Meet the top diplomat who is a Punjabi Kudi

Harinder Sidhu, Australian high commissioner, NewsMobile, Saurabh Shukla

She has a personal connect and is a charmer, meet the Punjabi Kudi in the capital’s diplomatic community. Harinder Sidhu, Australia’s High Commissioner to India sat down with NewsMobile Editor-in-Chief Saurabh Shukla on a range of issues including students visas to Australia, immigration issues, her love for Bollywood and more.

Read the full interview and watch the video

Hello and welcome to this news mobile special, we are with Australia’s High Commissioner to India, Harinder Sidhu. Welcome to NewsMobile ma’am.

Thank you so much Saurabh I’m delighted to be here.

You are in the way and India Waali. A lot of people say that.

You’ve been talking to people in the foreign office people you have met people in Delhi Mumbai they say she is Punjab’s kudi. Tell us about the Punjab connection?

Well, my father was born in Punjab. And my family is Punjabi from both sides he spent his early life there and so I really do hope to visit the village where my father was born at some point. He left soon after partition to go to Singapore where his father was working and join his father there. I grew up in the same home and there he met my mother who comes from a Punjabi family
in Malaysia and of course the rest as they say, is history.

So you’re yet to go your native village so to say?

That’s right. But I grew up in a very much Punjabi community. I feel quite a deep sense of connection to Punjab, to India in that sense, in terms of my cultural background

Has it helped being an Indian ? Have people embraced you when you go to meet people be it in the government sector or the private sector? Do you think that helps?
The profuse sector. So You think that helps?

I think it really does. I’ve been really delighted with the very warm welcome I’ve had since I’ve got here. People have embraced me. It’s been terrific. And that’s really smooth the way. I do think it does help having the background I do. Although, I am deeply Australian so people tend to assume I understand more than I actually sometimes. do to be honest.

One of the big turnarounds has been the number Visa’s that’s been issued. The number of Indians going to Australia. In May alone around 27, 000, That’s a big number.

It’s true, it’s true. It has dramatically increased. that’s about an 18% increase

Why is that been happening? Have you streamlined the visa process? What does anybody who is looking to go and visit amazing tourist places in Australia, what are the three things that you look out for?

On the Visas for a start, yes, we have significantly streamlined the process. There is a perception I think in India that it is very hard to get a Visa to Australia, that’s actually not so true. If you’re a legitimate traveller, student or a business person, generally speaking, it is a very smooth process to get a visa now to Australia. The second thing that’s happening is that, of course more people are in fact going to Australia. And Australia is a much more attractive destination for all kinds of tourists. Tourists are seeing quite a dramatic growth. Something like 230 thousand visitors in Australia last year. that;s a 15% increase

We are on track to get as many as 300 thousand indian visitors to australia, so thats a lot of people. A large chunk of those numbers is actually leisure tourists and that segment is growing quickly. I think there is a lot of scope for that to expand. We are starting to see direct airline flights to Australia encouraging people to travel. The new civil aviation policy from the Indiangovernment will encourage more airlines to Fly to australia I suspect. So it’s easy to get there.

The other thing that I think is starting to happen is that most Indian tourists are going to the established cities: Sydney,Melbourne, Gold Coast and so forth, but I think there’s a lot of scope for people to see other parts of Australia. Tasmania for example is a great tourist destination.

That’s great, you’re promoting many more tourists to visit places like Tasmania, tell me, a lot of students would be watching the show. How does a student in Australia go about applying or finding out courses, are there scholarships available?

So, there are postgraduate scholarships that we offer from the government, and universities offer scholarships on their own.
So it’s majorly for the student to make that connection. Presently, it’s been a lot more easier for students than it has been in the past. One is the internet, Australian Universities have all the information on the internet, the second thing that makes it easier is that half of Australia’s established universities now have representatives in India. So, that provides people with very easy access to information, to be able to ask questions, to connect with someone in India, who happens to speak their language and answer any questions that they might have about courses, about scholarships. there’s a very wide range of courses in Australia, and one of the things we receive, is that people are recognising that australian courses are high quality, they are innovative, so if you want to do something that is a bit unusual, for example Sports Management. there’s a great interest in Sports Management. Australia is one of the leading providers in the world in the field of sports management. Theses are the sorts of things that
people come to Australia for, to get a world-class education. You live and work in a really good environment Our student visas are now all online, so it’s a very streamlined process. Not only that, but when you graduate, most student visas allow you to work for 2-3 or more years and stay on for work. So you come back to India with a world class education and work experience. It’s a really good deal.

You have a skill migrants program that’s been going on since a really long time. India has been a country where a lot of skilled professionals actually come out of Australia and we are definitely looking for skilled professionals. How does one get a go about applying for that kind of program?

Well, it’s pretty much the same sort of process. We put a lot of information on our website. We encourage people to look on our website because that will give you the pass to how to apply. because it is a permanent settlement program, obviously, it’s a much longer process than if you were going to Australia as a tourist.

So is it around about six months, from the time you apply?

I’m not certain of the exact time frame, it can be between six to twelve months, that’s about right. Also remember that even though processing might be quite straightforward, migration is a global program, so in a sense you’re not in a queue for all Indian applicants. You meet the criteria in a global way and you will get migration, and the timing in which you get your visa depends
on the program.

You follow Bollywood, and we recently Pallavi Sharda starring in a Bollywood film. She’s from Australia. So who’s your favourite Bollywood actor?

Oh dear! I’m gonna make half the population happy and half unhappy as I say this.

Doesn’t matter, you can talk about your personal choice.

Ah, well, Shah Rukh Khan has been my favourite. My absolute, I’ve been a fan of his for about twenty years.

Did you get an opportunity to meet him?

Not yet, I’m working on it. But I did meet Amitabh Bachchan a couple of days ago, so that was a great privilege actually.
I admire him greatly.

And I believe as a kid you watched movies by Mumtaz, if I did my research correctly.

Goodness me! You really have researched me! It was the very first film I remember seeing. It was Brahmacharya and it was
Shammi Kapoor. But I’ve seen a lot of movies since.

So are you encouraging more Bollywood films to be shot in Australia?

Yeah, absolutely. We’ve been talking about tourism, so what are the things that struck me. I was in Queensland when I had this conversation. They said that Bollywood films have used many Australian locations for shooting, but we have not seen a major film that has been set in the great barrier reef. And it’s been such a great attraction. So many Indians love going there. I’d
love to see a movie set at the Great barrier Reef as a backdrop.

So does Tourism Australia have a package for those who are looking to shoot in these locations?

A lot of that happens, but not from the tourism. I mean of course, a lot of tourism does happen as well. But also it hasto do with the Australian government’s artistic funds and cultural support programs.

High Commissioner, one of the concerns I see, why a lot of genuine visa seekers suffer is that some unscrupulous agents, or some people who try to fudge their way through. What is your message to these individuals?

I think the best thing I can say is to Please DO your homework. It’s really important that people understand what they are getting into. A lot of information is available on the Australian Embassy Website. Please go look at that, because that does give you a path to determine whether or not people can successfully apply or not. Do question what people are telling you. Do seek out some of the credentials. There are a lot of people out there who make false claims, and I am very sad that people get duped. It’s not ever our intention to put people into a difficult situation.

What are the rejection rates like? I mean how many fraud cases do you usually get?

Uh, it varies from segment to segment, obviously. And it varies from the time of the year. So I can’t really be definitive about that. So, student visas can be from a very low number to a very high number. It really does depend on case by case. We look at the circumstances of each individual and we make a judgement on each individual. There’s no quota. We carefully look to see whether people are genuine applicants or not.

Let me shift focus to some of the bilateral issues. Economic trade is growing, its crossed 20 billion now. Obviously, it can be much more. So do we expect some kind of nuclear commerce happening?

Well, I am certainly hopeful that that will be case. We, as you know concluded the civil nuclear agreement a couple of years ago and now we’ve just settled the administrative settlements, you know, the implementing agreements under that settlement. So that now has been slipped off for commerce. And that now is in the hands of commercial entities in Australia and they are obviously
looking forward to opportunities.

Is there any trade figure that you might set, something that you think this is what I wanna do? while you’re here.

Well, not in terms of numbers, but really, my agenda is very much to broaden the base of the trade. 75% of Australia’s tradeto India is basically around three commodities. And that is coal, gold and copper ores. I think that there is a lot scope to broaden the base of that trade. Not just in terms of the products that we export or import from India Because there is a lot of scope
for Australia take more Indian products. But also in terms of services. Professional services, in terms of tourism, all count as a part of the economic relationship. So what I see is broadening, and diversifying of the trade relationship.s

Another aspect that has really gained currency in India is the whole move of startups. Do you see some kind of possibility where Australian companies can come, and use their skills, and maybe even invest in startups in India? Do you see that happening?

I’d be delighted to see a lot of that happening. Well you see Australia is largely a service oriented economy, We are also a knowledge economy where we have a highly educated population. India also has a substantial highly educated, English Speaking Population. There is almost a natural synergy between the two. Both our government have put out a strategy for innovation and technology.

The Australian government announced not so long, the National Innovation and Science Agenda, and that provides a great deal of support for startups, and high technology investments. I noticed that the Indian Government is doing the same sort of thing, Digital India, and startup in India. I just think that there is a natural connectivity between the two. It’d be very surprising if it doesn’t happen.

Let’s shift focus to some of the other concerns. Terrorism is a major concern. We know as a democracy we have shared concerns. We know now that there is a lot of intelligence sharing that is happening, more robustly. What are the things that you think we should be doing eve more to combat terrorism?

I’m glad you raised that. I think that the recent events in Dhaka, in particular have really sharpened the focus for both our countries. I think there is a great deal that we can do in terms of deepening the collaboration that we already have. We have really good collaboration with India in terms of exactly the things you are talking about. In terms of intelligence sharing, learning lessons from each other about deradicalisation or identifying people who may be on the path to radicalisation. This is an issue that is of a very very grave concern to Australia. I guess my main point there is that there has been quite some amount of collaboration between us but I do think that we now have the platform to deepen our engagement.

You mentioned Dhaka. And these are all the people who came from well-educated backgrounds, social media has somehow become a fertile ground as well. Do we have a mechanism now to actually make sure, and I do know that India is also making efforts, to see that the deradicalisation that you’re talking about, so does Australia have a mechanism where you can actually set through and see if some people are leaning towards wrong ideologies?

There is no one way of tackling radicalization. and it really boils down to the problem that we really don’t understand what is it that prompts that 1 persons to follow that particular path. the driver’s a very different for everybody.
so what we learn from our Indian colleges, for example, it is not just focusing on social media obviously we watch that but also working with communities and families and so there are a number of ways that we can Engage the community. social media’s obviously one and we’ve also done a fair bit of talking to a number of governments about The sorts of things we’re doing to try
to identify the activities but that’s not the only solution because there are many parts.

India and Australia have been very clear on the whole issue of freedom of navigation and that the laws of the seas should be respected. Recently had a decision of the UN Tribunal coming on the South China Sea What’s your Sense Do you welcome the decision? and do you believe that countries should respect the law of the sea and you think that freedom of navigation should be respected?

Yes, we welcome the decision. We really do think that it provides a basis for the Peaceful resolution of the dispute between the two countries involved. Our prime minister has put out a statement calling on countries to abide by the decision. We as a Country in Australia have not made a call on the sovereignty claims . But what we do think the decision does Is that it clarifies the situation for both countries which are involved in the dispute and we encourage them to resolve that dispute in a peaceful manner.

I know Australia has done a lot on the racist attacks that happened a couple of years ago against Indians . How do you assure a parent who is looking at various options and I go back to education. can you show that Australia the really safe place for the kids to go and study?

the short answer is yes. if you look at the crime statistics globally Australia has amongst the lowest crime rates in the world. I don’t for 1 minutes denied A terrible attacks that happened And we deeply regret the awful things that happened to anybody and I think the Australian government did the right thing. We were quite alarmed at these events and reacted really swiftly. To secure law and order. To ensure students were safe when they go to Australia. That is absolutely the case I am pleased to see that recently there have been very few incidents like those. They were isolated incidents. But since then, you know, we keep a watchful eye. The best thing I can say about the safety of students is this recent visitors to Australia, including some very prominent Indians have been very struck by the fact that Indians would voluntarily come up to them and say “I feel safer in Australia than I even do at home. This is a good place to be. It is a comfortable, clean country to live in.” We really encourage parents to take heart from them.

I know you’ve worked a great deal on climate change. What are the ideas in which you think Australia can supplement our efforts
for smarter cities and cleaner cities ?

Well, there are a number of areas we can do that. So we;ve been trying waste management techniques, water recycling. In fact, water management, all are not just in cities, but also in the regions in the country. Preserving water, keeping rivers safe and clean, and managing the flow of water for agriculture and irrigation. All these things are challenges that India faces. Australia faces the exact same challenges and we have developed some low-cost solutions that we can share with India, in fact, that we are going to share with India. In September this year, Australia will hold its annual symposium in Delhi where we will bring over experts from all over the world to talk about exactly these issues. So that’s one.

Sports is something which unites us, divides us in some ways, when the match is happening, Tell me what can be done more, or other things that you are planning to promote sporting ties between India and Australia. Maybe getting more young Indians to go train in Australia and vice versa.

SO, you know, it’s kind of good that we talk about this at the cusp of the Rio Olympics. One of the good things about Australia and India is that we share a real passion for sports. It starts with cricket, but it doesn’t end there. If you think about the three other sports: Hockey, netball and soccer. We’re doing quite a bit in those areas in terms of not just sharing players, but also looking at training students in sports health, nutrition and management, etc. We’re also engaging with India in improving elite sports performance, so Olympic level sports performance, and finally, I’d like to see more exchange of sports that are unique
to our own countries. For example taking kabaddi to Australia, aur bring Australian football to India.

Well before I wrap up, tell me what is your typical day like. In Delhi when you are working, what are weekends like?

Goodness me, I don’t think I have a typical day! Most days involve a mixture of things. So it involves, paperwork to be done in the office, meeting with the secretary of a department or a minister. That’s today! I’ve done both. And discussing various zones of cooperation. Sort of the things that we’ve been talking about today. Things that we can do to push the relationship forward.
I might engage on cultural issue for example, working writers, or artists of some sorts, and resolving any particular issues for example, that might have come up. So I spend a great deal of my day interacting with people, it’s something I enjoy as well.

So you’re a people’s person! What’s your stress buster?

I run. You can’t think of anything when you’re out of breath, I find.

What about music? Are you a music buff?

I am ,I love listening to music and I play the piano!

We should get you to play next time! DO you read?

Yes, I’m a big reader.

What are you reading currently?

I am reading a book by Anna Fonda called all that I am. She is an australian writer. It’s deeply involved about the people who survived Nazi Germany. It’s a really good read and a complete escape.

What are the songs on your playlist?

At the moment, I’ve been listening to an Australian Singer Vance Joy’s called Riptide, and another one by the counterparts.
I have very strange taste in music.

As long as it is music to ears, it’s all right.

Thank You very much, that was high commissioner Harinder Sidhu from Australia. Telling us what the Australia- India relationships
are all about.


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