Arun Kumar Goel, Consul General of India in Sydney (Consular jurisdiction: New South Wales and South Australia) feels that there is lack of unity among Indians, which is proving to be the stumbling block for Indians in Australia.
A career diplomat, Arun Kumar has served in various capacities at Indian diplomatic missions in Bonn, Bagdad, Dakar and Prague. He has served as the Consul General of India in Hamburg (2000-04) and High Commissioner of India in Seychelles (2004-08).
Before taking the charge of the oldest Govt. of India office in Sydney in June 2012, Goel worked in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi (March 2008-June 2012) as Joint Secretary responsible for India’s bilateral relations with the countries of South-East Asia and Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand. It is his seventh assignment outside India.
Arun Kumar Goel talks to Shveata Chandel Singh about his plans and concerns about the Indian community settled in Australia.
Q. Tell us something about yourself?
I belong to Chandigarh, but had my early school education in Patiala. After middle school, I did my senior secondary school and college from Chandigarh. After completing a Master’s degree in Economics from Panjab University at the age of 21, I started my career at the State Bank of India as a probationary officer in 1975.
After four years at SBI, I left as I had qualified for the Indian Economic Service (IES) as also the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), which I joined in 1979. That was the start of my current profession.
Before coming to Sydney I was based at the HQs in Delhi incharge of the Southern Division, dealing with 26 countries in South East Asia and Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. During this period, I was also responsible for India-Australia relations.
Q. You have worked in different capacities and in various countries; how do you see your diplomatic career shaping?
I got an opportunity to work in various capacities in my diplomatic career and have served in different countries. It looks glamorous but it is not as it appears to be. There are always some downsides associated with everything, and an aspect of this job is that where women (as spouses) are also equally qualified and doing their best in their respective fields, being in this job amounts to the sacrifice of the career of one person which is somewhat harsh.
On the other hand, the children while moving from country to country with you become more tolerant and meet students of varying nationalities, but the downside is that they are not able to make lifelong friends.
In a way, you are like a rolling stone all your life. As far as working in an ideal country is concerned, it is just like an ideal car which does not exist in reality. Here we don’t have a set of conditions to make some headway with the local bureaucracy but it all depends on how positively the people of that particular country are inclined towards India and the Indian population. How much headway you will be able to make depends on to what extent the local system co-operates with you there.
Q. Having taken over the charge as Consulate General of India in Sydney in July 2012, how do you view challenges ahead of you and does your role remain confined to Sydney only or you are covering whole of Australia?
India has three Consulates presently in Australia with one each in Sydney, Perth and Melbourne but the oldest one is the Sydney office, which dates back to 1941. It was known as the Trade Commission of India.
Until a few years ago, the Sydney office looked after the Trade and Commercial affairs for all of Australia, but later in 2006 a separate Consulate was opened in Melbourne and another one opened in Perth in November 2011.
One of its main roles of the Sydney Consulate is to take up Trade and Commercial relations of the states of SA and NSW, but at the same time the Sydney Consulate also deals with many other issues related to the Indian community including the passports, visas and other consular matters. The Sydney office is also responsible for the statistical data for the whole of Australia.
The Melbourne Consulate looks after the Trade and Commerce relations for the States of Victoria and Tasmania, and the Perth office for WA and Canberra High Commission for states of ACT, Queensland and NT.
Q. You are in Sydney for over a year now; what has been your experience with the Indian community in Australia?
Fortunately, Sydney wasn’t new to me. I was quite familiar with Australia and our bilateral relations. I have had two tenures working with Australia, one from 1997-2000 and other from 2008-2012; this time the difference is that it is from the Australian end, but I don’t have to start afresh. When the student problem rose I had visited this place twice.
Still we can’t say that all students’ issues have been solved hundred per cent, so our main aim is to make the authorities aware that we need to be vigilant, so that if any such issue arises it can be resolved easily.
There are many other issues like the International English Language Testing (IELTS), which is mandatory for studying/seeking residency or a job in this country. Indians do have some prior knowledge of English. So, if a student is coming from a very reputed school, college or university in India, these ever-changing language requirements should not be a hurdle for him.
Also, a person has to give an English test again and again as there are different sets of requirements for job, permanent residency etc. But if a person has cleared the test once, there should be no need for him to sit for the language test again. We are hopeful that we would be able to do something in this direction and prevail upon authorities to streamline these regulations.
The Indian community is very vibrant and lively but to transform our strength into an effective voice, effort is required to have one Indian association like some other communities.
If numerous Indian Associations form a single Indian association, we’ll see that the results will be fast. All of us belong to different parts of India and speak different languages, but we should appear as a single united community to the outside world.
The recent census has shown that the Indian community is growing the fastest in Australia. Transparency in the working of Indian associations is desirable. The election of various office-bearers in these associations must be open, transparent, conducted at regular intervals and details available on the websites.
On the cultural front too, we have to maintain good standards while organising our functions. The functions should be short and crisp rather than those which carry on for hours and do not adhere to the stated time as per run-sheet.
These are issues, for people to consider.
Q. The number of the elderly parents visiting their children is increasing in Australia; they are not too old; they can work; how do you visualise tapping their experience and talent positively, so they too play a useful role, say, in their second career?
Yes, the number of the elderly people living along with their children is increasing rapidly in Australia and it is true that this community is facing some problems. They either visit their children forshort durations or some even stay with their children permanently.
Earlier, getting a visa for a longer period for them was a problem, but from November 2012, the Australian government has agreed to issue five-year visas with multiple entries to them. This is in fact a good initiative. They can now stay for up to one year on every visit on the basis of such visas.
Loneliness is another problem for the elderly people here. We do have some senior-citizen associations, as also retirement homes and efforts are being made to have more such facilities for the elderly. Indian associations have done goodwork so far, in establishing Indian-style-old age people homes/retirement villages. The retirement homes provide an opportunity to the elderly people to be with people of their own circle, discuss and share with others. Time is at a premium with young people and the main expectation of the elderly people is that they want someone to talk to, so the senior citizens associations and retirement homes are good initiatives.
Also, there is very little reading material for them. Earlier, we used to get some newspapers/magazines from India and send those magazines to the senior-citizen associations, but now we are not receiving such material by bag.
Whenever I attend any function, whatever magazines I do have with me, I take it along for use of the people. Same is the case with music. Elderly people are fond of listening to music on radio, but nowadays the trend is of internet radio.
But to keep busy the elderly can also take up teaching their acquired skills to the younger generation like the Indian languages, Indian cuisine, culture, celebrations etc and this way the young generation will also get to know more about their culture.
Q. The number of the Indian students coming to Australia has declined in the past few years, mainly because they find it little difficult to find jobs after. How do you view this scenario and what can be the approach to address this problem?
Students are investing so much in their education, but they are unable to benefit adequately from the acquired skills. Most of the students here, are working far below their qualifications. After completing their studies they should be given an opportunity to work with some good companies, but unfortunately after every short interval rules are changed in the job market.
So a bit of consistency is required and I think that is one of the factors that has led to a decrease in the number of the students coming here for higher study, as also the value of Indian rupee which has fallen to Rs. 58 to 1 AUD from Rs. 45 for 1 AUD just two years ago.
Indian businesses can also provide short-term apprenticeships to our students. The consulate will try to create a database of interested Indian businesses willing to provide work opportunities for new migrants. This way, they will gather experience and it will help in shaping their career as well.
Q. What role do you expect the Indian community to perform especially in the backdrop of incidents involving Indian students?
Whenever the students issue is mentioned, we should always keep in mind a few factors and admit that there are some shortcomings. Earlier, a majority of students were coming to Australia to do courses in the vocational sector. Now the trend has changed. Students are coming to attend courses in universities. Still, student safety is an area of concern and the Indian community settled here can help in this regard.
The main problem that students face is that they come into a totally new environment where they are all alone. The Indian community can follow the example of other countries including the US, where the American universities allot a host American family to every student so that the student gets better acquainted to the country. The host family not only works as a referral point but also helps in rapid settling down.
Q. Tell us something about the bilateral relations between Australia and India.
Bilateral relations between Australia and India are very good. We fortunately have no areas of concern but our effort is to move even faster. India and Australia have many commonalities; we share a common language and also similar Government / Parliamentary systems.
Two main areas worth mentioning are nuclear fuel supply, where the Australian government has agreed to supply Uranium to India, once the bilateral safeguards agreement is worked out and the on-going cooperation between the two countries in the fields of science, technology, education and defence.
There is need to improve the pace of our interaction. Trade imbalance remains a concern.
In foreign trade, whether you export a physical product or a skilled service, it is an export. But we face numerous hurdles w.r.t. easier movement of skilled professionals from India to Australia – an area which is our strength.
Q. What have you to say about trade relations between the two countries? What is required to give impetus to business relations?
Australian institutions have done some excellent researches which have potential uses in India. Brisbane University has developed a species of banana with added iron. If India grows such things, iron deficiency can be stopped to certain extent.
There are many other examples as well, so the need of the hour is to have increased bilateral cooperation for mutual benefit.
Q. How do you plan to further improve ties between India and Australia?
There are no major issues between India and Australia. I would rather say there are only a few wrinkles so to speak and we have to make efforts to remove those for even better ties.
For example, a lot can be done to improve trade-levels. Australia is rich in natural resources like gold, copper, iron-ore and coal and these are required in ever greater quantities by the Indian economy’s growing needs. Australian products are very much in demand in India.
Also, a few improvements are needed in some other fields including education and we are working on that, like mutual recognition of qualifications. A person coming from India has to get his degree accredited and see how many of his already acquired credits will be accepted. If India accepts the degrees of the students going from here to India then the same should be the process here, i.e.Indian degrees should also get due credit here.
Q. Culture is integral to Indian community. They are conscious of conserving it. What steps you envisage for giving further fillip to cultural promotion?
There are many associations making efforts to promote Indian culture in Australia. Still there has been no Indian Cultural centre in Sydney and we are planning to open such a centre soon. We have such centres in Fiji, Bali, Jakarta, etc, so our plan is to provide such a cultural centre for Indians here as well.
It will have audio-visual facilitiesand a hall which will be available to the community organisations at nominal rates.
Q. How does Government of India plan to promote Indian culture in Sydney?
There are many Indian cultural events like dance, dramas, yoga, etc. that can be shown to a wider audience. Presently, we are gearing up for the Regional Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in November, which is expected to be attended by almost 1000 delegates. It will be held in Sydney.
The schedule for the programme is almost finalised. It is, of course, too optimistic to expect every one of the half a million Indian Origin people in Australia to be able to spare the time to attend the convention in person. However, later on, the proceedings of the Convention will be well-publicised, perhaps even put on Youtube.
We are expecting participation of the Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs, as also some other Ministers of the Central Government, delegations from the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Overseas Indian Facilitation Centre. Some State Governments from India have also shown interest.
Q. Why Indian government decided to organise event in Sydney?
When we think of Australia – we automatically think first of Sydney which is one of the most well-known cultural and touristic destinations in Australia, and an ideally located city. New South Wales also has a large, vibrant Indian origin population, which we hope, will render all support in making this event a big success.