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India — a roller coaster

Rasheeda Bhagat

The highs and lows of a three-year ride as the first woman Australian High Commissioner in India. Penelope Wensley shares some special moments.

Within a week of taking up her assignment as the Australian High Commissioner in India, came the terrorist strike on the Indian Parliament, throwing everybody into a tizzy. "In a sense I lost 10 months; India was utterly distracted and all of us had to focus on the Indo-Pak flashpoint," says Penelope Wensley, barely two months away from saying goodbye to India after an exciting three-year stint in Delhi.

After getting an honours degree in English Literature from the University of Queensland, she joined the Australian Foreign Service in 1967. Those days career options for women were limited and "one's ambitions were not very high". But international relations had attracted her from a young age. Though, every year, only one woman got in — out of 19 diplomats recruited — she made it and was posted to Paris (1969-1973), not only because she knew French but also because "it was a very logical posting for a woman to a safe, developed country! That's totally changed now."

After a couple of short stints in Australia as well as the UN, she was posted to Mexico, where her first daughter was born. Here she was accompanied by her husband, a veterinary surgeon, who has often had to put his career on the backburner while accompanying her around the world.

"When we got married, we thought, wrongly, that a marriage between a vet and a diplomat would be a very good package as he had skills that would be of value in both developing and developed countries. I guess in 1974 we were a little naïve and hadn't appreciated the barriers for diplomatic dependants seeking work in other countries. So when we arrived in Mexico, newly married and full of optimism, it was quite a shock to find that he couldn't get a work permit."

Even though Australia today has agreements with many countries to facilitate employment of diplomatic dependents, "it's not enough, and this issue remains a big challenge for all diplomatic services." In Delhi, for the last one year, her husband has been working with the Australian mission. "In a small post it would be awkward for the spouse of the head of the mission to work. But in a large post such as Delhi (150 members) it's okay," she says.

In Mexico, Penelope was the first female embassy officer to have a baby on a posting, "a development I like to think made it easier for those who followed, even though it was quite challenging to have a small baby on a posting."

On her present posting and the challenges she has faced, she says that the Australia-India relationship is quite big and getting bigger. With a mandate to grow it further, looking back after three years, "I am pleased to see the runs on the board. The political relationship has never been in better shape, we have increased trade very strongly and India has become Australia's seventh-largest export market; a big jump from three years ago. Our two-way trade is approaching Aus. $ 6 billion, and investment is growing very strongly. Australia is now the eighth-largest investor in India, with over a billion Australian dollars invested across 100 different joint ventures."

The mission chief has given priority to education too, because when educational linkages between two countries develop, other relationships follow. There are now nearly 20,000 Indian students in her country and considering that, for every foreign student, there are four visits a year to Australia, it means a promotion in tourism and raised awareness levels of that country.

"I wanted to increase Australia's visibility and move it beyond clichés; translate the goodwill that is clearly there to the level of good business; and see a deepening and broadening of the relationship beyond clichés. This is in the process of happening."

She denies the charge that many Indian students are denied jobs in Australia after that country raised the bar for the mandatory PR (permanent residentship). "The fact that India is now the second-largest source of independent skilled migrants to Australia doesn't fit this perception. Australia is still actively seeking skilled migrants and Indian students are as free as anyone else to apply for PR to work and reside in Australia. We have shortages in some areas such as teaching and nursing; in others it's a matter of competing. Ours is a very open, transparent and prosperous country that has had 13 years of straight growth in the economy," she says.

But the Indo-Australia relationship, Penelope feels "is still well below potential and there is scope and opportunity to do much more. Regretfully three years have passed very rapidly and I envy my successor the opportunities that I know are going to be there."

Her biggest regret is that during her tenure a prime ministerial visit to Australia could not take place. With the last Indian premier visiting Australia 18 years ago, she feels a visit is long overdue and was planned thrice during A.B. Vajpayee's term but had to be postponed, first due to 9/11, then by the Godhra incident and subsequent developments and, finally, due to the advancement of the general elections. Looking back at a 37-year career in diplomacy, one of her regrets is that it continues to be "substantially male dominated. As a woman working in international relations and having attended hundreds of international conferences and negotiations, and watching a sea of dark suits all being worn by men, one is keenly aware that the overwhelming majority of decision makers and people in positions of power continue to be men."

Without "being bitter about it", women would have to work to change the under-representation of women, be it in politics, corporate world or diplomacy. "You have to change things; but you don't change it by raving against it; you change it by merit, by demonstrating capability and by networking effectively. Men network; the old boys' network is always there. Women don't, but will have to," she says.

She has gained "great satisfaction from developing, fostering and participating in networks of women decision-makers in every major posting and found it a very valuable and worthwhile endeavour. There are many remarkable women in India, in the Parliament, private sector and a growing force of civil society in India. We have a small group of women heads of mission in Delhi; nine out of about 130!"

She is of course the first woman Australian high commissioner to India but is certain she "won't be the last." Even though the Australian diplomatic service has family-friendly policies and encourages women to apply for senior positions overseas, "the reality is that it is still hard today in 2004, as it was in 1974, to have a successful career, a successful marriage and raise a family. Many women still confront those challenges."

On what she liked most about India and what disturbed her, Penelope says that living and working in India is like "being on a roller coaster. India is full of surprises; sometimes those surprises are wonderful and stimulating but sometimes they are disturbing."

Despite the "many creative and stimulating" women she's met here, she is disturbed by the "development challenges and the situation of women who are caught in systems that make them vulnerable, be it caste, dowry system or simply poverty. One can't pretend there isn't a serious problem of poverty and underdevelopment in India," she says. Though in her long career she has seen such disparities in other developing countries too, "the scale of the economic and social development challenges in India, given your population, the enormous pressure on your cities and on the environment, which is a passion of mine, are overwhelming. Sometimes you wonder how will this enormous mountain be climbed... access to power, water, health service for people in villages... how will all this be addressed?"

But then "you go to a meeting or read a wonderful article in the newspapers and you immediately bounce back and the glass is more than half full and you think there are remarkable people here who can address these problems. That's what I mean about India being on a roller coaster."

She has enjoyed most India's "trees, birds, the flowers, the history and the culture" and of course Indian food. With the management of India-Australia relationship being a "demanding job" she has not found the time to cook here. But she is going back to Canberra, her next posting with many good cook books" bought here.

After the roller coaster ride in India, she will "relish in Canberra the quiet, the ease of moving around the city and the clean air," but hopes to return to visit the places she could not... like Jammu and Kashmir or the Andamans.

Response can be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in

Picture by Bijoy Ghosh

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