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At home in city of old friends

George N. Sibley, 56, the minister counsellor for economic, environment and science affairs at the US Embassy in New Delhi and a former consul-general in Calcutta from 2002 to 2005, was in the city after eight years. He spoke to Metro about the changes he noticed in the city

You left Calcutta in 2005 and returned to India this year. Where were you posted in between?

I was the deputy chief of mission in Antananarivo, Madagascar, from 2005 to 2008. I was the director of Iraq political affairs in Washington DC from 2008 to 2010. Then I went to Iraq and served as senior adviser for Northern Iraq for a year between 2010 and 2011. I returned and became the director of the office of environmental policy in Washington from 2012-13 before coming to Delhi.

From 2005 to now, what are the changes you see in Calcutta?

I noticed a couple of changes. There has been a lot of construction, most noticeable coming in from the airport… the highrise apartments that were not there before. And also the Metro. When I was here, the Metro was a single line. For purposes of mass transit, a single line is not very useful. The fact that it is expanding its network is a very good sign. With a city like Calcutta, that is quite compressed in size and in terms of the amount of road space available, a good mass transit is very important.

In terms of mood, for India as a whole, the emotional environment has changed. When I left there was enormous optimism about the future and about the direction in which India was headed. Returning in 2013, (I find) a gloomy feeling about the state of the economy, about the prospects here. The gloom is understandable when one looks at the figures for GDP decreasing quarter after quarter after quarter for two-three years. But perhaps it’s exaggerated. Just as the level of optimism in 2005, probably the pessimism in 2013 is a little exaggerated.

Do you see any palpable change after the new government (in Bengal)?

The chief minister is quite visible on hoardings. She was not visible on hoardings when I left. (Laughs)… it hasn’t been long enough for me to say.

What about the new airport in Calcutta?

It was very dramatic and very good. But I would say at the same time it was very dramatic when I arrived in Delhi. When I left, to transit Delhi you had to fly into the domestic terminal and then transfer to the international terminal. Usually it was 1am and there was a huge crowd outside jostling you. It was not a very pleasant experience. But now the Delhi airport is lovely. In terms of airport infrastructure, all the metros seem to be quite improved… the road infrastructure still has a long way to go.

How is the new Calcutta airport compared to Delhi or Mumbai?

It’s very comparable. It’s very nice.

You have been in both Delhi and Calcutta. How do you compare the two metros?

Well again, the change that I noticed is dramatic as an outsider coming in from the airport. Inside it seems much as I remembered it and much as I loved it. So I was feeling very (at) home in Calcutta.

In Delhi, it’s a new experience. I am living in a very nice neighbourhood… but there is a difference of feeling in each one.

My job now allows me to travel across India. When I was here earlier, my wife travelled all across India, but I travelled only in the Northeast because I was the consul-general of the Northeast. It is such a vast area. I didn’t have time to go to other places… this time I have been to Chennai, Bangalore. I have lived in Mumbai for a month, but Calcutta is still my favourite.

Any fond memory of the city?

The most endearing memory is of the people. When we were coming out to Delhi, I warned my wife that Delhi would be a wonderful experience but the warmth, the friendliness and the embrace of the Bengali people will probably not be reproduced in Delhi. Coming back and seeing old friends has been wonderful.

Are you pleased with the kind of developments in the Indo-US business relationships?

There are two ways to characterise it. Where have we come from and where should we be or where should we be going? On the first part, the news is very good. The bilateral trading relationship from 2000 until now has increased five- fold. Five times in dozen years is remarkable. This year it is likely to be $100 billion.

On the second part, the news is not so good. When (US) vice-president Joe Biden was here he gave an important speech in Mumbai. He said, we have increased it five-fold but there is no reason why we shouldn’t increase it five-fold more again and perhaps even quicker. I agree with that. The potential for a deeper trading and investment relationship is there. There are a few obstacles in achieving that but I hope in the next year or two some or most of them will be removed.

What are the areas where the two countries can work together to boost trade relationship?

Working together on some policy issues, for example on intellectual property rights. Sometimes it is seen as something that Western countries or the US want. But India itself is an incredibly dynamic, innovative country and culture… (India) has artistic, engineering, science creativity. So there is very much an incentive for India to have strong IP rights for innovative Indians. One area where the US and India can work together.

Indian companies sometimes complain that getting work visa in the US is tough…

Problem in obtaining visa is encountered on both sides. India receives by far the most number of H1B (work) visas in the world. There is a legislation that the (US) Congress is looking at. They may expand it even more. Some provisions of that legislation have raised concerns of some Indian companies. We will see where that goes.

India has opened up its retail and insurance sectors to FDI. Do you think the government has done enough?

No. The limitation on FDI is one concern that we have. At times when that limit has been lifted, when the actual regulations implementing that come out, we have had concerns that what in the law is improvement, in the practice is not so much. The example that stands out is that when the FDI limit was lifted on multi-brand retail, we were pleased. When the fine print was issued, it was much less attractive than we hoped it would be.

Are you engaging with state governments or political parties who are still opposing FDI to convey the benefits of FDI?

The consulates do that to reach out at the state level… sometimes there is a residual misunderstanding about the role that business can play in an economy. There is a residual impression that business is exploiting a country. That’s a very wrong way to look at it… when a business opens, it is creating jobs, introducing technologies and also paying taxes. The state (Bengal) government has some concerns with the debt it has, so having an embrace for business to come into Bengal will be an opportunity to add revenues.

The perception in the US that outsourcing is a threat, that Indian companies are taking away their jobs. Has that blown away finally?

(I) Don’t seem to hear that so much any more in the US.

What may be the reasons?

Time marches on. People get used to the state of affairs.

The current US ambassador to India is a former consul- general to Calcutta. Besides you are also there. Can Calcutta expect some greater focus?

I think Calcutta gets more love, because ambassador (Nancy) Powell and I are very fond of it. But our role is to represent the US in the whole of India, so we have to do it in a fair and balanced way.

The riverside has been beautified…

Has it been? I would love to see that. When I was here, I always said there is a huge potential for that to be a big attraction.

You look after environment affairs. The WHO has said that air pollution is a cause for cancer and Calcutta has emerged as India’s most polluted city. As someone who lived in Calcutta, what according to you are the areas that should be the focus?

It would be very important for the US and India to work together either bilaterally on issues relating to pollution or climate change, but also to work together in the multilateral or global platform.