Interview: "Everyone from the security guard to myself is a grievance resolution officer."
Many in the Atlanta Indian community have considered themselves fortunate to have had someone as personable and accomplished as Ajit Kumar as their very first Consul General when the Atlanta Indian Consulate opened about four years ago. So when his term came to an end, there was, understandably, some nervous anticipation to find out who would replace him. To his credit, NAGESH SINGH, who replaced Kumar recently, and who is a relatively young yet experienced diplomat, has been able to ease these concerns. Singh’s initiatives and personality reveal someone distinctly interested in serving his constituents. In an extensive interview, Singh discusses Indo-American relations, trade, consular services, and more.
There can be a vast difference between what a consul general’s constituents expect of him and what they perceive. The masses of the constituents are interested, first and foremost, in consular services—visas, passports, overseas citizenship cards and such. And yet, what the masses see in media reports and in public is a consul general who seems to be mostly out to “wine and dine,” socialize, and just live it up.
This unenviable perception exists because most constituents are unaware that besides offering smooth consular services, another equally important job function of the consul general is to promote trade, commerce, and relations between the two nations—making the prolific community outreach a crucial task, not just idle socialite stuff.
Judging from his initiatives, it appears that Consul General Nagesh Singh is quite conscious of such a conflict between expectations and perceptions of his role. With a single small but conclusive gesture, he sent out a message that he means business in ensuring that applicants of consular services don’t feel second class or ignored. “Earlier on the website there used to be only the Consul General’s name and two general numbers. The first thing when I came here, we put every officer’s name, number, and e-mail ID, including mine. There is a clear instruction that every email and phone call will be responded to,” said Singh. Considering that access to the staff is a major concern of applicants, such forthright availability is no small gesture.
Besides serving as a diplomat in various capacities for several West African countries, Singh has to his credit the distinction of directly serving the Vice President of India, as an Officer on Special Duty. “My specialization is in our neighborhood—Pakistan-Afghanistan- Iran,” says Singh about his roles in the Ministry, including as Private Secretary to the Minister of State of External Affairs, and as Under Secretary for Pakistan.
He is a graduate with B.A. Honors in Economics from the University of New Delhi and Master’s in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics, India. He is fluent in French, besides English and other Indian languages including Hindi. Following are excerpts from the interview.
Since Pakistan has been your focus, can you comment
on U.S.-India relations in context of the U.S.-Pakistan
I think the lowest point of the U.S.-India relationship was when we tested our nuclear bombs in 1998. Sanctions were automatically imposed on us as per U.S. laws. That was, I think, the nadir in the last two decades. But the warming of those relations followed soon after that during President Clinton’s time. There was a realization in the Clinton administration that India is a responsible country; it is the largest democracy, a plural society.
That was the time Strobe Talbott from the U.S. side and Jaswant Singh, who was our foreign minister, started this dialogue. They went all over the world, meeting in London, Frankfurt, here, there, to arrive at some kind of a modus vivendi, if I may say, because there was an anti-nuclear lobby here [in the U.S.] which was vehemently against us. So I think the normalization of the U.S.-India relationship started at that time.
In 1999, when the Kargil war was happening, it was the first time the Americans did not look at South Asia in a hyphenated manner. They saw the merits of the case—that Pakistan was the aggressor, it had violated the Line of Control as determined by the Shimla Agreement. President Clinton visited India, at that time; it was a very popular visit. He spent a few hours in Pakistan.
Then [came] President George W. Bush’s administration. 9/11 happened and suddenly people woke up to terrorism. We had been harping about terrorism for the last 20 years; nobody would listen to us. We were old victims of terrorism, since the ‘80s, ‘90s. When Taliban started destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas, I was somewhere in Africa. I was speaking to an American colleague of mine and saying that these things they are destroying are the heritage of mankind. This friend of mine, he showed me a globe and he said, ‘Nagesh we are here, and “your region” is here. It doesn’t even figure on our horizon.’ When 9/11 happened, I sent him a message saying, “I told you so.” There’s nothing like ‘It’s not on my horizon’ anymore in an interconnected world.
So, suddenly after 9/11, the national security interests between the US and India also started converging. With the nuclear deal, the U.S. was giving us an exception we thought we deserved given our responsible behavior. That was a paradigm shift, a signal to the rest of the world and even to the Indian people that the U.S can be trusted. That started the process. Today, it’s the most comprehensive relationship, whether it’s political issues, national security issues, trade, commerce, cultural, educational issues, healthcare, science and technology initiatives.
President Obama says this is the defining relationship of the 21st century. You saw President Obama’s visit to India in January and the kind of outcomes. There is so much of convergence—we don’t have any issue where we diverge. We are both pluralistic societies, we are both democracies, we are open societies who want economic wellbeing and inclusive growth for our people—multi-ethnic, multireligious, multicultural societies. So I think it’s going to be a very bright future. We are moving in the right direction. At times things are blown out of proportion. That, every relationship has. I’m sure the US and Canada undergo the same thing. The European Union is like a single entity but there also, there are disputes: France-Germany, UK-France. So my take is that this relationship is going to grow more and more.
What role do you see yourself playing in improving trade between Georgia and India?
We think this is the sunrise area in terms of the economy. New York and other such regions are well settled. I’m not saying that their economy is saturated but, here, we think this is the frontier as far as India is concerned, to come and try and facilitate trade, investment.
The big guys, the Tatas or the Birlas, have their agencies and they can get things done. But there’s a huge small- and medium-enterprise sector, which in my opinion is our strength, which needs help, handholding in terms of information about the market prospects, information about the regulatory mechanisms, etc. That’s where our role comes in: being a repository of information, resolution of problems, hurdles which might come in terms of local author- ities, dispute resolution—but primarily to let people know of the opportunities. Most small and medium enterprises perhaps don’t even know the potential that exists here. So our primary purpose here is to let our companies know of the opportunities here, to let the U.S.-based companies know of the opportunities which exist now in India.
The other thing is to let people know that India has changed. Yes, there are issues there as in any other country in terms of regulatory mechanisms, rules and regulations—but we are here to try to facilitate, rather than having people go there and get their hands burnt. We are sitting here to liaise with our own authorities whether at the Central level (the Federal level in India) or the State level, because there also it’s a complicated structure.
We don’t just want simple trade, buying and selling goods, we want to go beyond that in terms of creating jobs for people in this country. We understand there is a legitimate concern in this country that jobs are needed for the American people. Our people are willing to do that and we feel that our companies can come here and create jobs.
(Left) Inaugurating the International Day of Yoga in Atlanta.
From Travisa to BLS to Cox and Kings—the frequent changes in the outsourcing company used by the Consulate to process applications has been a bit unsettling for applicants.
Please comment on that.
The tendering and choosing of an outsourcing company is not done by the consulate or embassy, it comes from the headquarters. BLS, from what I heard, their performance did not meet the approval of the service seekers—they were misplacing documents, etc. The feedback was coming from all the consulates. From Houston and San Francisco strong representations were sent; there were accusations that at times it was [being done] deliberately to harass. The contract was terminated due to the quality of performance. Fresh tendering was done, and Cox and Kings was found to replace most of BLS responsibilities, but they were allowed to carry on with passport services; they are still doing the passport services. Visas have gone to Cox and Kings. I think BLS’s contract runs out soon and then a fresh tendering will be done. When Cox and Kings came last year, my colleagues tell me, there were teething troubles in terms of training people; they are all local people who don’t know the processes, they have never dealt with passports, etc. Every country has its own procedures. In the beginning it was a problem, but now I have myself visited at least twice or thrice these offices and talked to people there: visas are being returned the same day if everything is in order.
What can the community do to help you help us?
My biggest and foremost request is to be in touch with us. Please stay in touch with us. Let us know what you are doing. Two days ago we had a business delegation and we hosted them for lunch—but until day before yesterday, I didn’t even know they were here. I told them, you say Indian embassies and consulates don’t help you out, but you don’t tell me that you are here, so how am I expected to? They invited me to give a talk. I didn’t even know what sector they were from, who they were, why they were here. I told them you called me here, you should at least tell me!
The other day I was seeing on social media some consulate feedback. Someone was trashing the passport application form, saying it’s a travel document, why do you want to know my wife’s name, why do you want to know distinguishing marks. The passport is not just a travel document, but it is one of the most solid proofs of your identity. Having the wife’s name on the application helps reaffirm that identity. More so in the absence of marriage certificates, which is often the case in most marriages in India, it may act as a proof of marriage. And, God forbid, if something happens to you, who do we contact? How do we know that is the right person?
So the second request is, as far as the consular services are concerned, be patient with us. You want a dialogue, come to us. Somebody asked, ‘Do you have a grievance resolution officer here?’ I said, ‘Everyone from the security guard to myself, we are all grievance resolution officers.’ If you have a question, you will be responded to. We will explain to you. Don’t go raving and ranting about why the form is like that, why the passport is blue. It’s not in my hands. I can assure you that what is in my hands, I will do. What is not in my hands I will try and persuade the authorities wherever they are to try and resolve it. But there is no point in badmouthing and screaming, shouting. It is your right in a free and democratic society, you can do that, but it doesn’t help. We get disheartened be- cause our intentions are very good. We want to serve you and that’s why we are here.
From your experiences can you comment on the differences between the Indian diaspora here in the U.S. versus other places?
Very good question. One thing I would say is that with Indians in whichever part of the world, there is a degree of commonality. They are known for their hard work, intelligence, integrity, their law-abiding nature, doing their business, saving, etc. So they are popular wherever they are.
But differences are definitely there. Because of the host society, the challenges and opportunities are different. If you look at the Gulf, we have 6.5 million people in the West Asian countries and the majority, 80 percent, are blue collar workers. Most of them live there without their families, because migrating with the whole family is not easy for them. Every year if I am not mistaken, about $30-40 billion of remittances goes from there back home. We tend to focus on U.S. and U.K., but if you look at the foreign exchange remittances aspect, it comes from these hardworking blue collar chaps in the Gulf. Despite adversity they put their head down, slog their behinds in 50 degrees [Celsius] temperature, and earn and save for their families to prosper. If you look from a business standpoint, from the past 20-30 years, basically it’s the remittances from areas like the Gulf where the Diaspora has worked hard and saved and then remitted money back to their families, which has helped the economy.
In whatever form, they are spending money there because their kids are studying in India, the family lives there so they are investing, saving, and spending in India. But now something is starting: the political class in India suddenly are realizing we are talking about 7 million people who are not only spending money but their families live in India. Till some years ago I’d say government never focused on them because they were a voiceless people. But everything is improving steadily. This whole overseas Indian affair, when it started in 2004, was basically to start cultivating this constituency. If there is one guy working in Dubai, for example, he has 10 people living in India, so if you take care of this guy, the political mind said, we can take care of at least 10 votes back home. So there are differences.
Here in the U.S., you have articulate people who raise and discuss grievances. They are more affluent, demanding, and why not?
Throughout the conversation with Consul General Nagesh Singh, the esteem he held for his newest constituency was evident. He believes that through their success, the over 350,000 Indians in the six Southern states that his consulate serves, help to reinforce the positive vibes of Brand India. “The biggest credit I want to give to the Indian community in this country is that their success here has created a brand name for Indians worldwide.”
In closing, he added, “There’s business in every part of the world. But we are here because you are here. And we get a lot of leverage because you are here and you are successful. You are a big and influential community. So it’s a beautiful relationship and I think we can build on that and take our common objectives forward.”
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