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'Work to do' on Australia, India relationship
Interview with Sujatha Singh, India's High Commissioner to Canberra

India and Australia may share a traditional of democracy and a passion for cricket, but over the years relations have been marked by neglect and tension. Racially motivated bashings of Indian students, unscrupulous Indian migration agents and a perceived snub over uranium exports have been among the pressure points in recent years.

Through it all, Sujatha Singh was India's top diplomat in Australia. And at times, as high commissioner in Canberra, she was an outspoken critic of Australian authorities. Now her term is up and she's heading to Berlin to take up a new posting as India's ambassador to Germany.

She's speaking with Jim Middleton
JIM MIDDLETON, PRESENTER: High Commissioner, welcome to the program.

SUJATHA SINGH, INDIAN HIGH COMMISSIONER TO AUSTRALIA: It's a pleasure being with you here Jim.

JIM MIDDLETON: It's widely acknowledged that over the years India and Australia failed to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded by each other's economies. To what extent were you able to address that deficiency during your years in Australia?

SUJATHA SINGH: Well it's an ongoing process really. And it's a process that has been going on for some time where we have been looking very seriously at how to increase our economic interactions. And trade and investment have been growing rapidly, have been growing rapidly ever since 2000, and over the past five years definitely more so.

JIM MIDDLETON: And where do you think, looking forward, are the big opportunities for Australian trade and investment in India and vice versa?

SUJATHA SINGH: well, I see India and Australia interacting with each other across the board. Trade is definitely going to keep on increasing, in goods as well as in services.

And I think our interaction in mineral resources is very important. I would think, in terms of the important constituents really of what our strategic partnership is all about: energy, coal, if you've seen the investment that our companies have made in Queensland, which are in the order of billions, not just in the mining itself but in the infrastructure.

I see greater interaction in terms of LNG (Liquid Natural Gas), in terms of coal. And of course the uranium once our bilateral agreement is signed.

JIM MIDDLETON: I will come to the uranium question in a moment. But before that, the relationship between India and Australia did go through some pretty rough patches during your term in Canberra. Never more so than while the attacks on Indian students in Australia were under way. Just how seriously did that undermine relations?

SUJATHA SINGH: Jim, it was a difficult time. I think that there were many issues that were involved in the string of attacks that took place. And I am not going to downplay it, but the fact is that, as of now, the factors that caused these incidents to take place, and there were several … There were several that dealt with the quality of the education that the students were receiving, the law and order problems, even issues related to immigration perhaps. And the complete picture really started emerging over a period of time. And, yes, I think there was intense media focus, perhaps a little too intense, perhaps in some respects a little too hyper, but it made us look at the entire issue in its entirety, in a holistic manner, almost in a whole of government manner.

So all of this came together and I think at the end of it we have a system that functions much better really and that our students are confident of and that we can have assurance in, that this problem is hopefully well and truly behind us.

JIM MIDDLETON: The last Australian high commissioner to New Delhi, John McCarthy, told me that he thought Australians had widely underestimated the impact on Australia's reputation in India of the attacks on the Indian students, and that it would take years of work to repair the damage. Is that accurate analysis, do you think?

SUJATHA SINGH: Well I think that they were very negatively seen. And, you know, television now reaches almost every household in India. And the fact that the incidents continued over a period of several months in mid-2009, then there was a break and then they started again in 2010. It did have a negative impact, I cannot deny that. It did negatively influence Indian perception about how students were welcomed in Australia.

But I think that the fact that we haven't had those incidents for some time now, over a year, a year and some months, it will be a slow process perhaps, but at the end of it I think that the actual people to people interactions will emerge stronger.

JIM MIDDLETON: To uranium, you must be pleased that the Australian Government finally saw its way clear to sell or authorise the sale of uranium to your country. How hard did you have to work to help convince the Australian Government to change its mind?

SUJATHA SINGH: Jim, you know, I am not claiming any of the credit for that.


I think that it is basically the decision of the Labor Party, and the decision of the Prime Minister that finally brought about that change.

I think the point that I kept making to my interlocutors was that it was it wasn't just a question of uranium. it was really a question of how it was perceived in India, and how the symbolism of that, if you like, in terms of how Australia looked at India as a strategic partner. We deeply appreciated Australia's support at the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) for the waiver that got us the civil nuclear cooperation agreement.

And, you're quite right, strategic circles in India were perhaps a little surprised that Australia didn't follow with a civil nuclear cooperation agreement itself when 10 other countries had. But it has happened finally. And I think it happened because Australia does see India as a strategic partner.

JIM MIDDLETON: One final question of interest not only in Australia and India: what's wrong with your cricket team these days, when so recently it was rated number one in the world?

SUJATHA SINGH: (Laughing) Well, we'd like to know that ourselves, you know. But you know, Jim, I don't think you should sound too smug about that. Let your cricket team come to India and I promise you that we are going to give you a white out.

JIM MIDDLETON: Fair cop. Happy trails, High Commissioner. Thank you very much.

SUJATHA SINGH: Thank you very much Jim, it's been a pleasure.
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