar series shed a new light on engagement at a smaller scale – a micro local engagement through people, research and innovation.

“What is known is that the notion of sustainability is normative. You can debate what it means, how to approach it, when, where and by whom. But there is not really an option not to go there,” said Professor Owe Ronström from Uppsala University.

“So the programme Future Urbanisms is based on the idea that it will be worthwhile to approach sustainability by following closely into the steps of common, ordinary people, the steps they are already taking, the changes already being implemented and the innovations taking place. In short, whatever sustainability needs to mean. We must handle locality and diversity and do it from the bottom up perspective,” he added.

India is a rapidly urbanizing countries. More than 55 percent of India’s GDP comes from urban areas, and by 2025, 68 of its cities will have a population of more than one million each — the size of the Swedish capital. So how can sustainable solutions be designed for a population of urban Indians expected to reach 800 million in the not-so-distant future? The scale can be overwhelming, but also an opportunity. India's Bangalore is the world's third biggest startup hub after Silicon Valley and London. Many of India's young entrepreneurs are creating high-tech sustainable solutions that are already catering to world economies.

Collaborations in research and innovation are the natural way forward. If India can learn from Sweden on sustainable and innovative technologies, so can Sweden learn from India, especially at local levels. Sweden’s advantage has always been its commitment to incubating research and development for world class innovation; India’s advantage is the entrepreneurial spirit of the people to build new technologies in the most cost effective manner. If the two are come together, they could create world class solutions for a sustainable, urban future. 

READ ALSO: Readers' tips: Where to find the best of Indian culture in Sweden

Rupali Mehra is the founder of Content People AB, an impact communications company, and an organizing partner of [email protected]: Future Urbanisms. She can be reached at [email protected]

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‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
Glad Påsk!
Midsommar drowning  
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.