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Craig Jeffrey, AII’s new CEO, on why India is more than just a window to the contemporary world

“India is important over and above its position on the map as a kind of window into the contemporary world, and that’s an argument that I want to make at all sorts of venues for investing in an institute like ours.”

India is a sixth of the world, one in ten people in the world is an Indian youth… this is an extraordinarily important part of the world

Indian Sun – New

Australia India Institute’s (AII) new Director professor Craig Jeffrey is calling for investment in the institute as Australia’s only centre dedicated to the study of India, “an extraordinarily important part of the world”.

Speaking about India’s significance for Australia, the University of Oxford professor told the Indian Sun: “India is important over and above its position on the map as a kind of window into the contemporary world, and that’s an argument that I want to make at all sorts of venues for investing in an institute like ours.”

With governments and companies increasingly looking to India as the world’s next potential superpower and growth engine, Prof Jeffrey said scholars are also more interested in studying the country. “They recognise that India is a sixth of the world, one in ten people in the world is an Indian youth… this is an extraordinarily important part of the world,” he said.

Prof Jeffrey took up a five-year appointment as AII Director in October, replacing Professor Amitabh Mattoo, who moved to head AII’s new centre in Delhi. Described as a leading expert on contemporary India, the Professor’s research spans Indian society, with a focus on democracy, educational transformation, globalisation, and the politics of youth. Among six books he’s authored, Timepass: Youth, Class and the Politics of Waiting in India, shed light on overeducated, underemployed youth in North India.

While the world had great expectations for India in the early 2000s, today many commentators agree the India shining narrative was too hasty. But Prof Jeffrey said there was still much the world could learn from the India, “even if it’s far too early to talk about the end of poverty in India”.

“There are lots of ways in which India is a shining example to other countries,” Prof Jeffrey said, adding that it was important to understand those aspects. The Professor said India “is shining” in terms of popular democratic expression, new approaches to education, and having an abundance of young people trying to help their communities.

Prof Jeffrey said he was excited to now be working on India in Australia – the fourth country in which he’s been based in a 20-year career studying the subcontinent.

“It’s by far the most interesting country in which to study India; partly because of the very obvious differences between Australia and India, like population and stage of develop and so forth, but also partly because of certain kinds of sibling resemblance,” Prof Jeffrey said. He said the fact that both countries believed in democracy, tolerance and openness provided, “opportunities for real collaboration between scholars and also at the level of government and corporates”.

What changes can we expect at AII with Prof Jeffrey at the helm?

Noting that he was joining an “already very successful institute,” the Professor said he plans to consolidate his predecessor’s work by building bridges between AII and universities and institutions in Australia and India, and for AII to continue to facilitate conversations between academics, government, corporate leaders, the third sector and members of the public. His vision is for AII Melbourne to be “a kind of laboratory”, where people can contribute to debates “that drive excellence in research work”. “The outcome of this would be a set of academic publications that would be world class but would also be accessible to the public, where people can track our progress on the web and in a series of public events,” Prof Jeffrey said.

The Professor said the task ahead for the AII team was to find ways to interest the public in the institute’s work and bring more people into its centres, “who are curious about how the world works and also want to make the next step, and say ‘well once we understand… how things operate in India and Australia, what can be done to improve things, to sustain good practices, to address major social and environmental challenges?”

“Capitalising on peoples’ curiosity to drive forward research and engagement programs is a major aspect of what I think the institute should be doing,” he said.

Prof Jeffrey’s call for investment in AII comes at a time when North India is witnessing what his book Timepass describes as a “social revolution” among the young generation. “When I talk about a social revolution I’m thinking about these three things: education, citizenship and technology,” the professor explained. He said while youth in North India were facing profound challenges around education, health, relationships and politics, they also had access to opportunities never afforded to their parents and grandparents. In even the poorest part, young people are gaining education and accessing technology like mobile phones and Internet – which is raising aspirations and allowing, “people who didn’t have social networking opportunities in the past to exchange ideas and information and dreams with others in India and across the world,” the professor said. At the same time there’s been a shift to questioning what it means to be a citizen of India, which is seeing young people developing belief in universal citizenship and “accepting and promoting democratic norms around the state, around gender equality, in ways that their grandparents were not,” he said. The change has played out on the ground over the past decade by way of high-profile protests against corruption and rape.

Still, Prof Jeffrey pointed out that there were many “surprising similarities” in the experience of youth growing up in India, and their counterparts in Australia, such as: the quest for prestigious education, fast access to effective healthcare, managing personal and intergenerational relationships at a time of rapid social change, finding employment when there’s a mismatch between skills obtained in university and the needs of a rapidly changing employment market. “And the Australia India Institute is set up precisely to try to think about these challenges and opportunities,” he added.

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