South India Hui
reveals country's contrasts and contradictions

Whether returning to India for the fifth time or making their first visit to the sub-continent, for the 16 Leadership Network members who took part in last month’s South India Hui it was an eye-opening experience that pressed home to them the massive changes the country is going through.

Watch a slideshow of images taken on the trip

The hui was held over five days in and around the neighbouring cities of Mysuru (Mysore) and Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) in Karnataka State. The programme was developed to support Leadership Network members learn about India and take an active role in strengthening New Zealand’s relationship with the country.

One of the first activities of the hui was a cycle tour along the dusty dirt roads and through the lush vegetation of Srirangapatnam Island near Mysuru. Their tour guide, Stephen Farrell, pointed out historic and cultural sites of significance along the way and also provided insights into what he saw as some of the challenges facing India, a key theme of the hui. One truism imparted by Stephen that network member Madeleine Lock says echoed in her ear throughout her time in India was that one thing you could rely on was India being “consistently inconsistent.”

Seeing women of the Dalit (untouchable) caste searching the polluted Kaveri River during the ride brought home to network members two of the greatest obstacles facing India’s development: women’s rights and the entrenched caste system, issues that condemn millions to poverty.

Network member Victoria Hodgson: “Here we saw how a system of the past was still impacting the present. Despite seventy years of affirmative action to reduce the caste system, Dalits are still hugely disadvantaged in Indian society.”

 Looking down from above on people sorting flowers in a market

While some wheels turn slowly in India, others have been accelerating at pace. Bengaluru, Karnataka State’s capital, is known as India’s Silicon Valley due to the prevalence of information technology companies. For many years the city was seen as the place to go for cheap tech labour but things have changed in recent years and now the city is viewed as a hub of innovation and home to entrepreneurs and the latest tech start-ups.

In Bengaluru the group visited Microsoft Accelerator and social entrepreneur accelerator the Ashoka Foundation where they met young entrepreneurs and were briefed about India’s start-up culture. The visit reinforced to them that India is no longer a technological backwater and is poised to play an increasingly important role as a source of innovation.

The world’s outdated perception of India is itself viewed as an obstacle to development. As hui member Anjukan Kathirgamanathan notes: “…a common message that Indians we met wanted to be shared is that ‘The New India’ is ready to tackle the problems affecting India and the rest of the world.”

Meetings with high-level dignitaries, including New Zealand High Commisioner HE Joanna Kempkers and Trade Commissioner Ralph Hays, provided insights into New Zealand’s relationship with India, and how it has changed over recent years.

A key message of High Commisioner Kempkers’ was that despite New Zealand’s small size we are well regarded in India as a niche operator, with a focus on five key sectors: defence, agriculture, specialised manufacturing, healthcare and aviation. She said India’s ascension will be a key driver of the world economy over coming decades: “We’ve seen China’s rise…and now it’s about India’s rise.”  

Hays briefed the group on ‘navigating India’, showing them NZTE’s online tool that assists businesses looking to export to India with creating business plans and country reports. An indispensable piece of advice Hays afforded to the group was the importance for those wanting to do business in India to first do the hard yards and build relationships and develop cultural understanding.

With authoritarian leaders becoming a staple of world politics, the state of India’s media and its role in the world’s largest democracy was the theme of a talk given to the hui members by the associate editor of English newspaper the Deccan Herald, Mr BS Arun.

Despite India performing poorly in freedom of press rankings - sandwiched between Myanmar and Pakistan at number 138 in Reporters Without Boarders 2018 press freedom ranking - Mr Arun expressed optimism that the fourth estate in India remains strong and is still able to hold politicians to account.

During a plan-your-own-activity day, the group scheduled their own meetings/outings, including meetings with the Association of African Students in India, Bangalore Performing Arts School and the director of the Indian Space Research Centre.

In both Bengaluru and Mysuru Chris Henderson and Laura McKay donned their running shoes to explore the nearby mountains on early morning runs. As Chris puts it, getting out and about and delving into unknown is one of the best ways to get an understanding of India: “There’s much to learn from wandering without aim or direction. On these journeys, down streets, alleyways, and through markets, the unplanned interactions can bring insights not otherwise gained.”

A Leadership Network member meeting a cow on a street at night

Chris Henderson: “There’s much to learn from wandering without aim or direction. On these journeys, down streets, alleyways, and through markets, the unplanned interactions can bring insights not otherwise gained.”

Masina Taulapapa, who led the trip with the Foundation’s deputy executive director Adele Mason, says the hui was about challenging participants and getting them out of their comfort zones, developing new skills, meeting new people, and getting a taste of India.

“The trip gave network members the opportunity to develop their leadership skills and build lasting connections both within the network and with people we met on the trip.

“Through getting a taste of a different culture, it brings into relief aspects of our own culture and our own lives.”

Articles about the hui written by leadership Network members who attended will be published over coming weeks.