Passages from India

2009-11-16 00:00

INDIA’S consul general in Durban, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, has spent just three years in South Africa. In that short time he has left an indelible mark. It is not just the sheer scope of activities that has taken place under his watch, but the many friends he has made.

While I was waiting to interview him last week, there was a steady stream of callers who had come to say their goodbyes. He was such a frequent visitor to Pietermaritzburg that the local 1860 Legacy Foundation will be holding a farewell function in his honour tonight.

Shringla said that he always made a special effort as far as Pietermaritzburg was concerned because the success of India’s freedom struggle was so intrinsically linked to the city. Mahatma Gandhi’s political awakening came after he was thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg station.

The consul general is also grateful that within days of his arrival he had an opportunity to come to a deeper understanding of Gandhi’s Satyagraha (nonviolence) philosophy, although at the time he admits that he wasn’t quite as appreciative of how it happened. He had just arrived in Durban when he received a call from Ela Gandhi informing him that a keynote speaker at the 100th anniversary celebration of Satyagraha, which was to be held in a couple of days, could not make it so Shringla would have to step in. Not only was it daunting that the person he had to replace was one of India’s most famous scholars —  world-renowned environmentalist Vandana Shiva — but he realised that he was going to be addressing an audience of specialists.

“My first days were spent surrounded by huge tomes of books and burning the midnight oil,” he says.

This engagement set the pace for Shringla because soon after he had to face one of the most challenging tasks of a foreign diplomat — preparation for a visit by his head of state, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

He hosted the Indian cricket team three times and oversaw some of the largest trade delegations from Indian to South Africa and vice versa.

He is particularly pleased at the strengthening of economic ties between his country and KwaZulu-Natal. Large Indian companies such as Apollo Tyres, Godrej, Marico Pharmaceuticals and GTP Concrete have set up factories in the province, employing a few hundred people. “I’ve seen small and medium entrepreneurship increase enormously in the plastic, packaging, food processing and garment sectors. There has been a great deal of dissemination of information among the chambers of business and industry between our two countries that has led to invaluable contacts being made,” said Shringla.

The consul general and his staff have also facilitated the holding of the largest chemical exhibition that India has hosted outside the country. This was followed by the largest automobile components exhibition, as well as trade fairs involving the plastics, ayurveda­ and tea sectors. They were also instrumental in arranging one of the largest business delegations from KwaZulu-Natal to visit India. Shringla says that Premier Zweli Mkhize led a delegation of 54 key business leaders, all of whom paid their own way to India. This has led to enormous collaboration in the knowledge-based sector, with the Indian government making a commitment to training more than 10 000 youth in the information technology industry

Shringla says that he has seen a lot of progress in KwaZulu-Natal and has a sense that the province is growing into a major economic hub in the country. “What has helped is the foresight of the provincial government to build a trade port and a new airport, as well as upgrade the harbour.

“This has certainly advanced the economic profile of the province,” he said.

The consul general was also committed to strengthening political and educational links, and his tenure saw different portfolio committees from the local legislature, such as housing and finance, visit India. He arranged Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s first visit to his country, as well as that of Durban mayor Obed Mlaba. He also facilitated a visit by the vice chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, which opened up avenues of collaboration in the field of higher education. Other opinion makers such as editors of local newspapers have also had the opportunity of visiting India. In return, there has been a steady stream of visitors to KwaZulu-Natal. Shringla said that he felt it was important to have these exchanges as India is the second fastest growing economy in the world and the largest democracy.

Perhaps of all that he has accomplished in his short stay in South Africa, Shringla will best be remembered for starting the Shared History Experience. The programme showcased India’s top artists, dancers, poets and writers. Speak to anyone who attended any of these events and they will tell you that it was an unforgettable experience. Even more importantly, shows were not confined to Durban but brought to Pietermaritzburg as well.

He says that when he first started the initiative he was told not to expect too much of an audience in places like Pietermaritzburg. He was surprised to find packed halls and was impressed by the level of enthusiasm from local audiences.

Shringla made a special effort to go to small towns and interact and engage with ordinary citizens. It is in these engagements with grass-roots communities where he will really leave his mark.

Community activism seems to be an integral part of the Shringla family. His wife, Hemal, a university lecturer and social worker, was involved in a rehabilitation programme with inmates at Westville Prison. He laughingly recalls being left without a TV on weekends as this was carted off to be used at the prison. Hemal was also involved with the Chatsworth Youth Centre where she worked with youth workers on an anti-drugs campaign.

While Shringla leaves a lasting impression on KwaZulu-Natal, he says that the province will always hold a special place in his heart. He will remain grateful for the warm welcome he and his family received, and for the many friends they have made. He describes his time here as an incredible experience filled with rich and lasting memories.

The consul general is returning to Delhi where he will be involved in the Ministry of External Affairs. He will be succeeded by Anil Sharan, who is currently posted in Washington DC.

CV

HARSH Vardhan Shringla arrived in Durban at the end of August 2006 from his prior posting as Minister in the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations in New York.

A career diplomat who grew up in the state of Darjeeling, Shringla joined the foreign service in 1984. His many postings have included stints in Paris, Vietnam and Israel. Shringla graduated from Delhi University’s St Stephen’s College. He worked for Brooke Bond India, part of the Uni-lever Group, and Air India before joining the Indian Foreign Service. He and his wife Hemal have an 11-year-old son, Ashoka.

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