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Interview: Meet Consul General Dr. Swati V. Kulkarni

By Parthiv N. Parekh Email By Parthiv N. Parekh
January 2019
Interview: Meet Consul General Dr. Swati V. Kulkarni

A serene and warm demeanor combined with a sharp mind and a willingness to serve, makes Dr. Kulkarni yet another promising Consul General for Atlanta. In our interview, she talks about how she intends to take on her new role, her goals, and her insights on the Indian diaspora, culled from her varied postings.

It’s hard to believe that the Consulate General of India in Atlanta (CGI–Atlanta) is already on to its third Consul General—considering it seems like only “yesterday” that we were hearing of talks about Atlanta getting its own new Consulate. Now in its seventh year, CGI–Atlanta saw its third CG kick into action in September 2018. (The term limit for the position is three years).

We wanted to give Dr. Kulkarni a couple of months in the office before asking for an introductory interview, so that we could have a more meaningful chat—after she has had some time to orient herself to the new place and to know the community a bit. How deftly she handled Diwali Fest, a recent joint community event, is a testament to her ability of working with diverse interests. This was one of the rare times, if not the first time, that dozens of diverse community organizations, some of which have been competitive, if not antagonistic towards each other, came together to present a united front.

Dr. Kulkarni’s foray into diplomatic services is itself an interesting story—considering that she graduated as a medical doctor. She had interests in plastic surgery and biomedical engineering. So how and why the shift to diplomacy and foreign services? She credits this destiny-changing decision to her father’s best friend. A seasoned and high-profile lawyer himself, he could see a higher potential in Kulkarni. He goaded her, saying, “Many people become doctors and engineers. Why don’t you go for the tough Union Public Service Commission Examinations?” This was meant for people looking for higher posts in Indian government and foreign services. It was a tough call for Kulkarni, but she ultimately put her faith in the elder gentleman’s counsel.

Besides several posts in foreign services in places like London, Mauritius, and Spain, Kulkarni, prior to her Atlanta posting, was Regional Passport Officer, Mumbai, Maharashtra (2014-2018), Consul General in Cape Town, South Africa (2012-2014), and Deputy Head of Mission in Muscat, Oman (2008-2012).

Following are excerpts from our interview in her office at the Consulate in Sandy Springs, Georgia.

You have served as a diplomat in South Africa and Oman. Can you comment on what are the similarities and differences in the Indian diaspora in both these countries?
The differences are quite stark. Indians came to South Africa as indentured laborers, while in the Middle East they came in search of jobs—everything from housemaids to laborers. In South Africa, over generations, Indians became successful business owners, took part in the freedom struggle, and rose in politics, education, and academics.

In Oman, the majority of them came from Bihar, UP, and Kerala. We had seventeen schools, with 34,000 Indian students. They were seen as Indians living in Oman, with very close and active connections with India, whereas in South Africa they got assimilated. They spoke the native language and went to the standard local schools [as opposed to Indian schools, as in Oman]. People from Muscat send money to India. In South Africa, they mostly utilize it back for the development of their own country.

Now that you have been here a couple of months, what are your impressions about the Indian community of Atlanta?
I am so impressed with so many high caliber people. I have interacted closely with professionals like doctors, physicians, IT professionals, lawyers. I can proudly say that the quality of people we are giving to this country is amazing. Their creativity, innovation is so important today in contributing to the development of this country.

How would you rate this diaspora’s contribution to India compared to Indians in the other places you have been posted?
It’s difficult to quantify. Let’s say in the Middle East—they are sending so much of remittances to India. In South Africa, somehow or other they have kept alive our traditions, even after so many generations. Everywhere I went in South Africa, they would say, “You gave us Mohandas Gandhi, but we gave you ‘Mahatma.’” He was groomed there. These are things you can’t really quantify. Speaking of here, Indian-Americans have propelled the IT revolution in India. Many of them didn’t just stay in Silicon Valley; they went back to help the digital revolution in India.

What recommendations would you have for a more cohesive community in the Atlanta region, considering the tremendous amount of diversity we have here, with over a couple hundred organisations?
I think the communities have all the ingredients to become one. The thing is it happens very slowly. We can say it’s a painstaking process. But I am so confident that there is a realization amongst them that we have to unite and contribute. There is no other option. If we have done the International Yoga Day together, why cannot we do other cultural events together? Once we get that comfort of doing [joint events], we can help leverage it for political gains. I think it will happen. Whether it will happen or not, is not a question, it just has to happen.

What is it you bring to this office that may be unique or different compared to the prior CGs? What are your chief goals in this posting?
It is not about being unique or different; you should work as a team. The first CG was so busy in having the infrastructure set up, and the second CG tried his utmost to establish the groundwork. Now, I will reap the benefits of their work in building a superstructure. So it’s team work.

What I have set myself up for is to have an Indian bank here. It will help the Consulate, it will help the start-ups. Next is to have a direct flight between Atlanta and India. And the third thing which I am trying for is having a robust Indo-American Chamber of Commerce (The Atlanta chapter of the National Indian American Chamber of Commerce, NIACC, was launched in November, with support from CG, and amidst great fanfare and dignitaries like the Honorable Minister of State for External Affairs General (Dr.) V. K. Singh and former mayor Andrew Young at the event.)

So this chamber of commerce would be under the banner of the Consulate?
Yes, we will support them. They will do the work on trade and investment front. This region has lagged behind in this area, as most of such efforts were focused on California, Washington D.C., etc. A little detour is required in this part of the world. There is so much new opportunity in Atlanta.

Former CG Nagesh Singh had said in an interview with us that one of his objectives was to expand the footprint of the Consulate much beyond metro Atlanta, into the rest of its constituency. Is that something you will continue?
I am very serious about it. Since September 1st, I have already traveled to all our regions except South Carolina, Mississippi, and the US Virgin Islands. I have already been to Florida thrice. By February, I want to cover every state [in our jurisdiction], so that I know exactly how to channelize various projects which we want to do. And we really have to do it fast, because our time of three years will go quickly.

In terms of visa, passport, and other consular services, will anything change under your term?
Consular service is our first public window. It’s our first point where we interact with people. I strongly believe that if it’s not a well-oiled machinery then as far as our image building is concerned, we will lose out. So it’s my first priority, and I am really going to work hard. People shouldn’t feel that we are sitting in some ivory tower. We are there to help you out. We want community partnerships in this. What I have told all the community organisations is that they have to select two people from each community. We will train them, teach how to fill up the forms in each category—visa, passport, Overseas Indian Citizenship.

We are also making our website user friendly, so that the information in it is compact and not scattered. Then we also want to do certain power points or videos where we will handhold applicants on how to fill each column. It’s a little iterative process. We don’t want to create confusions, so we are going rather slowly. First important thing we did was to call our NIC (National Informatics Centre) people and told them to have a look at our office, to see whether we could have certain procedural improvements. They have activated our OCI printer here, so that printing that happened back home, it will happen right here once we have approvals for it. So that time will be reduced.

Then, we have the Passport Seva Project (which was inaugurated by Honorable Minister of State for External Affairs General (Dr.) V. K. Singh, on November 25th). It will bring everything in an auto-mode. Starting from the time you fill up the form till the printing of passport, everything will be online.

I am working towards how to make online money transfers for consular services. We have identified Bank of Baroda as a partner. We want to work with them to see whether that end could also be covered digitally.

How about Visa camps?
We have already done an annual calendar. Each month we will do two visa camps—one which will be near Georgia, and another will be far away. It will be done so that people will know that Visa forms are not at all very difficult. It is easy, so the mental block goes away.

How will you help and protect Indians in your constituency in the current climate of extreme anti-immigrant sentiments in the U.S.? For example, if there is a wrongful arrest of an Indian national, what can and will your office do in such a situation?
For us, with any Indian in distress, we are very mindful of the fact that we have to be prompt. Any legal issue, any small issue, if someone gets entangled in that, and he knocks our door or we come to know through the community, it will be our utmost priority to reach out to him very quickly, and help him as much as we can, whether to give him best of lawyer, medical treatment, or psychological counseling.

I have been in Muscat and I have seen how things could go wrong, with laborers not getting paid, getting injured and all that. I have learnt from these experiences.

Our emergency numbers are on our Twitter handle and Facebook. People in distress can contact us quickly. During natural calamities, we make sure that proactively, we reach out to the Indian communities, offer them our emergency numbers. We also want to empanel lawyers with our Consulate, so that if there are NRI marriages that have gone bad or some other legal issue, we know that they can choose from the list of lawyers.

You have come here at a time when the political climate of the nation is extremely polarized. Does that affect your job? Does it ever frustrate you that as a diplomat you can’t take a stance politically, socially, or otherwise?
I don’t think I agree with that basically. Every country has its national interests. We have our own. Whatever national interests there are, we make certain sets of objectives which are projected as our foreign policy. Same thing happens with this country, so if it is in their national interest, sometimes we get a perception that it doesn’t work out for us. But I feel that within the limits of their interests, and our requirements, we need to work together. And I have seen that happen very nicely. It’s a balance one has to achieve, and it can be achieved. Because both the parties understand that without achieving that balance, nobody exists. I have seen this bipartisan approach at all the levels, from top political leadership to down the line.

Lately, Sardar Patel’s Statue of Unity has been in the news. What do you make of the criticism against it? That “it is too costly,” “unnecessary,” or that “Sardar Patel himself would not have approved of such an ostentatious image of him.”
Criticism is always welcome. It’s good because it always makes us reflect on certain things. I feel that our top political leadership must have taken a decision after weighing all pros and cons. So this Statue of Unity is surely going to be a reminder for all of us that our country is the best example of the Unity in Diversity. We have all the diversities of religions, caste, culture, creed, and still we stand together and work together—at the same time work for our economic development together, everything together. It’s not either-or. We need to nurture our diversity and our unity. I think that is what it stands for.

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