On January 21st, Editor-in-Chief of ‘The Gate’, Patrick Reilly spoke with Dr Ausaf Sayeed, Consul General of India in Chicago. Dr Sayeed visited the University of Chicago’s International House for a film screening sponsored by the Indian Consulate, the University of Chicago’s Diplomatic Encounters Series, and International House’s Global Voices Lecture Series. This interview was made possible through the Gate’s partnership with the Global Voices Interview Series.
Dr Sayeed assumed his current post in Chicago in August 2013. Previously, he had served for several decades as an Indian diplomat throughout the Middle East and Europe. Here’s what he had to say:
Gate: You began your career studying geology in India. From that background, why did you decide to go into the foreign service?
Dr Sayeed: As students, you explore various career options. In India, the bureaucratic services are what are known as the civil services, which are actually the legacy of the British time. They are supposed to be one of the best services in terms of what they could offer to you, as career options, so that was one of my reasons to explore that. But for this, I would have perhaps been in an oil company … I chose foreign service because I had a fascination and a dream to travel and see different parts of the world and learn about different cultures, so when I got through the exams, which are a fairly rigorous process, and opted for foreign service, I was very happy because I thought that I could go around, see people, meet people, learn about different cultures and languages and things like that.
Gate: Prior to coming to Chicago, you worked in various posts in the Middle East, as well as in Denmark. How would you compare your work here to those other countries?
Sayeed: In some ways the diplomatic work has similar guidelines. One of the guidelines would be that you work hard to bring the two countries together—or the two regions together—wherever you’re posted, in terms of [improving] the political understanding between the two sides, in terms of promoting greater trade investment and greater people-to-people interaction, educational collaboration, and cultural collaboration. In the Middle East, we had another dimension of the work added. It was the large Indian workforce working for various Middle Eastern companies. So we also had to make sure that they were well-treated and taken care of.
Now, working in the US is slightly different. I look after the nine states of the US Midwest. The geographical area might be more than the size of several countries. So that itself is quite challenging, in terms of travel, and different regions have their different strengths. But here the canvas is much wider, and opportunities are more. Even if you take educational collaborations [for example], you have some of the world’s best universities located here in the Midwest and in the US in general. So that dimension is different. There’s a greater learning curve here, but there are greater possibilities, so I think this is one of the most amazing and challenging postings.
Gate: You served as India’s ambassador to Yemen from 2010-2013. As the Arab Spring unfolded in that country, what were your priorities? Can you tell us a little more about what that was like?
Sayeed: When we were posted in Yemen, everything actually started in front of our eyes. [We watched] how the movement unfolded and how it developed into what it ultimately became. And what we realized was that it all started with the aspirations of the people who felt that they were not involved in decision-making, who were not involved in economic development. It was spearheaded by students, youngsters who had aspirations to do something better in life, and they felt that that regime, at that particular time, was not doing enough to tackle these issues—issues of poverty and integrating people.
So our priority at that time was, first of all, to ensure the safety and security of the internationals who were working there. And also to ensure that the country didn’t go down the line of complete chaos and civil war, because as far as India is concerned, any kind of a war in the Middle East region could have a cascading effect on our own economy. We are dependent on oil, so we didn’t want the oil supplies to be affected. Plus there’s the Gulf of Aden—around one hundred fifty billion dollars’ worth of trade was moving through that region. So if that region is in turmoil, not only oil, but regional trade is affected, [and] movement is affected. So I think many things were at stake.
With Yemen, we had a pretty long relationship with India. Aden was governed from Bombay during the British times, we had people to people flow. With Yemen being so close to India, if the region goes into turmoil, it’s bound to have some effect on our economy.
Gate: You’ve come here for a screening of the documentary India Awakes, which tells an uplifting story about how economic liberalization is empowering Indians to improve their lives. But it seems that the poorest Indians are still suffering from a lack of government services. Just a few days ago, the New York Times ran a story about a serious housing shortage in Delhi. Do you see a way that India can expand social welfare programs while removing burdensome regulations?
Sayeed: Yes. First of all, I want you to understand the perspective of India. It’s a complex country—a huge, complex country—where you have a population of 1.2 billion people, and people of all different religious stocks, and people from different socioeconomic backgrounds out there. But the fact is that, as a country, India has survived as one monolithic mass since it gained independence from the British.
But when you expect changes in countries so oversized in magnitude and complexity, you should also factor in time. Because it’s easier to counter a problem in a smaller geographical area with a more homogeneous composition than a heterogeneous society. But, having said that, even since independence, we have brought down the percentage of people below the poverty line from almost around 50% to now 20-22%. So … people are becoming more empowered, more economically empowered, and more empowered in terms of their rights.
In terms of outreach of the governmental programs, while the sincerity is there, the sheer spread is so much that it will take time for … the ideal scenario, where the percentage of poverty is really under control. But having said that, we should also be mindful that poverty is not endemic only to a particular region or a particular country. It’s a global problem. And even developed countries are facing this as one of their important and major challenges.
Gate: Last month, the Gate interviewed Ambassador Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States. On the topic of India, he said: “Pakistan could actually benefit from India’s economic growth by trading more with India, but that is not how most Pakistanis see India. They see their enemy as growing and becoming more powerful.” How do you think India’s diplomats can change that view among Pakistanis?
Sayeed: What you’re quoting is completely correct. I agree with you, because if you see this South Asia region as such, there is greater scope for economic integration and economic collaboration. Many regions which have collaborated economically have progressed. You can see the integration in Europe, for example. Of course, it’s had its own Eurozone problems, but at the same time, there was progress.
But unfortunately, in South Asia, there has been these issues mainly because of certain, I would say, apprehensions on the part of some countries, mainly Pakistan, that you mentioned. But then, from the Indian perspective, our government has always wanted peaceful relationships with all the neighbors. Prime Minister Modi has taken several initiatives to reach out to each of these countries—particularly Pakistan, which was unprecedented. Last month, he actually flew to Pakistan and met the Prime Minister of Pakistan in a private function.
And from the economic point of view, India has always taught that if there were a greater trade, it would benefit Pakistan more than it would benefit India. We weren’t the most-favored nation for Pakistan‘s [trade] around thirty years ago. Pakistan has only recently decided to leave that status to India. Their apprehension has been that Indian goods would flood the market, and local industry would break down. But in the end, what was also happening was that they were importing things from far-off regions at much higher cost to the public than getting the goods from right across the border in India, which is very easy. Likewise, Pakistani goods can also go to India. So I think it makes greater sense for economic integration in South Asia than remaining in economic isolation.
Gate: What has been the most memorable moment in your career with the foreign service?
Sayeed: There was a time when I was posted in Saudi Arabia, where every year the king grants amnesty to people who may not have regulated status. That means if they’ve come to the country to work one job, and they’ve shifted to some other job without the documentation being done, [at the time of the amnesty] they allow the people to go. So we had at one point forty thousand people accumulated on the streets of Jeddah, forty thousand Indian workers. And the idea of the whole thing was to feed them and then send them back to India within the span of one month. This all was done by mobilizing the support of the people, and they all came through, and it was a challenging task. Things like that become extremely challenging, but at the same time, it gives you a greater satisfaction that, as a Foreign Service officer, you are able to really bring about some change in the life of the people. (This article was first published at uchicagogate.com)