Ambassador Riva Ganguly Das took over as India’s Consul General in New York on March 7, 2016.
A little over two months later, in her first ever exclusive interview to a publication in the United States, after taking over as Consul General of India in New York, she spoke with Prof. Indrajit S Saluja, Chief Editor of The Indian Panorama on May 27.
The talk centered round the roadmap Ambassador Das has drawn up to make the Consulate more responsive to community needs and create stronger ties between India and the US at all levels.
In an informal conversation, prior to the formal interview, I asked Ambassador Das if she liked music. And she said yes, “immensely”.
Ambassador Das loves music, in particular Classical vocal music. When asked when she had picked up love for music she said it had been a long time. I continued with the subject. Here are excerpts.
TIP: Ok. And you sing yourself ?
TIP: But you appreciate music?
Amb Yes, I appreciate music. I also love western classical, western modern, whatever latest music. I am fond of music in general.
TIP: You like Beethoven’s symphony etc.?
Amb Yeah yeah. I watch opera with my kids.
Then we settled down to a formal interview. Here are excerpts.
TIP: You have been here for some time only. But you have made an impact here, made an imprint here and we are very happy. They say, the morning indicates how the day is going to be. So we feel assured that with you being here, the consulate working will improve. People will have better facilities and better services. And the integration of the Indian American community into the mainstream will get accelerated. Mr. Mulay, your predecessor left his own imprint. He left a legacy. What do you think he has left for you from where you can begin to go forward?
Amb: I think all my predecessors, particularly the one just before I came have done excellent work. I hear only good things about my predecessors. People still remember them and naturally being a lady, the names of my two lady predecessors come up and people still talk very fondly about them. So I think the combined effort of the earlier Consul Generals has resulted in having an excellent office today which is well run, which is efficiently run. As I have told in many of my public interactions that we all monitor complaints constantly and I think very few complaints come of an actual problem where something was not done, we sat on a file, application was made the person did not get. I think we could improve upon things like making our website perhaps a little more friendly, have more integration. People get confused in terms of what documents to submit. A lot of people submit wrong forms, so they complain. So immediately the helpdesk gets back and people send a thank you note also saying my problem got solved.
TIP: That’s something rare.
Amb: That’s very great because that gives me a pulse of how efficiently my colleagues work. Honestly, this is completely a team effort and I only lead the team. Without the team, it’s impossible to work like this. I am very lucky to have inherited an excellent team with good work spirit and a team which is also committed to giving efficient services. It’s a combination of these factors which I think makes us at the Consulate here well liked. And I think we can now move ahead to do more things because once you streamline the passport visa services. We have a transition coming up with the passport services because the service provider is getting changed. We will try & ensure that we do it with the least inconvenience to the general public for which the Deputy Consul General himself is monitoring on a daily basis. Our officers are monitoring how this transition is taking place and we do not want any disruption in services because of change over from one service provider to another.
Q: And that is being done with effect from 1st May or 1st June?
A: No, 7th May.
At this point Mr. Manoj Mohapatra, the Deputy Consul General who was assisting the Ambassador added: “6th May is the last date for BLS and 7th May onwards it is CKGS.”
TIP: And applications will continue to be submitted to BLS until then?
DCG: No, up to 22nd April, the postal applications were collected by the BLS. Now it is stopped and now it is only walk – ins. The coming Friday is the last date for the walk- ins and next week it would be only Tatkal. Tatkal would be collected by the BLS as well as CKGS till 6th May.
TIP: So the normal applications for passport will not be accepted during one week?
DCG: There are 3 ways of applying for the passport renewals. One is by post, by walk in and third is Tatkal. By post, 22nd April was the last date so we are not accepting any applications by post through BLS. Walk ins -coming Friday is the last date when BLS can collect the applications from the person directly. And then up to 6th May, it would be Tatkal because they would be giving us in the morning and we would be handing over in the afternoon. So these are the three, one date has already passed, second is the coming Friday and 6th May is the last.
TIP: It’s good knowing that you do not want any inconvenience to the public. Besides these services, you provide so many other services also, like affidavits, power of attorneys etc. Those services would continue to be taken care of without any disruption here, I hope.
Amb: Yes. That is because the only service which we are outsourcing is passport. And while we are talking of these things, I think I should also clarify that except now that we will do the transition, so Cox & Kings Global Services will be the only service provider for passport, visa, OCI and the other services. The Consulate does not recognize any other visa agent, there is no system of visa agent, there is no criteria of visa agent. So people who claim to be visa agents here and they have no locus standi actually because it is only through CKGS that the applications will be accepted.
TIP: In fact, Madam, I remember very well that you had put this kind of a notice on the website.
Amb: It’s still there.
TIP: And even we carried the news and the information. But unfortunately, the number of these agents is growing day by day.
Amb: There is no such thing as any visa service agent. There is Cox & King and nothing else. The way this issue can be addressed is if the community comes forward and helps people who cannot navigate or who are probably illiterate and cannot handle filling out a form. It was so nice to see when we went to Albany for our outreach program, 209 visa applications were collected. Now the volunteers from the community had helped senior citizens and people who had difficulty filling up the form because everybody is not savvy with the net. They had done 2 weeks of voluntary work over the weekend and helped people fill up the forms. So, this is the kind of service that the community can provide. There is no need to go a visa agent.
TIP: I think if you have more outreach programs to the community and if you tell them there, maybe they will probably understand. As of now, very few communities are there who think of helping people in this way, unfortunately.
Amb: Certainly, certainly.
TIP: But anyway Madam, I am coming to the next thing because these services are not the only things that you probably think the Consulate does or would be doing. In the past also, I have seen how efforts have been made to reach out to the mainstream from this Consulate. How do you look at other things that you would like to do?
Amb: Well, of course, the Indian American community is very close to us and interacting with them is an important part of our work. But I would also like to do outreach to the non-Indian American community which can be done through various ways. We have to do a little bit of hard work on that. We would like to have more interaction with the press, with people who determine thought who sort of give direction to thinking process in this country. And New York is really a place where a lot of these people live. There is a lot of scope for projecting India’s soft power. The community does it in a fantastic way. And hats off to the community, the way in which festivals are celebrated by showcasing Indian culture heritage. But I think there is still room to do more in that regard and we can do a little more to do the outreach to the non- Indian American community. And also a very important aspect of what I want to do is trade and commerce because even though trade is 100 billion as we see, there is a lot of scope. I think there are many sectors in which we can do work. Manufacturing is one such sector and it fits well with the Prime Minister’s initiative of Make In India. American investors are beginning to get interested in India. I have recently met two very successful American companies who are manufacturing in India and they are expanding. I would like these people to talk to other American companies to tell them what a good experience they have had and these are the companies who didn’t go yesterday. They have been around for 20-25 years; they have done technology transfer. The Indian professionals are absolutely top class. They are world class. There are many advantages which India has which are not well known even now. So we want to do sectoral focus. We want to focus on the one completely unexplored sector -SME and MSME. Because I think a lot of technology is being developed in the SME sector and again, I am giving the example of Albany because we have recently visited Albany. I think at the state level, we need to work a little more with the Chambers of Commerce and encourage more trade delegations to visit India. And on the part of the Government of US also, especially the states there is an encouragement to SMEs and MSMEs to go out and explore other markets and what better market than India. Huge market, huge opportunities, growing well middle class with excellent purchasing power. I think trade and commerce is going to be a big focus of my work during my tenure.
TIP: And apart from that, do you think you would also be focusing on building better relations with the mainstream American political leaders?
Amb: Yes, of course.
TIP: Have you thought how you would do it?
Amb: Of course, one has to meet elected officials as we call them. And here of course, our community can play an important role.
TIP: We have India Caucus. Some of their members are based in New York, like Joseph Crowley who is a Congressman. Do you think inviting them over to the Consulate for, maybe, a dialogue with you or at a larger level, you can have the Indian community leaders and when I say Indian community leaders, I refer to people who represent organizations and institutions. Have them, have people like Crowley and others and you could discuss trade and commerce, you can discuss foreign policy here. That could be your signature.
Amb: That’s a good idea you have given. DCG: In fact, Madam, our consulate’s your doorstep, one day is dedicated to the community. It is a 2 days’ program. The first day, we engage the governor, the senators, the congressmen, the mayors, the elected representatives as well as the chamber. The first day’s focus centers around this and last year, out of the 10 states that we covered, we had 8 outreach activities and our effort is to continue that process and we are reaching out to them. Madam joined recently. We are calling on some senators, congressmen and mayors on our own and then we would be continuing. And in fact, definitely the community is our strength. Through the community we would be reaching out but the thing is as we have already cultivated and it is the right time for us to go there and renew our friendship, renew our engagement and ultimately, it would be in the interest of the community, in the interest of both the countries to have better relationships. So that is why it is our effort to reach out to them and this year also, next month we are going to Rhode Island, in July we are going to Pittsburgh. May first week we are going to Stamford.
Amb I have already met the mayor of Cambridge, Lt. Governor of Massachusetts. So already a lot is happening.
DCG: It is a continuous process and as I said, our strength is the community and community has the better access.
TIP: Naturally, it is through the community that you get connected.
Amb: So we will use all the means that are available, all the assets that we have. And certainly, political outreach is an extremely important part of our job.
TIP: Political outreach, and as you very rightly said, economic outreach as well, trade and business. Another aspect which comes to my mind is promotion of Indian American talent. There are so many talented people and maybe the Consulate can think of promoting them by having them here to perform. Like we have painters, musicians and singers. Similarly, there are other people with artistic excellence. So if you could play some kind of a role there, that would also be helpful to the community. Since you yourself love music and arts, it came to my mind.
Amb: Of course. I don’t know if you were here. We recently had a very interesting piano event.
TIP: Yes, I was here and I spoke to those ladies.
Amb: Yes, it was very, very interesting and I would love to do events like those in the future which is sort of like east and west bridging kind of thing.
TIP: Yes, that could be the theme. East meets west.
Amb: India and US artists in all kind of performing arts. We can encourage this.
TIP: A lot of misinformation and negative propaganda is being carried out on a regular basis by some elements. What, do you think, needs to be done?
Amb: See all said and done, no matter how much Indians know about US and Americans know about India, but there are a lot of areas which can be covered where there is misinformation. Specially India being such a complex and such a large country, there is always room for explaining our position and that is really the primary job of India’s representatives abroad-to convey the correct and proper picture of India abroad. So naturally anything that leads in that direction will be done by us. As I mentioned right in the beginning, people who guide thought, who determine thought in this country, they are very important to talk to and we have to do greater outreach to that particular category of people.
TIP: Madam, what would be your priority? You have a list of things to do. What would you like to do first and foremost?
Amb: See, in a very general sense, keeping India’s flag flying high, that is a very symbolic way of saying, to continue to position us as we see ourselves as a great country, as a country which can offer a large range of opportunities for bilateral relations between India and the US. And in this process the asset we have is the Indian American community. So we are all working towards a larger goal of better understanding between India and the US, better relations between India and the US and also a general way in which India’s image is enhanced, the correct image of India is known to everybody, people at large and people to people friendship between our 2 countries increase because at the end of the day, big foundation of relation between 2 countries is people to people relationship. We are extremely fortunate that a very large number of people from both sides visit each other, meet each other. There are families and there are Indian students who contribute hugely to the relationship. The large number of Indian students who come here, many go back, many stay back, many work here. There are a large number of American students who go now to India for internships, they take fellowships. Organizations are providing internships and opportunities to go to India. So I think that is a huge asset we have. These young people can grow up to be our friends. Likewise, Indians who come here grow up to be the friends of United States. And this people to people friendship and bond which we are seeing, which already exists needs to grow further, should be encouraged further. I think at many levels we can work and for the greater objective of giving India visibility and strengthening our relationship.
TIP: Very well said, ma’am and what would be your darling thing to do, the most important thing you’d like to do; something that will leave your permanent imprint?
Amb: very difficult to say
TIP: Something unique. You know it is not outreach program; it is not providing better
Services; it is not eliminating corruption altogether; it is not just promoting Culture, promoting friendly relations that is you think you could do which would be your legacy?
Amb: well I think it’s too early to talk about the legacy because I’ve just come but something I see as a challenge and I would like to take up during my tenure here is to perhaps bring into our fold into our larger circle of well-wishers and friends some young people. In the community there are extremely bright people and we need to find these to attract them to the overall cause of India US relationship and do a little more outreach to the younger generation people
TIP: Do you think you would like to have a committed kind of a group to promote this kind of a thing? Do you think you would be able to send groups of young people to India? so that they get the feel of India? Do you think the government would provide the wherewithal for such a program?
Amb: I think; we first have to understand young people. Today’s young people think very differently from our generation, from the way we think. I think for them traveling in today’s world, and in the world in which they live; and I am typically talking about someone who’s under 25; these are not people who necessarily look at traveling and going. For them everything’s on the net and they’re so interlinked in any case with the world. So we have to be very, very imaginative; think outside the box to actually come up with something that appeals to them. So, we have to think very differently; not in the traditional way in which we think.
TIP: And how are you going to get those young people around?
Amb: I will find a way, I guess. I already met some very interesting people in Boston when I had gone there and met some youngsters from Harvard MIT and all I think I got a few leads from there. There are areas like innovation, technology, sustainable development which are areas where young people are extremely dedicated. They want to do work. I’m talking both of Indians and people of Indian origin who are studying now at the threshold of their adulthood; people who have the wherewithal to start enterprises -small-scale or whatever. I think there is a whole area of it you know. We need to find the interest, the right interest, right sort of combination of forces because I think this is a generation which is also keen to work for the community. And technology is the answer to a lot of problems. I think, Technology, Innovation and having the right Network- that is the direction in which we need to move because those days are gone where young people just want to come and sit and relax; you have to attract them with something that really moves them.
TIP: So, what are your expectations of the Indian American community?
Amb: Till now I have got excellent support from everybody, a lot of warmth, a lot of friendship. I would like them to continue to support what we do and of course I always say at larger events that the contribution that the community has made to the India -US relations is immense. And I would expect them to continue to support it and take that further.
TIP: And what do you expect of the media?
Amb: the same
TIP: I want you to say it in words. Give out your mind to the media so that they can know what you expect of them.
Amb: Media can play a very important role and I would request you to play that important role in conveying all the correct information of what all we are doing in terms of the services we provide, like I mentioned. You know the services are being provided only by Cox & Kings Global Services with two offices: one for passport and the other for Visa. There is a tatkal Passport and Visa service for which you come to the Consulate. There is an enormous confusion about OCI. People fill their forms wrongly and then they get angry with us. We want you to help us in communicating what is going on with the services in the mission to the general public because they read your paper and they will come to know what all we are doing. The communication in this area has to be much better.
TIP: Otherwise people have their own doubts; they have their own stories?
Amb: Nobody visits the website; people don’t read instructions correctly.
TIP: I’ll tell you. A large number of people who seek your services are absolutely illiterate, even after having lived here for 10-15 years, they have not yet picked up on anything like that. For small things they are going to stores and paying $30-40 for just filling in a form. Imagine, the form is not properly filled in, the outsourcing agency says we cannot accept it and they go back they don’t have time because they are making a lot of money every day. Then they go back to an agent who asks for 3500. The person says done & asks them to fill in the form and if there is any document missing, they make a fake one and insert it in the application. And the person gets the document from the Consulate.
Amb: No, no longer
TIP: No Madam it’s happening.
Amb: No, No. I challenge you
TIP: I’ll give you the cases.
Amb: Absolutely please give me the cases. I challenge you because we are excellent.
TIP: you are now provoking me into doing a sting operation on some of these guys.
Amb: please I challenge you because we have excellent relations with law enforcement. If anybody is coming with fake papers we get the papers checked.
TIP: The problem is you cannot possibly look into every single document submitted.
Amb: There is no “NOT” in my vocabulary. There is no such thing which I cannot do.
TIP: very good answer. I’m happy.
Amb: No absolutely. I have a responsible position here. How can I put up my hands and say I cannot do this? Can you?
TIP: It is in DCG’s knowledge. He himself has detected a few cases.
DCG: We have taken up this issue with the government of USA.
TIP: OK. I must congratulate you because it has been a festering problem Madam. And if you are able to overcome this, I think we all should be very grateful to you for having achieved that.
Amb: See the thing is, one is of course taking action and making sure it does not happen again. The second is the approach. Our approach is that we will not allow it. If it is happening I am very alarmed because I don’t want our officers to be involved in anything which is illegal and which is outside the law.
TIP: You have answered another question I was going to ask you. What do you expect of your staff ? You already said you want them to be honest and straightforward.
Amb: Absolutely. That is the first message that we have given.
TIP: I have seen people being given marching orders for indulging in such kind of a conduct.
Amb: Absolutely. It has to be done.
Q: Can we talk about your experiences in different parts of the world as you have been to many places? And how do you compare the environment there with the environment here in New York?
A: See every country is different. I have thoroughly enjoyed my career in the foreign service. I am a career diplomat. I joined way back in 1986. My first posting was in Spain. It’s been a long journey and the thing I like the most about my profession is that every posting is an intellectual challenge. You learn new things, you learn about a new country, you learn about a new job. You learn different ways of doing things and over a period of time, our accumulated experience, DCG is also a very experienced officer, having done difficult postings also. Experience we learn helps us deal with new issues. I think the best part of being in Foreign service is that every day you discover new things. Every day you are learning. Till you finish your career you are learning. And that keeps you intellectually alive, that keeps you intellectually agile, that keeps your curiosity alive. And we are really blessed because when you live in a country, you learn about the country, even a country like the US about which we apparently know so much but once you start living, you learn so many new things about the country. It is so refreshing, so nice and it keeps you so positive and active.
TIP: Have the conditions improved for the public in the waiting area? Like I remember, there used to be a time when there was a photocopier which stopped working.
DCG: No, No. All those things have been taken care of. Today, I didn’t check with Madam but I have allowed the second photocopier on the other side, the Tatkal side. Indian channels are coming on the televisions. Roll call is displayed;not that you would be coming and standing in the queue. You take the number and sit there and then there is a roll call. We want people to come forward and give the suggestions.
Amb: The other thing is that both of us get to see the work on the CCTV camera. In a typical office, the CCTV camera is only in the public area; we have it in the processing area also.
TIP: What kind of complaints do you usually get?
Amb: Actually the complaints are that your form is very tedious. If a form has 4 pages you have to do it. Then people are complaining that in US children are issued passport for 5 years, so they are saying why every time the passport finishes, I have to take OCI. You don’t have a problem taking a passport, why do you have a problem taking the OCI? Because face changes, a child is not going to have the same face for 10 years. These are the kind of majority complaints during the day. Manoj and I always discuss during the day at least once about the complaints.
DCG: Not all are actually complaints. The people’s expectations have gone high.
TIP: Rather than expectations having gone high, I believe they are more conscious about their rights.
A; We have some OCI cards which are ready and piled up with us. People applied for them; we issued them but nobody collected them.
TIP: How many OCIs?
DCG: As of now, 80-90 valid passports and 500 OCI cards are lying with us which have not been collected because people are not coming to the Consulate or they are not sending their documents for match up. What we would like to do is to put out a list on our website saying there are passports and OCI cards lying in the Consulate and the applicants are requested to have them collected. If that is done, it would come down from 80 to 30 passports and 500 to 50 OCI cards. It would be easier for us thereafter to reach them individually.
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