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A journey to discover the “Essence” of India/ Ramchandra Kulkarni


When I joined Sitra in June of 2007 Sitra’s India program had developed diverse information about India and Indian opportunities for the Finnish audience. The information developed was first rate, credible and highly relevant. The program had also developed networks but they were mainly confined to academic institutions. To me it was quite clear that for a program aspiring to positively influence the Finland India dialog a lot more could and should be done. I felt that three things needed to be done and could be done.

The program should help broaden the interactions and widen the networks beyond the Academic to include the Government the Industry and the Society. Specifically we needed to inform India about Finnish competencies.

The program should aspire to amplify the weak signals of socially relevant opportunities for economic collaboration between the two nations. Specifically, the program should try and concretely identify natural opportunities for collaboration where social relevance and economic potential are significant.
The program must successfully transfer the energy generated by to various Indian and Finnish agencies.
The strategy for the remaining portion of the India program was thus shaped and structured with the above in mind. With Sitra’s ability to plan and manage seminars the “seminar” became the vehicle of choice for executing the strategy; a means to an end but not an end in itself.

In the spring of 2008 the Sitra India program organized a series of India related seminars titled “The Essence of India”. Although distinct and self contained these seminars together attempted to achieve the goals discussed above by framing the social context of bilateral collaboration as well as identifying high value early stage economic opportunities in concrete terms.

“The Values of India” was the first seminar in this series. Since ancient times my nation that is now known as India has developed, shared and contributed to the pillars of free speech, right to justice and true knowledge as the source of well being. I felt that since values are a foundation of the Indian way of life starting our journey to discover the essence of India with a discussion on values would provide an excellent framing reference to assess and interpret modern India. Our invited Indian guests Dr. Arun Shourie, Dr. Sam Pitroda, and  Mr. Soli Sorabjee shared with our audience how despite contemporary challenges these vital pillars are intact and well functioning in India. I feel that due to her vast diversity there is a tendency of non-Indians to see India as many different Indias, even Sitra has published a series of books describing various Indias. Impressions notwithstanding, the seminar firmly established that despite diversity India and Indians are one Nation. A nation bounded by common values. It is these common values that also make India a natural partner to the Free Nations of this world.

Titled “Responsible India” the second seminar explored the opportunities to use Clean Technologies in managing Urban Waste in India. Special emphasis was given to the removal of Industrial, Human and Bio waste and the cleaning of our water bodies. The seminar drew attention to specific needs and challenges that Urban India must confront. It is self evident that India with her one billion plus population and a trillion dollar economy and with a forecasted annual growth of 7-8% does impose an environmental load that cannot be ignored, especially by India if she wishes to continue to reap the benefits of growth without incurring the burden of a environmental degradation. The seminar was attended by the top bureaucrats from the ministries of Urban Development and Pollution Control from the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. The Finnish consortium of environmental industries, its member companies and representatives from the Ministry of Environment were also in attendance.

To be Human may be our natural state but to be Humane is what I think most aspire to be. I believe that to be humane one has to be open to sharing and experiencing the feelings of another – especially the feelings of fear, pain, and grief. More than 700 million Indians live a life deprived of the most basic healthcare. Worldwide this same number could be as much as four billion. As a father of a three year old child I shudder to think of the fear, pain and grief that such deprivation must impose of so many families worldwide and in India.

The third Seminar titled “Empathic India” focused on the challenges in reaching out and providing the comforting embrace of affordable quality healthcare to these 700 million Indians. Although a seemingly daunting task the challenges also provide compelling economic opportunities. To many this may sound heartless but the truth is that the possibility of realizing economic gains is often a critical input that spurs innovation and the application of effort to overcome challenges. If global challenges like affordable healthcare, clean drinking water, reliable and clean energy and elimination of world hunger are to be effectively and sustainably tackled the world will need to harness the spark and energy of innovation. In such a perpsective economic gains in balance for a chance to overcome these problems is not such a bad deal. Wealth and welfare need not be mutually exclusive. Coming back to the issue of affordable quality healthcare, with the advances in technology, especially ICT, it seems possible to work out a sustainable model that overcomes many of the challenges in full measure.

Our spring seminar brought together senior bureaucrats from the ministries of Health and Family welfare from the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Karnataka with Finnish participants to discuss challenges and possible innovative responses. The Indian participants provided window into the challenges experienced by care givers and patients. Dr. Devi Shetty of Narayana Hrudayalaya Bangalore, a pioneer in the use of tele-medicine, was the key note speaker. Dr. Shetty shared actual examples of how real problems had been overcome by the innovative use of new technology and practice of modern management. Members of Finnish companies spearheading innovations in healthcare shared their insights on the latest developments in technology and the possible application of these to the Indian challenges.

The concluding seminar was titled “Inclusive India”. H.E. Dr. Abdul Kalam, the Former President of India, was the chief guest and the key note speaker at this event. He spoke on “the role of Technology in ensuring an inclusive and sustainable future”. Despite her present challenges, as India develops and joins the commity of the developed and free nations, it is India’s hope, her desire and our national aspiration to not leave any Indian behind. Dr. Kalam shared with the audience an integrated vision for the development of India that could be a model for other developing nations. From articulating the concept of PURA (providing urban amenities in rural areas) to defining the NPI (national prosperity index) Dr. Kalam developed an inclusive growth strategy. The corner stone of the strategy is economic inclusion. Inclusion resulting from connectedness, connectedness enabled by technology.

At the final seminar Dr. Mallika Sarabhai addressed the role of Women in creating and sustaining a vibrant value based India. Among their many contributions Indian women also play a significant role in helping India successfully navigate the turbulence and opportunities of globalization by gentle course corrections based on our values. Dr. Sarabhai also performed an interpretive dance titled “In search of the Goddess”. Through the medium of dance and expression Dr. Sarabhai explored the dissonance that seems to have been introduced into our lives by promoting a man’s interpretation of women in our mythology and history. Dr. Sarabhai argued that to evolve into an humane world we need to re-interpret the role of women through history by including the perspective of women.

I hope that the seminars in the “Essence of India” series did successfully broaden the dialog, amplify weak signals and transfer energy to actors outside Sitra, both in India as well as Finland. I do also hope that although the seminar series has ended the journey to discover the Essence of India has not.

As Mr. Esko Aho noted in his opening comments at the concluding seminar – India has, in her 10,000 years of history, never attacked another nation. India is a nation with ancient values that have modern relevance, a nation that has aspired and practiced peace throughout her history, a nation that has valued true knowledge as the source of human well being.  A little reflection will reveal that Inclusion is the root of Non-Violence and non-violence is essential for sustainability. As India re-discovers her essence Finland and her people will emerge as our natural partners, friends and collaborators.

Together we are strong!