In January 2016, the inaugural edition of Difficult Dialogues initiated a path-breaking debate series as eminent experts and scholars gathered in Goa to debate the topic of India’s position in a globalising world.
Curated by the London School of Economics and tve (Television for the Environment) the summit saw leading figures from across the entire spectrum of civil society gather to share knowledge and formulate new approaches to existing and potential challenges.
Daring to Debate the Big Issues
The inclusive panel format at this innovative, annual festival of ideas was structured around four key areas of debate: Global Finance, India and West Asia, Civil Society, and Infrastructure.
Under the broad theme of Global Finance, a number of internationally renowned economists – including Professor Eric Berglof, Professor Nicholas Stern, and Nasser Munjee– were joined by telecoms giant and social entrepreneur Sam Pitroda to discuss the fate of the international financial system in light of the 2008 crisis, the Greek bail-out, and the ascendancy of Asian and BRIC nations. Following this, academics, diplomats and leading journalist Siddharth Varadarajan came together to shed light on India’s West Asia policy, with much impassioned debate given to the issues of energy, security strategy, and of the competing policies of China and the USA.
In discussing the importance of civil society as a pivotal democratic mechanism for social change in India, a number of leading academics and social entrepreneurs were joined by the LSE’s director, Professor Craig Calhoun. In a lively debate, the panel addressed ways in which groups and individuals mobilise to challenge ingrained systemic bottlenecks, suggesting optimum strategies and novel approaches to activism. Scholars and educational experts also contested the future path of India’s infrastructure landscape. A particular emphasis was afforded to the issues of digital connectivity (and, notably, access for isolated communities), rail infrastructure, the burgeoning demand for education, and the future of ‘smart’ cities.
Special Guests Enthrall Attendees
In addition to the core debate structure of the forum, DD16 hosted stimulating illustrated talks from two prominent guest speakers: internationally renowned author, Amitav Ghosh, and eminent activist, Srjda Popovic.
In a lecture consonant with his famous fictional novels, Amitav Ghosh painted a vivid portrait of the 19th century triangular trade in opium – centering around the Chinese port of Canton (Guangzhou) – from the perspective of a contemporary Indian trader. The discourse reminded us of India’s historical position as a key player in the great commodity trades between Europe and Asia, and hinted at ways in which this role is being reassumed.
A veteran of the Serbian student movement that helped oust Slobodan Milošević, Srjda Popovic discussed the recent groundswell of direct, non-violent action across the world. With specific reference to the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and his own background in the former Yugoslavia, Srjda provided a fascinating examination of why some of these struggles succeed, yet others fail to achieve their objectives.
The forum also showcased an exhibition of rare documents held within the archives of the Reserve Bank of India (Pune), thus providing a fascinating insight into India’s financial history.
One of the most eagerly attended aspects of the forum was the grand finale of the Daring Debates series, an annual high-level debate competition that provides a platform for university students from five regions (Delhi, Goa, Guwahati, Kolkata and Mumbai) to engage with critical contemporary issues. The lively concluding debates were moderated by renowned journalist and activist, Shazia Ilmi, and judged by writer and media personality, Pooja Bedi, author and leading psychoanalyst, Professor Sudhir Kakar, and the Advocate General of Goa, Atmaran NS Nadkarn.
From Dialogue to Deeds
Complementary to Difficult Dialogues is the Dialogue Derivatives programme – an integral part of the forum’s vision – which, in partnership with tve, guarantees that the information exchanged and created as part of the event finds its way into channels that can make a positive change in society – be this through the creation of new reports, policy initiatives, or dialogues with the media, politicians and NGOs. The platform guarantees that the dialogue is kept open by engaging young people and community groups via an array of media based, interactive initiatives.
Dialogue Derivatives kicked off with eight panel discussions, wherein a number of influential stakeholders initiated an ongoing process of dialogue on a number of topics fundamental to India’s citizens. Each panel represented a different area of concern. The first debate, Vision, addressed the lack of a coherent progressive agenda for India’s younger generation. Next, intensive deliberations on the subject of child marriage led to the creation of a memorandum that was shared with a plurality of stakeholders.
Further panels began dialogues on street children, the uses and abuses of wealth, social exclusion and tourism. An impassioned panel discussion on agriculture, youth migration and ‘smart cities’ considered the failings of rural-urban migration. The closing quorum brought together experienced politician, Yashwant Sinha, television commentator, Pavan K. Varma, Siddharth Varadarajan, and Professor Sudhir Kakar to answer the question ‘Is Dialogue Dead?’ The panel was moderated by journalist Lakshmi Chaudhry.
Speakers hailing from a variety of sectors took up the challenge: Dialogue Derivatives encouraged eminent activists to share the stage with politicians, famous names from the film industry, journalists and experienced NGO workers. Amongst others, directors Govind Nihlani and Hansal Mehta, journalists Darryl D’Monte and Kishalay Bhattacharjee and actress Nandita Das played critical roles in invigorating the debates. As part of the event, attendees were also treated to viewings of a number of films originally premiered at the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival.
With deliberations now well under way, Difficult Dialogues 2016 has been a resounding success- proceedings from the forum have thus far been directly responsible for the creation of four white papers – documents that form the basis of new parliamentary policy. The forum also produced two comprehensive concluding reports premised in the event’s debates – one on the topic of global finance, the other concerning India’s infrastructure. Informed by the forum, tve produced a well received film exploring the sensitive environmental aspects of economic development. Coverage of the event made news in a number of national publications.