In the late 1990s, Oliver Ballhatchet, a young British traveller was exploring Thailand, when he received a letter from his father. A hand-written letter informed Oliver of his aunt in Patiala and so Oliver made a detour to India. Upon reaching this city in Punjab, Oliver found out that his aunt needed someone to teach in the school she owned in the city and so began Oliver’s India connect.
However, little did he know then that after a decade he would return to India, this time in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, as the British Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai. Oliver Ballhatchet MBE now represents the UK in Tamil Nadu and Pudducherry. Prior to this, he has served as the Political Consul and Olympic and Paralympic Attaché for the British teams in Brazil. Oliver has also served as the Deputy Head of the UK Government’s UN Peacekeeping Joint Unit, worked on counter-terrorism, energy and global climate change. A lawyer by training, Oliver is also a very keen sports enthusiast.
In this conversation, with Varsha Venkataraman and Arunima Gupta, Oliver Ballhatchet MBE tells us about India-UK bilateral cooperation at the state and the central level, public diplomacy initiatives and his own liking for India.
How has your experience of exploring Tamil Nadu and India been so far?
Tamil Nadu has been extremely welcoming to us. As the people of Tamil Nadu claim, and I think it’s probably correct, they are amongst the most hospitable and friendly people in the world. Besides, the food is great and one can never have a bad meal.
My family and I have had a great time here. In Tamil Nadu, I've been to Madhurai, Coimbatore, Nilgiris, Vellore and Rameshwaram which houses some incredible temples. My family has also visited Kodaikanal. There's so much to see and do, and so many places to go to in this state. After the interruption of 18 months, we are trying to catch up again by visiting newer places not just within Tamil Nadu, but across India.
I like to travel by road to discover India. I had taken a train journey from Chennai all the way up to Delhi. During Christmas, we drove ourselves across Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and then we drove all the way to Goa. I have travelled quite a bit around the country and look forward to my next trip to Darjeeling in West Bengal and then hopefully to Gangtok in Sikkim.
India and the UK have undertaken collaborative projects on sustainability, waste management and green energy. Can you tell us a bit about the work being done by the Deputy High Commission in Chennai in this direction?
At Chennai, most of the work is on the local level. We have installed some recycling bins in our office and I have also insisted that we remove all personal bins so that people are incentivized to go and witness waste recycling themselves. The idea is to make our people more aware and improve their understanding of waste management. We have also got electric vehicles - three electric cars and a scooter - that are our preferred means of commuting. Besides this, I am happy to inform you that we've reduced our water consumption by 70% and also started growing our own vegetables. By taking these smaller steps, we encourage a self-driven behavioural change of lifestyle.
On the global level, of course, the UK is committed to the environmental cause and is also hosting the Climate Change Conference call in Glasgow at the beginning of November. India, with some really ambitious targets, has a huge role to play in that. Our focus is on renewable energy and we are doing as much to partner with India. The UK has the largest installed capacity of offshore wind and in India, in fact, Tamil Nadu, in particular, has a huge potential for offshore wind. The state has a large installed capacity of onshore wind and solar, and so we can mutually share expertise on wind energy.
We are also working closely on environmental issues, for example, microplastics in the ocean. We have a bilateral partnership under the Commonwealth Litter Program wherein we work closely with the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), in Chennai. There is a ship at NIOT with a machine that can capture and measure the microplastic content in the water. We have also just announced a twinning partnership between Puducherry in Tamil Nadu and Aberystwyth in Wales to share knowledge on how they can reduce their plastic consumption and wastage. These are just a few examples, of the many, that India and the UK are working on, both at the macro and the micro-level.
Speaking of working at the micro-level, initiatives like twinning programs, etc, how can city diplomacy contribute towards boosting India-UK bilateral relations?
Cities and states do have a role to play in diplomatic relations. This is also considering the fact that governments change with time and so do their policies and priorities. In such cases, cities and states can keep the agenda (of healthy diplomatic and intergovernmental relations) moving forward. For example, the C40 Cities is an organization that brings together cities from across the world for working on climate change.
When it comes to India, the cities are almost the size of countries, and states are almost the size of continents. There are more than 75 million people in Tamil Nadu alone, close enough to that of Germany. In India, the role of deputy missions and consulates thus become important and we do drive para-diplomacy initiatives. Our consulate has worked with the Tamil Nadu government on its electric vehicle policy. Earlier this year, we had a high-level delegation from the UK that attended a roundtable at IIT Madras to discuss the links between Tamil Nadu and Dundee Council, a world leader in the adoption of electric vehicles. We have also worked with the state government on disaster resilience. We have taken the national level India-UK agreement on Ease of Doing Business to the state level and an MoU also has been signed between the UK India Business Council and Guidance Tamil Nadu. The abolition of about 250 processes and 88 acts that were obsolete, has further made it easier for businesses to work out of the state.
So those are just three examples of what we're doing and now we're working on a few more which I have to be able to tell you about in six months’ time.
We have seen India and the UK join hands during the pandemic to source vaccines to millions of people. On the other hand, Ayurveda and Yoga are also becoming popular outside India. How do you see the two countries coming together for cooperating in the health sector?
The pandemic has proven that global issues can only be solved globally. Like climate, pandemics don’t recognize boundaries either so we need to pull expertise from around the world. While there is an element of competition to develop vaccines, I essentially think it's been a collaboration where the world has got together to produce vaccines. Investing time and energy and money becomes important because one never knows where the solution is going to come from. Just as India developed the vaccine for Rotavirus.
So as a part of our 10-year roadmap, which our Prime Ministers had signed earlier this year, health is a very important area of work along with sort of science and technology, climate and, of course, just general trade and investment.
Coming to the question of Indian wellness systems, I think the people of the UK are extremely open and always have been, to different forms of medicine. I believe the National Health Services are also looking at alternatives, and increasingly into preventative medicine. The cost of repairs of people's health that has already declined is much more and actually, it's better to look at preventive solutions. So, I think, on the whole, we're becoming more open to exploring different ways of tackling health issues which are sadly increasing with our modern lifestyles.
Yoga is extremely popular and it was already booming before the pandemic but it has grown even more so now because people are able to access Yoga classes online. Even before, when I was in the UK this summer, every Wednesday, there was a Yoga class out on the green space outside our house and about fifty people turned up every week for outdoor yoga, even in the rain. So yes, Yoga is India’s cultural export to the world and it is very popular.
Any discussion between India and the UK bilateral relation is incomplete without mentioning sports. How do you see sports as a means of strengthening people-to-people relations?
I am a very keen sports person, especially in cricket, and I encourage people to take up as many sports. During my stay in Brazil, I ended up playing for their national cricket team which is something you can do, but the roles were reversed when I came to India. I found that I was better at football than I was in Brazil but much worse at cricket. Here, I can barely get into a local sports team, let alone a national team.
Sports diplomacy is something that's very dear to my heart, I was actually the Olympic attaché, so I worked with the British Olympic and Paralympic teams, Head of Engineering at Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and we worked on sports diplomacy because I truly believe that sports have incredible power and force to do good. Particularly with cricket, you can reach out to every person in this country from business people, politicians, students and youngsters down to everybody else.
I know that for the cricket World Cup in 2023 we are going to be trying to do a lot, a partnership with India to use that sport as a path of good. I am also the chair of the local advisory group of the street child cricket World Cup which uses the power of these major events to bring a sort of identity to street children.
Another area of cooperation we see is the sharing of expertise in hosting major sporting events. The UK is very experienced in this and India is keen on getting involved in this as well. Tamil Nadu has indicated that it wants to build Olympic sites.
Local sports, apart from cricket, are also great in bringing people together. If there's a sport that exists in the world, there must be a team in the UK playing it. When growing up, I remember Kabaddi being a very popular game and my friends and I would play it in our sports field.
Another major aspect of people-to-people relations between the two countries is education. You have also taught for a brief period back in the ’90s in Patiala. Where do you see India-UK relations in the field of education heading?
I think Modi was the first Prime Minister who coined the phrase the living bridge, and it certainly exists, that if you look, you seem to always have a connection to India.
My aunt married a Sikh about 50 years ago and has been in Patiala ever since and she runs two British schools, they call them the British co-ed school in Patiala. When I visited her, for the first time, in the late 90s, she was in need of someone who could teach. So I took upon the task and taught for a term at her school. Those three months were the most amazing experience in my life and I absolutely loved it. After three months of teaching, I was rewarded with a hundred pounds or something that I used for traveling around India and I absolutely adore the experience. My grandfather's cousin Tennis Ballhatchet was an Indian scholar at SOAS University in London, as well, so many people have an Indian connection that there is a living bridge between our two countries.
In more recent times, the number of students going to the UK has increased by huge amounts, almost around 63% increase from one year to the next. I think it was only second to China for the number of students that come to the UK for studies. And we're seeing huge numbers now, particularly as it's harder to travel to Australia, New Zealand, or the US this year to study, so we've seen tens of thousands of students going to UK universities and that's really great.
And I can see this trend to continue, rather than slow down. What we'd like to see as well that would be great is, if some students from the UK could come and study here or take some elements of their education here. Of course, great advances in online learning make it even easier to do. We have received lots of universities’ partnerships as well like with the IITs in India and St Andrews in the UK, which are top universities. We have recently signed a partnership and that is just one of the dozens between universities as well. So in total, education diplomacy is definitely going to go from strength to strength.
In your opinion, what is the greatest strength of India as a soft power?
Oh, it is impossible to name one thing as the most powerful soft power tool for India. The country is too diverse and huge and I think it is both the diversity and depth that India has offered to the world. The quote that I had shared earlier, were just a few of the hundreds of things that we could have said about the soft power of India and what it can give to the world.
“The whole world knows India; the Taj Mahal, yoga and the inspirational Mahatma Gandhi. But do they really know India? About its contribution to language; shampoo is an Indian word. To games; snooker, chess and snakes and ladders started there. To Tech; the Pentium Chip and USB. To education; the world’s first university. And to medicine; the cure for leprosy and the vaccine for rotavirus. The list goes on and on. India is a vast vibrant collection of languages, cultures, places, people and achievements. It is a place you could explore for a lifetime and never master. Everybody should seek to know India better.”
We have talked about climate, we have talked about health, about education and we have talked about sports. India’s capacity to give to the world is limitless. I think that India in the next ten, twenty, fifty years is just going to increase exponentially in the minds of those of us around the world and its influences are only going to get stronger in the years to come.
With inputs from the official page of the British Deputy High Commission in Chennai.