In Conversation : H.E.Alphonsus Stoelinga, Ambassador of Netherlands in India Jinnah House

By Neelima Agrawal
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It was special; this meeting with the gracious and charming His Excellency Stoelinga, the Ambassador of Netherlands in India, at his residence at Jinnah House. Firstly, because I got a guided tour of the Jinnah House’ famous library preserved in pristine condition, the wooden fan, book shelves, paneling et al, and secondly, I got to find out what makes Netherlands what it is – the second largest exporter of agricultural produce despite being as densely populated as India, that too with half its land mass one meter below sea level; the socially liberal country with a multi-racial profile of citizenry where same-sex marriages, abortion, prostitution and euthanasia is legalized. With its advanced scientific and industrial technologies, the country is also host to five international courts.

We got it all on record; H.E.Stoelinga’s detailed answers about the famous spice route, cleaning of a river like Ganga, how to keep our coastal cities from flooding, river management and more. The text has been edited for want of space, but the entire answer is for all to hear on the video alongside.

Next – we will bring you the travel trails around Netherlands, with a special focus on specific niche areas. Read on

How has your experience been at the Jinnah house?

When I arrived here, I had no idea I would be living in the Jinnah house, a monument. People are very interested in the building because a historical person has lived here who had enormous influence on the history of India and on the history of the subcontinent. One says that back in those days in the library of the house meetings took place between Nehru, Jinnah and Patel. These were secret meetings, so nobody knows exactly how and when they took place, but they orally agreed on the partition here. In 1951 the Dutch Government bought the Jinnah house from a private person in India and since then it has been the residence of the Dutch Ambassador. Sometimes the Pakistani ministers, when visiting Delhi, ask us whether they can see the Jinnah house. It is a very historic place, well located and a good residence for the Dutch Ambassador.

We have the legacy of the Indo-Dutch connection via the Spice Route. Is it relevant in the current context?

400 years ago Dutch traders came to the shores of Gujarat, Kerala, Coromandal Coast and Bengal. They did not only set up trade between India and the Netherlands, but also between Asia and Europe. They bought Indian textiles which they were trading to the far corners of Asia and Europe. With the capital they amassed, they bought spices which they traded back to Europe. That is how spice route started.Our trade with India is now very diverse; it is not only goods but also services. The spice route has historical connotations; you could actually say the spice route has economic aspects, political aspects and historical aspects.The economic aspect today is like the economic aspect in the 17th century; also today the Netherlands british-coinand India are very important trade and investment partners. The political symbolism is like in the 17th century as well; not only for India, but also for the Netherlands, it is crucial to have free open sea lanes in the oceans that separate us. The historical connotation is that both India and the Netherlands share the buildings, the artifacts, and the documents that are witnesses of that important period and they contain information valuable for the present generation as well as the future generations.For example, most of the Dutch archives in Kochi and Chennai have been digitalized and are accessible on the internet. It is very interesting to see which ships arrived in India from the Netherlands, on which date, with which captain and what he was transporting. There are still Dutch spice companies in India; one is a company in Kerala, NedSpice (Netherland-Spice) which is trading in spices. The other company is called Synthite, an Indian company that does not only influence the taste but also the fragrance and color of food by using spices. Because the spice route is a symbol that binds the Netherlands with India, it is a good name to use. Like the Chinese use the name “Silk Route”, we use the Spice Route.

The Dutch East India Company was the leading post in South India in the 18th Century. How has the heritage been preserved?

The Dutch were mainly in South India in the 18th century for training. There are still buildings,artifacts, archives and documents that reveal the Dutch presence during that time. Together with the Indian authorities we try to preserve them as a witness of that era and also to get all the information accessible. Like I said, all the documents have been digitalized, which is a very difficult procedure. Everybody can find them on the internet. What does heritage otherwise mean if the people who are living around it, cannot access it. I think these buildings should have a function in daily life. Otherwise the people will not be attached to it. It will be just a building that belongs to the past that they are not connected with. But it is part of your past and also of our past, somewhere we were connected, so it is very interesting for the Dutch and also for the people of India.

The population density of Netherlands and India is nearly the same. Yet you are the second largest exporter of agricultural produce in the world. (Geographically India is 87 times bigger than Netherlands).

As a country India is much bigger than the Netherlands. It is true that the Dutch population is a little less than the population in Delhi, and yet we are the second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world. We are behind USA, and before France. How did that happen? Already for more than 100 years the government, the private sector and academia in the Netherlands work closely together on innovative projects in agriculture. Since the private sector is involved the newly found solutions can be implemented directly by the farmers. Another factor is that the Dutch farmers are organized in cooperatives, in a similar way to Amulin India. Hence the way the agricultural sector in the Netherlands is organized is very crucial for its development; in 100 years the Dutch farmers came almost to the top, in agriculture as well as in agricultural equipment. For example, cold storages are very important in food chain management or food processing.There is an enormous opportunity for Dutch companies in India because 30% of the food is lost between the farmer and the consumer and because India wants to double its food production in the coming years. One important lesson for these Dutch companies that want to do business in India is to find a local partner first. For example, when you talk about a green house, you cannot export your Dutch Green House, lock stock and barrel to India, it is too expensive and does not fit the Indian requirements. What you have to do is produce the mainframe in India with the partner company, and import the high-tech parts from the Netherlands. Since the Dutch companies export only the high tech materials, the total turnover is higher and of a more technological content. This is good for the Dutch company and the partner company and it is good for both countries. We plan to get heavily involved in agriculture in India, because we have the intensity and efficiency. India is already the biggest milk producer, meat exporter and exporter of potatoes. If you can combine the Dutch efficiency with India’s scale, India’s production can take off. There is almost no limit.

What was the reason for the decline in bilateral trade between the two countries since the past two years?

What is happening in the world is that the economies of many countries are stagnating. Russia is isolated, Brazil is in recession, and China is doing worse than expected two years ago. India is the bright spot, as IMF says, India is performing very well.  The export of India to the rest of the world has come down however. Why? It is because the rest of the world is not growing as fast as India. You are growing faster, so you need a lot of your products in your own country. That is one reason you are not exporting so much; the other reason is that in a very turbulent monetary environment, the rupee is doing rather well, the rupee is not losing. But that means like other countries your product did not become cheaper, your currency didn’t devalue, which of course makes your exports not cheaper but it also means that all your imports are not getting more expensive. Why the trade between India and the Netherlands came down is because the exports of India to the Netherlands are a bit less than before for the reasons just explained.India is important for the Dutch economy for six reasons. First – India is the fifth largest source of foreign direct investment; the Netherlands is also the fourth largest source of foreign direct investment in India. India therefore is important as a source of capital. Second – 20% of all India’s export to Europe is through the Netherlands, which is good for our ports and airports. Third – In India you have a huge number of students in physics, engineering, mathematics etc. We have a shortage of engineers. You have a surplus. We see India as a talent pool for the future. India is also very strong in R&D and is increasingly investing in it. We tell our companies that they should link up. Hindustan Levers is investing in R&D, Shell in Bangalore has 5000 engineers, Philips in Bangalore has 5000 engineers; all these companies have thousands of engineers doing Research & Developments. Four – Now we are telling our universities to link up with Indian universities, because things are happening here. Fifth – we are always talking about big companies, but if you look at the Dutch economy, a lot of our technology and our innovation capacity are in small and medium size enterprises. They are sometimes too small to reach out to India, so we have to help them. Dutch SMEs are very interesting for Indian companies because of their technologies, and the Indian companies are interesting partners for Dutch SMEs, because they can outsource to the Indian company. This will be simple processes in the beginning and later on more critical processes. One always sees these outsourcing partners slowly become strategic partners and join each other to enter together the Indian market, or the European market. I have seen examples of companies entering even the Asian market or jumping to North America. So I think SMEs really need both our attention. Sixth – India is getting richer, the economy is progressing and the country now has a huge middle class which has an increasing demand for luxury goods, like wine and cheese; a lot of products to which the Netherlands has access. Also products like apples and pears, simple products but people want them. This is a very important aspect of the Indian market for us. It is not anymore about what we are exporting to each other but what we are investing in each other. There are a host of issues on which we can work together. Modern business today is about finding for your country the right niche in the global value chain. Find your niche in creating value, whether it is in Holland or in India. That is what India and Netherlands can mean for each other.

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What are the key projects that are bringing the Dutch expertise to India?


The Netherlands is very strong in logistics, such as airports and ports. We have a joint venture between the port of Rotterdam, which is the biggest port in Europe, and Adani ports. Furthermore, Schiphol airport in Amsterdam is cooperating with Indira Gandhi International Airport for Cargo.Second is water and waste water treatment. The Ganga is one of the projects where the Netherlands can bring Dutch expertise to India, not only in cleaning the Ganga but also in improving the navigability of the river and its river banks. If you work on the riverbanks, you can create value; people generally like to live on the banks of the river or along the coast of the sea. Take for example the Yamuna River in New Delhi. The city lives with its back to the river instead of with the view on the river. If the river is clean, you can create real estate, and thereby you create value for both the citizens and as well money for the state who can sell the land.The Netherlands is specialized in all kinds of water technology. A Dutch company is currently making a river model for the entire Ganga River, from the source to the end, to see how much water we are getting from the Himalayas and how much we are taking out. How much water should be used to replenish ground water levels? How much water can the agricultural sector take out? How much waste can you put in the river? How to treat the waste from companies and industries, and how to treat waste from cities? These are the questions this Dutch company is trying to address.

In Netherlands we are already increasing the heights of our dikes, because we know that the sea level is going up by 70 cm in the coming 100 years. Look at what happened in Chennai. There was an enormous rain wherebythe water could not go out anywhere and everything flooded. The same happened in Mumbai seven years ago. We are now talking with Mumbai to develop a coastal road in the sea. This coastal road can also be used as a dike in order to protect Mumbai against the surge of water from the sea.Another way of protecting the city is by creating lagoons. If it rains as much aswas the casein Chennai, the lagoon will be a buffer;the excess water will go into the lagoon and after the sea level is down again for 12 hours you open the sluices and the water can leave to the sea.

Third is the Life science and health sector. The Netherlands is very active in pharmaceuticals and the development of body scans. Philips for example is developing scanning machines in their centers in Pune and in Bangalore. The Netherlands and India also have cooperation between universities; AIIMS and Erasmus University do a cohort study to find out how different lifestyles of people in Holland and India influence the occurrence of Alzheimer. Another cohort study on HIV tries to compare how people live for a certain time to examine who has more likelihood to get HIV Aids. The Dutch Government has cooperation with the Indian Government in order to promote these kinds of cohort studies.

Fourth is IT and Mobility. The Netherlands has as goal to sell only electric cars by 2025. Also Delhi is trying to find solutions to combat pollution by implementing new initiatives such as the Odd Even scheme and no Diesel fuel allowed for taxis. Hence India will come up with its own solution. Something namely has to be done about the pollution levels in the city. The only question is where exactly the solution is?The Dutch expertise and knowledge in electric mobility may be interesting for India. Here you have many buses on gas and CNG, but maybe we can ensure a shift towards electric cars and buses?

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Please tell us more about how you would clean up the Ganga.

Cleaning the Ganga is not a small project; it will take a long time. When we cleaned the river Rhine, not only the Netherlands, but Germany, France and Belgium were all involved in the cleaning. It took us 20 years, a lot of money, and many projects. The same will happen with the Ganga. It is all a question of a few years, as they are just starting now.Initially we were wondering how India will clean the Ganga. Will there be tenders? It became very clear that the cleaning of the river and the treatment of waste water is going to be in public- private-partnerships (PPP). I think that the PPP concept is a good way to start cleaning the Ganga. The central state plus the 29 states don’t have the money to clean all the rivers, to build airports, roads, railway lines and railway stations. What I mean is that to undertake so much work, you need the private sector. I always tell the companies from the Netherlands: “if you bring technology, you better also bring financial technologies or bring funds from the Gulf States or from the pension funds in the Netherlands”. There is enough money in the world that wants to be utilized, and what we tell Dutch companies is to go for consortia; study very well the projects and look for banks or finance providers to get into a public- private-partnership with the Indian State or the Indian Government.As far as industries are concerned, I understood that the rules will be applied very strictly in the future. The companies have to literally clean up their act otherwise they will risk fines or even closure. I’ve heard from the enterprises that make equipment to clean industrial water that these industries around the Ganga are slowly getting the message and are trying to obtain equipment to clean up. So things are happening, but it will take a little time.

A very successful project in India is the Delhi Metro. When I was here in 2005 there were only two or three metro stations, while in 2012 when I came back 2.7million passengers travelled per day. It can be done. If you had told in 2004 that today there will be 3.2million people travelling in Delhi in the Metro, nobody would have believed you. But it is happening. So if you tell today, that in 15 years the Ganga will be cleaned, nobody will believe you. But if you do it in an organized way, it can be done.

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Are their many Indian tourists visiting the Netherlands?

Many Indians are travelling to the Netherlands, but it is not all tourists; we also have students, and business people coming. The number of visa granted last year increased by 20% and since March Jet Airways flies directly from Mumbai and Delhi every day to Amsterdam, which also has a huge impact on the number of visa requested. So instead of one flight from Amsterdam to India, we now have three daily flights. That means three times more passengers, three times more students, three times more business people, and three times more tourists.In the era of the Spice Route, the Netherlands was like a hub for India in Europe. Today, I use the term Spice Route in the hope that the Netherlands can become again India’s hub in Europe.

Nowadays many people travel to Europe and to America. Why not go through the Netherlands? You can experience the Netherlands even on the airport. We are trying our best to attract Indian tourists to the Netherlands.

What about Dutch tourists? Is India an attractive tourist destination for the people of the Netherlands?

Yes India is a very attractive destination for Dutch people. The problem was that until one year ago it was very difficult to get a visa. Luckily we now have the E-Visa, which makes it much easier to visit India. Of course now with the Jet Airways flights there is three times more capacity and I am sure that you will see an enormous increase in the number of visa. If we had 20% growth in travel to India last year, this year may be the same or even more. I think India is so diverse and so colorful. And there is no travel loving country like the Netherlands. The Dutch like to go everywhere; to Malaysia, to Indonesia, young people, old people, even people of 65 years, 70 years, they all still travel. The moment they have discovered, ‘ Ah! The road is open to India,’ they will come in large numbers.

Your Excellency this is for the readers of The Luxury Chronicle. Tell us about your luxuries.

For me luxury is not so much the idea of being in a very beautiful or expensive room, or owning an expensive car. For me luxury is adventure, the adventure of meeting people, meeting people of other cultures, see the different functioning of a society and people living in different ways. I always love to see this around the world. For me – travel is luxury.I always say that a diplomat is actually a very luxurious gypsy, a very luxurious tourist. We are very fortunate, because we don’t come to India and pass a week or two, go home and then forget all about it and only have some nice pictures left to show to the family. We are living it from the inside. We experience everyday what you are talking about, what the discussions are in Delhi and in the country. You meet actors and you meet the politicians. This is fantastic. I have been to so many different countries in my career, and with all those experiences I think luxury for me is having seen all those countries from the inside.

Which would you say is your favorite destination?

The first time I came to India, in 2005, my son was studying in Lucknow. He was in the Indian Institute of Management for one year. He had organized a train trip for us, not a luxurious train, just a normal train. First we went from Delhi to Lucknow where he studied, and then we went to Agra, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, back to Jaipur, and then to Delhi. That was a fantastic experience. Athens in Europe has the Acropolis, but you have all these big forts in Jaipur and Jodhpur, it is really fantastic. And I am very happy that you call it the Golden Triangle Tour of the cities. This is a very good entry point for tourists coming to India and you learn a lot about the history of India.Many people don’t know how India fared over the last 1000 years. Not much is known in Europe about your history. Starting here, they will see everything, from the Mongols to the Rajahs, the British, and India today.

Could you please share any interesting episode from your journeys?

I mentioned before this Indian Railways train we were travelling in from Agra to Jaipur. My son had bought the tickets. When we arrived at the station, he said that the train has been completely hired by a company outing so wecould not go in the train. I said I don’t mind being in a company outing, it is nice, we can see how it works here in India. They found a place for us. We were only three people, my wife, my son and I, in a train with maybe 500 people from the company. There were these soothsayers who entered the train who were reading the palm. I also gave my hand, and she said to me: ‘You will come back to India.” That was in 2005, and I came back in 2012.

When you leave India, do you plan to come back again?

I was in India for tourism earlier, and now I am here for work and it is completely different, especially because I know India so well now. It is a very interesting moment for India, because in 2016 the Indian economy is doing reasonably well, while the rest of the world is stagnant. I really think 2016 is India’s window. We will hear a lot about India in the future.

To watch full video click here.

Video Recording : Gaurav Mahendru, Video Editing : Rohit Dhikyavar, Still Photography : Nitin Sadanah

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