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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Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

In this new series, The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée seeks to challenge some of the clichés about Sweden.

Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

There are some undeniable truths about Sweden (lots of Volvos, lots of trees) but when asked, most people don’t get far past the usual clichés. And nor did I. 

A well-organized country full of high tax paying, IKEA flatpack-loving, slightly distant Fika fanatics, all happily queuing to buy some much-needed state-controlled booze to get through the never-ending cold and dark winters.

In this series, I give my take on some of the more commonly heard assumptions about life in Sweden and how I experience them.

When you are visiting family back home after your move to Sweden, you will note that nothing seems to get a tipsy uncle quite as riled up as your story about the state-controlled alcohol market. It’s also something that comes up surprisingly often when you tell people you live in Sweden. The mere mention of having to go to a special shop to purchase alcohol seems to set people off in a certain way.

That the shops are called Systembolaget, like some Soviet-era holdover obviously does little to calm your uncle down.

To start with the concept itself. Having grown up in The Netherlands, I was not bowled over with indignation at the idea of having to go to a separate shop to purchase my poison. Although supermarkets in the Netherlands do sell alcohol, it is pretty common to buy your wine, as well as any stronger stuff, at what Australians call a ‘bottle shop’  (which rather misses the point of what’s actually for sale).

READ ALSO: Like having sex in a church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Apart from having a larger assortment than supermarkets, these shops also have specialized staff that can recommend wines with your food. 

But with plenty of well-stocked and reasonably priced Systembolagets around and one right outside my local supermarket, I don’t think the airtime this topic gets when people talk about life in Sweden is actually justified.

For the now properly drunk uncle at your family dinner, the Systembolaget is of course a sign of a bigger problem with Sweden: the all-controlling state. The outrageous combination of high taxes, free healthcare and schooling and state-controlled alcohol must mean that the government has a finger in every aspect of life.

It turns out your uncle is engaging in a long-standing tradition that has been dubbed ‘Sweden bashing’. It started with Eisenhower, but in more recent years lesser statesmen dabbled in it as well. Although there is no clear definition, it seems to involve cherry-picking facts about Sweden – or alternatively just making them up – in order to ridicule the Swedish model. It’s a model that, according to the ideology of the bashers, should fail miserably but somehow stubbornly refuses to do so.

Despite the long-standing tradition of Sweden bashing, I think anyone who lives here will agree that in everyday life there is nothing particularly invasive about enjoying free education and healthcare in exchange for higher taxes. Come to think of it, that is pretty much the model applied in the Netherlands and they never got stuck with a reputation for an overbearing government. On the other hand, Holland does get bashed for easy access to drugs and euthanasia, so I guess you have to be careful what you wish for.

Considering it now really only functions as a lightning rod for politicians, it may not be a bad idea to let go of the state monopoly on alcohol sales.

As for the bashing itself, I think the current Swedish response to it works just fine: a light shrug of the shoulders and let the system speak for itself.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Not having been to Sweden before the move, Alexander had some broad assumptions about what life in Sweden would be like. In this series, he revisits these assumptions and gives his take.  Alexander wrote for series for The Local before about his “firsts” in Sweden.