June 9, 2010

India at the Shanghai World Expo 2010 and its significance in Sino-Indian Relations

In the midst of the concrete and steel jungle that is the Shanghai World Expo, stands the Indian Pavilion, the 'greenest' of them all, offering an unprecedented opportunity to further improve Sino-Indian relations and India's Soft Power in China.

The Expo has finally come to China. A largely-forgotten event in most parts of the world, it has been rejuvenated, on a scale which no other country could even dream of. A record number of 192 countries and 50 organizations have registered, the highest in the Expo's history. Most people hadn't even heard of the expo until it came to China. 
The verdict is clear - The Expo needed China as much as China needed the Expo.

It has been described by the Chinese government as "a great gathering of world civilizations",  and is an excellent opportunity to improve ties between two of the oldest - India and China.

The Indian pavilion

The Indian Pavilion is a massive stupa (pronounced stuup, with an slightly elongated u), resembling specifically the Sanchi Stupa built during the Maurya Dynasty (322-185 BC) by King Ashoka (pronounced  Ashok).


In what is one of the greatest examples the diversity and plurality of Indian history and culture, the dome is shaped like the Taj Mahal Mausoleum (which, commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and completed in 1653, is one of the seven wonders of the world) and the inspiration of its design comes from the Sanchi Stupa (that was completed in the third century BCE and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

Taj Mahal
Sanchi Stupa

The Indian Pavilion

As the world moves towards urbanization, the idea behind the Indian pavilion successfully blends the concepts of sustainable ecological development with modern technology and town planning - which is accentuated by the theme - Cities of Harmony.

And what better model than ancient India, where the Indus Valley Civilization (3300–1300 BCE), whose cities, most notably - Harappa and Mohen-jo-daro, reached a level of urban planning and technological sophistication which was unparalleled during the time. As a matter of fact, the sheer brilliance and superiority of those prehistoric cities would put Mumbai to shame, whose streets flood every couple of years due to heavy rains and poor town planning coupled with inefficient drainage systems, not to mention 55% of the city's population living in slums! (In the words of India's Environment and Forests Minister, Jairam Ramesh, if there is a Noble Prize for filth, India will win it!)

The Indian Pavilion is built entirely of bamboo and other environment friendly materials like solar panels, windmills,  plants, water cascade and earthen tiles; and is the 'greenest' and most eco-friendly pavilion at the expo. Over 60,000 saplings, including many herbal medicinal plants, have been used in the roofing panels, which also collect rainwater for use in the pavilion. Over 30 kms of bamboo (which came from eastern Chinese forests) has gone into its construction. It is in fact the world's largest Bamboo Dome - 35 meters wide and 18 meters tall, and contains an interlaced network of more than 500 pieces of 20 meter-length rods of bamboo.
Completely rewriting China's architecture rulebook, it will be spared demolition unlike the other pavilions (excluding China's), dismantled and then reconstructed in Wushi, Zhejiang Province. The Indian architects had to prepare the first ever bamboo construction plans and code and then get the Chinese to approve it before proceeding.  

According to the official website:
The concept and theme of India Pavilion will revolve around journey of Indian cities from ancient times to medieval period to modern India. This journey is full of glorious peaks and downs in the medieval period. The concept of urban planning was known to India as back as the times of Mohan Jo daro and Hadappa (dating back to 2000-3000 B.C. Circa), the twin cities that were discovered by British archaeologists. These cities had well laid out streets at right angles, underground drainage and water supply system with common public areas.
As urban life spread among Indian people, we find cities with specific sectors, which were known as Mohallahs, where people belonging to a specific guild or trade used to live, such as, Kapda Bazaar (cloth market) where textile merchants had their shops and living quarters; Sarafa Bazaar (jewelery market) where all jewellers had their shops and living quarters, Katras (grain and eatables market) and so on. New urban centres were set up by Mughal emperors spanning throughout India based on specialized trade and services on the lines of modern Special Economic Zones, e.g., Varanasi became known for silk and silk embroidery; Mysore for special silk and sandlewood work; Calicut for muslin cloth and jewelery; Moradabad for brassware; Aligarh for locks; Agra for footwear and marble works etc. During the medieval period also, ambitious kings planned ambitious cities, such as, Jaipur, which was laid in a very scientific manner with entire city being painted in one colour for which it is still known as ‘Pink City’.

The highlights of the pavilion include the 'Tree of Life' carving by the Sidi Saiyyed Mosque in Ahmedabad, a 'Zero-Chemical Area', which displays many energy efficient technologies, a traditional 'Indian Market' or Bazaar, and a Holographic projection showcasing India's evolution from the Indus Valley days to modern times.

And in the Urban Best practices Area (UBPA), which offers a platform for different countries to propose their solutions to the urban issues from different perspectivestwo role models from India — one from Ahmedabad and the other from Pondicherry — are being showcased with 34 others as experiments in improving urban life. The Ahmedabad initiative is focused on clean and green economic development, while Pondicherry focuses on heritage preservation along with economic growth.

The Indian pavilion also features authentic Indian cuisine, Indian cultural programmes, including dances (some of which are so diverse and different from the others that I'm quite sure some people will wonder whether they are from the same country!), and of course - India's latest soft power export - Bollywood. The organizers have roped in 50 performers, backed by a team of film technicians and choreographers to act out 40 years of classic moments in Indian cinema. And Yoga (pronounced Yog) - the single most popular aspect of Indian culture and soft power abroad - is also on the cards.

Where's India's other achievement?

While all this should certainly be applauded, what is surprising is that a presentation of the other aspect that India is known for around the word - its IT prowess - is nowhere to be seen. A combination of culture, environment friendly urban planning and India's IT and software industry prowess would have been a great and unique combination. Not to mention the fact that this is one of the few advantages which India has over China.

Strengthening  Sino - Indian Relations and India's Soft Power

As the two most populous countries in the world and rising powers, India and China have a responsibility to maintain healthy relations, not only towards themselves but also towards the whole world. And the expo offers an excellent opportunity for India to increase the people-to-people contact between these two countries and awareness about Indian culture in China.

The India pavilion has become one of the most popular spots at the expo with an average of 25,000 visitors every day.

The huge line of visitors queued up to get inside the Indian pavilion as seen above speaks for itself.

Many countries are increasingly realizing that Soft Power can be a very effective tool for increasing their influence, especially countries with rich histories and cultures like India and China. They have a lot to export in that direction; and can use Soft Power very effectively to project an image. Pavan Varma, the head of the Indian Council on Cultural Relations, has argued that “Culturally, India is a superpower.”

Unlike China, India has lacked the initiative and aggression to effectively use Soft Power as an instrument of Foreign Policy.  For example, while the Chinese government has established 295 Confucius Institutes in 78 countries, the Indian Equivalent - Indian Cultural Institutes - number only 20. Most of India's Soft Power abroad is promulgated through private individuals and enterprises, like Bollywood, and the so-called 'Indian Gurus', like Deepak Chopra.

This year is the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between two countries. In China, interest in Indian culture and History is on the rise.
The Indian President, Pratibha Patil, on a recent visit to China, unveiled the first Indian Style Buddhist Temple in Luoyang in Henan province after a gap of 1900 years, when two Indian monks Kashyapamatanga and Dharmaratna helped establish the first Buddhist shrine. This temple was at the same site as the White Horse Temple, built in 68 AD, the first Buddhist Temple in China,  and is  part of an India-China Cultural cooperation initiative. She also unveiled a statue of poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore in the heart of old-town Shanghai, which the poet visited in the 1920s and left a strong influence on a whole generation of Chinese intellectuals and writers.

Tourism is another important aspect which has been neglected. In 2008, Chinese arrivals to India made up less than 2 per cent of the total number of foreign travelers. India's lack of adequate infrastructure, a lack of awareness about Indian Tourism among common Chinese are just two of the many problems which are at the heart of the asymmetrical tourist flow. With China slated to become the  world's fourth-largest source of outbound tourists by 2020, it is a market which India, like any other country, cannot afford to take lightly.

Hence, the Shanghai World Expo becomes all the more important and it is an opportunity that simply could not be ignored. The Indian government has taken unprecedented advantage of this situation, by not only showcasing India's Soft Power through its unique culture and history, but also various green initiatives coupled with technology and urban planning - a pavilion built entirely with environment friendly materials and with zero carbon emissions. A welcome change amidst the steel and concrete jungle of the expo, this endeavor has the potential to drastically strengthen Sino-Indian Relations like no other.

(This article also featured at Fool's Mountain, Hidden Harmonies and China Digital Times)