For six months I've taken part in monthly skype conference calls as part of the advisory group to the Australian diaspora group Advance, as it prepared to host its first conference in India, and only its second in Asia. The Emerging Leaders summit was held on Tuesday, and I spent a 14-hour day within the scented confines of the Oberoi doing vox pops for Advance's online videos in between ducking in and out of the roundtable sessions.
The purpose of the group is initially hard to grasp: is it about business? Is it a social networking group for overseas Australians? I'd never heard of it before becoming involved; a friend explained it to me as "for Australians living overseas who aren't backpackers." It's quite big in the US, particularly New York, where it holds regular networking evenings, and also the UK, and is now trying to get a solid foothold in Asia. India is an interesting move: someone on the day told me there's just 1,500 Australians in India.
Nevertheless, Advance got together a solid, albeit small, group of people with interests and/or knowledge in or about the other country. The sessions were well thought out: they were comprised of small-ish groups of people, say ten to fifteen, and mostly those with a special interest in the field, and covered topics, generally on how Australia and India can cooperate and share knowledge: the handling of mega events like the Commonwealth Games, water challenges, urban development, and issues surrounding education. The last item was particularly contentious, given the apparent propensity of Indian students to get beaten up by vicious thugs in Australia. The organisers had been keen to avoid that particular topic, but it ended up dominating the day: given that higher education is Australia's biggest export to India and has taken a massive hit in recent months, many were keen to discuss the impact on their particular industries and what could be done to ameliorate it. I did indeed hear one or two particularly interesting perspectives, which I hadn't come across before. And you shall read about that in due time, hopefully.
The Lowy Institute's Rory Medcalf gave the keynote address, and voiced strong support for Australia moving to sell uranium to India. That, again, was another issue that organisers would have preferred to avoid (but knew they couldn't). Later, public affairs group Hawker Britton presented findings of a survey of Australians on attitudes towards India and the relationship, which found three-quarters of those surveyed feel the students issue has negatively affected ties.
I went to the roundtable on water, which was interesting but a bit of a disappointment as there was only one Australian there, so the opportunity to discuss how the two countries could share knowledge and expertise was a bit lost. In the afternoon I joined the session on being a global citizen, where the talk was lively and wide-ranging: how could Australia and India get each other more? How to encourage participation in each other's culture? It was a shame, then, that the two groups who can best bridge the divide were under-represented: the arts, and NGOs. Nevertheless, out of that came ideas, such as how to connect those working in the arts in India, and ideas on how generally to connect Australians across India.
All said, while it was a packed day, it was a great opportunity to meet people doing great things or poised to do great things, in India. I came out with an armful of contacts, a head full of story ideas, and at least one new friend. That, to me, is a day's work well done.