Gillard mends fences with next generation of leaders in India
NEW DELHI: Mahesh cares little for the intricacies of a nuclear safeguards agreement, even less about the nuances of international diplomacy.
But he liked that when the Prime Minister of Australia came to visit, she was interested to learn from him how it was to study growing up in a slum.
''It is very, very difficult,'' he said, explaining to Julia Gillard that within the densely populated, desperately poor communities, ''people have small houses and large families, it is always noisy, and very hard to concentrate''.
Slanting young … Julia Gillard meets Indian children. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Mahesh is a product of Asha, a non-government organisation that helps children from Delhi's slums into school, and, in Mahesh's case, all the way to the prestigious Delhi Technological University. Asha has helped more than 700 slum children into tertiary education.
''Education is the most important thing for young people in India,'' Mahesh told the Herald. ''This country is very competitive, and everyone wants to make a good life for themselves and their family.''
The Prime Minister is in India this week, mending neglected fences and building new ones in Australia's complex relationship with its Indian Ocean neighbour.
Intentionally or otherwise, her focus is decidedly young.
She spent yesterday morning talking cricket in a south Delhi park, before meeting with Mahesh and other Asha students. Later she met with representatives of the Australia-India Youth Dialogue.
This is the engagement Australia needs with India, because this is the generation that will soon run the world's largest democracy.
The average age of an Indian cabinet minister is 65, but the average Indian is only 25. The gap between these two figures is larger in India than in any other country.
About 600 million Indians are under 25, and nearly 70 per cent of the country is under 40. By 2030, India will have more people than China.
And this country's youthful cohort will be the one that will, increasingly, live, travel and trade in Australia.
Last year, India was the largest provider of provider of skilled migrants to Australia and, after a precipitous fall, the number of Indian students studying in Australia is steadily increasing again.
In its previous dealings with India, Australia has not always covered itself in glory.
The student violence of a few years ago was an ugly situation made worse by insensitive handling.
The revelation in this newspaper a few weeks ago that Australian sports balls were being stitched by poor Indian children was a horrific reminder that unchecked, self-interested investment can, sometimes, be a greater burden than benefit.
Arriving in India, the Prime Minister said she wanted a more robust and multi-layered relationship.
''Now is the right time for my first visit as Prime Minister because we can broaden and deepen the relationship as our interests converge,'' she said.
There are still some old divergences to be ironed out, not the least of which a unique nuclear relationship, but the trend is towards co-operation.
Not every prime ministerial visit is the dawn of a new era of uncomplicated agreement.
Sometimes they are the simple business of government: sometimes they go well, sometimes badly, sometimes just OK. On both sides, it is hoped this visit is more than that.