India recently hosted (5th-9th May) the Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders. As this was not a state visit, it went relatively unnoticed in the mainstream media. This came after a tense visit to New Delhi by Turkish President Recep Erdogan and preceded Mr. Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka. In June 2015, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte had met the Indian Prime Minister on a state visit to New Delhi along with a trade mission of more than 80 Dutch companies where some 43 agreements were signed with Indian companies, setting the stage for further cooperation.
The Dutch minister told his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj that Netherlands is serving as a valuable partner in the government’s Make in India, Namami Gange, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Smart Cities programs, etc. The Netherlands has certainly assimilated the government’s penchant for acronyms, LOTUS (Local Treatment of Urban Sewage Systems for Healthy Re-use) a project for the clean-up of the Barapullah drain in New Delhi and DIWALI (Dutch-Indo Water Alliance Leadership Initiative) a waste-water project in Baroda, being projects for which the foundation stones were laid by the visiting minister.
In a signal of how seriously Netherlands views India, a Consulate was opened in Bangalore in addition to the one in Mumbai. Mr. Koenders also paid a visit to Aleppy in Kerala, called by some the Leiden/Venice of India – for its beautiful canals – the cleaning up of which is done with the help of Dutch companies. Kerala also has significant historical importance for the more than 400-year-old IndiaDutch relationship.
Indian historian and now government servant Sanjeev Sanyal in an insightful talk at the Jawaharlal Nehru University titled ‘India’s maritime history’ remarked that the Battle of Colachel (1741) where the Travancore king Marthanda Varma defeated the Dutch maritime force was probably the reason his lecture was being delivered in English and not Dutch. Keeping the long eye of history aside, the fact is that, there is much more to be desired in the Netherlands-India relationship.
Annual trade between India and Netherlands stands at 6 billion Euros. Netherlands and India are among the five largest investors of FDI in each other’s countries. In a talk at the Confederation of Indian Industry, the visiting minister stressed on the fact that Netherlands could be India’s gateway to Europe. Rotterdam, the largest port in Europe already serves as a trading route for many Indian goods entering Europe, and moving on from there to other parts of the world. The Port of Rotterdam has entered into an agreement with the Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB) to lend its expertise in a slew of projects including planning for new ports and churning out skilled professionals in shipping and transport sectors.”
Netherlands is also a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group – the elite grouping that New Delhi has made a bid to join. Netherlands has actively supported India’s membership to the NSG and from 2 to 12 May 2017 the Netherlands chaired the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the 2020 Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Former External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid had visited The Hague in March 2014 for the Nuclear Security Summit where he also had a meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Education and business represent the best opportunities for cooperation between countries. The Netherlands-India Chamber of Commerce and Trade serves as the apex meeting point for industry representatives from both countries. 200 Indian companies are active in the Netherlands and more than 115 Dutch companies have a presence in India. Dutch companies are particularly active in the field of water management, where they have expertise because their survival as a country which is below sea level is directly contingent on the management of dykes and water levels. Dutch companies are also active in the health care, mobility, agriculture and horticulture, and urban planning areas in India.
There has been a particular focus on linking Indian and Dutch Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) – the bedrock of both economies. This relationship is characterised by a focus on jobs and growth. The SME Chamber of India website states that “IndiaNetherlands SME Business Council” will act as a bridge to exchange information on business, import, export, joint ventures, technology transfers, contract manufacturing tie up and other business opportunities in various sectors as well as investment promotion in both the countries.”
India has been focusing on getting its states involved in trade promotion and attracting foreign investment. A dedicated States Division at the Ministry of External Affairs has been set up. It is therefore of importance that the visiting minister had meetings with Karnataka Minister of Heavy Industries RV Deshpande and the Kerala Finance and Transport Minister Dr. Thomas Isaac. On a visit in 2015, the Dutch Prime Minister has offered expertise in the building of the coastal road in Mumbai. Netherlands has also signed an MoU with Uttar Pradesh for the setting up of a Skill Development Centre.
In the education sphere, the EUMIND (Europe Meets India) programme connects a number of Dutch and Indian high schools for cultural and student exchange activities. This and cooperation agreements between universities of the two countries have helped in getting people of the two countries together. Leiden University has since 2010 had a Long-Term Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) Chair for study of Contemporary India.
As tighter immigration and visa requirements in the United States and the United Kingdom are set to come into force, Netherlands certainly has great potential in challenging these two countries as the preferred higher educational destination for Indian students. There are now about 1,500 full time Indian students enrolled in Dutch universities compared to more than 4,000 Chinese. But there are less than 15 Dutch students enrolled in Indian colleges. Working on improved co-operation in this field is of immense importance.
Netherlands has just come out of a bitterly-contested general election with incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte successfully holding out against the far-right candidate Geert Wilders. This victory of the liberal establishment should provide impetus for India to engage more constructively. As Netherlands continues to face challenges to its multiculturalism with the problems of integrating refuges, maybe taking a leaf out of India’s Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb will come in handy for the Dutch.
The Dutch long famous for their height, cheese, tulips and openness have a lot to offer to India. In the four months that I have spent here as an exchange student, I have come to realise that they have a love for all things Indian. In Netherlands, there is also a large population of Indianorigin people from the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America. Between 1873 and 1916, 34,000 people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were taken as indentured labour to work on plantations in various British and Dutch colonies.
The 200,000 Dutch Surinamese speak their own version of Bhojpuri and represent the second largest grouping of Indian origin people in Europe after the United Kingdom. The government has been undertaking schemes such as the Know India Programme aimed at children of People of Indian Origin (PIO) to connect with their roots. The Netherlands also has a large number of roads and statues dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi and improving this relationship would certainly be a lasting legacy to the father of the nation.
The writer is a student at the WB National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata and is currently doing his exchange at Erasmus University, Rotterdam.