India’s newest Ambassador to Thailand Harsh Vardhan Shringla discusses the Thai-Indian community, his career in the foreign service, and exploring Bangkok on foot. BY REENA KARIM and MRIGAA SETHI
During his first public engagement at the reception of India’s 65th Republic Day at the Shangri-La Hotel Bangkok, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, the new Ambassador of India to Thailand welcomed everyone personally. His social secretary Wanpen Intarasuwan stood beside him, diligently prompting him with names of every guest he greeted.
When we saw him for the second time in early March, the ambassador seemed much more relaxed, sitting in his own office, as we chatted over tea for a little over an hour.
Ambassador Shringla’s career in India’s foreign services has been a distinguished one. In the 30 odd years that he has dedicated to public service, he has been on diplomatic missions to Paris, Hanoi, and Tel Aviv, worked for the UN in New York, and served as Counsel General in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Durban, South Africa. Before his post in Thailand, he lived in Delhi for four years, during which he led a task force overseeing the construction of the India-
Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway. Yet, when asked about his proudest achievements, he modestly declines to list them.
When not giving interviews or engaging in diplomatic duties, Ambassador Shringla loves to walk to the ends of his neighbourhood and explore the city he hopes to get to know better during his tenure.
From a protocol point of view, what happens when a new Ambassador arrives in a new country?
You have around six months to prepare before you come in, but it doesn’t mean you are not pre-occupied with your previous work. I came from Delhi, so I had things to do there as well. It was only in the last two weeks that I could focus on this end of things. The embassy gave me enough reading material, and you do make calls to various dignitaries. You meet the Prime Minister, Defence Minister, and the Foreign Minister. You need to get a sense of their thinking on the relationship, be advised on some of the priorities that govern those relationships, and what we need to do. Then when you come here, you have to present copies of your letters of credentials [letters where your government says they have appointed you as the ambassador to Thailand] to the foreign office. They get the concurrence from the office of His Majesty the King to allow you to start functioning normally as an ambassador. Through a formal ceremony, that is still pending, you hand over your letter of credential to the Crown Prince. He receives all new ambassadors.
So far, what have your observations been of the Thai-Indian community?
It’s a great advantage for us to have the Indian community here. The prominence they have achieved over time is an advantage over countries that don’t have an Indian diaspora. I have lived in countries that have had large diasporas of Indians. In Durban, South Africa, they had one million persons of Indian origin. It was a very settled community that put emphasis on education. Here, irrespective of when you trace your arrival or lineage, everyone seems to be doing quite well both business-wise and professionally. It’s been quite a positive experience interacting with the community and meeting people, getting to know them. What strikes me is the number of associations here-30 that we know of. They come together under an umbrella organisation called the Indian Social Club. It’s a positive development where communities of every possible ethnic group are working together to host the Indian Fun Fair on the 27th of April. The idea is to keep exchanging information between us and them. The engagement is very important.
In what ways has India felt the ripple effects of the political instability in Thailand?
It is only in the tourism area that we have to be a little bit cautious about. But we felt it was important that we portray a picture that was not alarmist or sensationalist as some in the media have been, particularly foreign media. Of course, if there were any issues, we had help lines. But we didn’t see the need to advise our citizens not to visit Thailand for tourism purposes. We have been issuing notifications from time to time for our citizens who have come here. We have always made it clear that there is no impediment to our tourists visiting Thailand other than a few protest sites that they could avoid. We are happy to note that in general Indian tourists have maintained their number even through the difficult months. Not that many Indians felt they were inconvenienced by what was happening. They found people were still courteous, and there was a lot of receptivity and respect for tourists who were visiting the country. Thailand is the number one tourism destination for Indian people, and I hope that there will be a greater number of Thai tourists [and] business persons visiting India.
What steps has the government taken to make visiting India more conducive for Thai nationals?
We have decided on a visa-on-arrival policy for tourists from a number of countries, including Thailand. The embassy will also be starting a biometric process by which you can be fast tracked when you enter India. It’s easier and much faster. There are lots of initiatives, like the special train service for Buddhist pilgrims.
There is not so much business interest from Thailand to India as there is from India to Thailand.
Possibly not, but we have to create that interest and make sure that more Thai people visit India. It is something I have been plugging in many of my interviews on TV. It is important for us to create as conducive an environment as possible for Thai visitors to India and also try to identify segments that they might be interested in, in terms of tourism. We want to create interest in those areas where Thai public may not know about, for example, Kashmir or Sikkim or the fact that Kaziranga Game Sanctuary is just a two-hour flight from Thailand.
With the visa-on-arrival policy, can we expect the same reciprocity from some of the countries that we are offering this privilege to?
The visa-on-arrival policy has been announced, but it will take a bit of time to implement it on the ground, which means that the entire immigration set-up has to be prepared to receive someone who has come out of the blue for tourism purposes and immediately given a stay permit. But we hope to put it in place as soon as possible. The important thing is that the decision has been taken at the level of the government of India to provide visa-on-arrival facilities of nationals of other countries, including Thailand.
What is the progress on the India-Myanmar-Thailand Asian trilateral highway that is to be completed by 2016?
We have an upcoming trilateral meeting coming up regarding the connectivity between India, Thailand, and Myanmar, which will review all the joint projects we are doing. Myanmar and Thailand are integral to our Look East policy, which is essential on a ground level. We have excellent air connectivity with almost 170 flights a week between India and Thailand. We are developing sea connectivity, but it is the land connectivity that we have to work on. The trilateral highway is well on its way to completion. Each of the three countries is building certain segments of the highway, which today does not exist or has to be reinforced. For that, we need a level of coordination. We have a task force, which incidentally, I led in Delhi. At a higher ministerial level, we are scheduled to have a meeting in Thailand, involving the three ministers who will review our progress. Thailand is the country we are most proximate with other than Myanmar in Southeast Asia, and with whom we have had historical, cultural, and spiritual links. Therefore, it is an important partner for us in our endeavours to improve and expand our ties with ASEAN.
Would you say they are as excited about us as we are of them?
Yes, because Thailand has a Look West policy where India is one of the most important components. In the meeting we have had, I have been told that India is an important partner. On the commercial side of things, Thai companies are very upbeat about participating in investment opportunities in India, particularly in infrastructure, an area where Thailand has made great amounts of improvements.
On a more personal note, take us through your career in the foreign service?
I was working in the private sector for Brooke Bond India when I decided to take time off to give the civil services exams. After that, I worked with Air India in Mumbai. We worked at Nariman Point in the famous Air India building. It took about a year to get the results, after which we got our training in the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie, after which they send you to districts in different parts of India to experience what life is as an administrator. I went to Cuttack in Orissa. I was involved in the elections of 1984. It was a great experience. It was when Rajiv Gandhi led Congress to a landslide victory. Afterwards, I was relocated to Paris. We each [had to learn one UN language], so I learnt French. Then I was posted to Hanoi, and that is how I got to know about Bangkok, because they institutionally sent you to Bangkok for three months to get your supplies and provisions. I did two years in Ho Chi Minh City. Then I went back to Paris and did two years there. I was also in Delhi, Israel, Durban, and in New York on a permanent mission with the UN. Now I have been in India for the last four years. I have tried to vary the experience because I have been posted in every continent except for South America and Australia. We try to understand the different issues that involve India in those parts. There was always some major issue. In Vietnam in those days, [there] was the Kampuchia issue. In the UN, of course, it was the Iraq war and the run-up to the Iraq war. In Israel, it was the Israel-Palestine conflict. The peace process had run out, and we saw a bit of both. In South Africa, it was the reconciliation with the post-apartheid era, and of course, dealing with the community of one million persons of Indian origin. It was an interesting experience.
What achievements are you most proud of in your career as a diplomat and a member of the Indian Foreign Service?
The list is a bit long, but normally we don’t talk about our achievements because we see our career as part of the overall policy directions that we follow. But certainly in many senses, all of us have many challenges that we try to deal with, and there are opportunities that we take advantage of. At the end of the day, those are collective efforts. I think it is wrong on my part to talk about my achievements.
What do you like to do for fun in Bangkok?
I like walking around. I have done a fair amount in the area that I live in, particularly in the Thong Lor side. It’s a fascinating place to move around in. I have gone to both ends of [Sukhumvit] Soi 63. There is a very traditional fruit and vegetable market place, which is quite fascinating for me. I find that Thailand has a myriad of fruits and vegetables that are unique all around the year. I have been to Klong Toey two, three times just to get a sense of how things were. On weekends, there is a lot of activity there, and I have had my share of trying to figure out what’s what. It is best to do it by foot, and it’s been great fun.
Do you have any advice for students or young professionals looking to join the foreign services?
It is important that young, bright people who have a commitment towards public service should give the civil services exam. The numbers are increasing, but we want it to be qualitative too. You have to understand that when you join the government, it doesn’t have the same incentive as a job in the private sector. So you have to go with a clear idea that you are not going there to make a lot of money. What you are doing there is not only to fulfill your career aspirations in terms of what you can do and how you can contribute, but also to fulfill a sense of service to the public. I encourage as many young people as I can. They should also apply to the foreign service, because this a service where large number of people prefer the domestic services, such as administrative or police service, because they are rooted home. It is important for people to have an interest in international affairs.
Published in Masala magazine, Thailand April 2014