The ambassador of Israel, Alon Ushpiz, during his visit to the city. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta
The Ambassador of Israel, Alon Ushpiz, was in the city on a two-day visit. He met ministers and officials, visited the Jewish cemetery, held an interactive session at CII and met students at Jadavpur University. Metro caught up with him for a tete-a-tete on June 14.
This is your third visit to Calcutta in two years. How do you find it here? What are the things that strike you most here?
Calcutta is an intriguing place, very interesting, there are similarities between the people of Israel and Calcutta. There is a Jewish community here that has been contributing and has been contributed to since 1797. There is an amazing synagogue here and the Jewish cemetery, which are assets of civilisation. And most important of all there is a depth of honour in the way Calcutta treated the Jewish community. I’m afraid it has not been the same in other parts of the world. I attach a lot of importance to this because the relations between the Jewish community and other communities in Bengal will always be a shining example of how things like this should be handled. Some of the sons and daughters of this community have risen to high and important places in India. General Jacob, for instance, is an important son of this community. I regard him not only as a friend but a guiding teacher of what we are doing here.
The Israeli community that originated from India is 1 lakh people and these 1 lakh out of 8 million people still relate to the places here where their families were born and some come back and visit these places. And so there is a bond here and this is not a practical, operational, interest-based bond. It goes way beyond that.
We invest a lot of effort into the relations between the people and the communities and so does the Indian embassy in Israel. The fact that we brought an Israeli dance programme in collaboration with ICCR is precisely to enhance this relation between people. Last year, along with the government here, we were able to facilitate a delegation of Christian pilgrims to Israel. We are doing a lot of things when it comes to exchange of students, including budgeting by ourselves unilaterally, scholarships for Indian students to come to Israel.
Besides agriculture, where you are building a centre for excellence in Hooghly, what are the other areas in which you can work with the people of this state?
Apart from agriculture, water and hi-tech are the two other areas with immense possibilities of joint cooperation. In water, we have two different fields of expertise. In agricultural irrigation, we have expertise in drip irrigation, transportation of water from place to place, water management. Non-revenue water, that is loss of water, is a problem everywhere. Non-revenue water in Israel is eight to 10 per cent, which is the best in the world. In Europe, it is 25 per cent, in India it is higher than 25 per cent. We have been able to minimise water loss through technology.
The second dimension of our water expertise is urban water management. It covers desalination, reuse of water and Israeli companies have a lot of expertise, knowledge and technology in these areas. Desalinated water reaches 90 per cent of Israeli households. About 75 per cent of our sewage goes back to agriculture, to orchards. We want to share this expertise with Bengal.
We have raised this issue with the Bengal government in the past. We discussed this with the mayor of Calcutta this time. In case of urban development, there is an MoU at the federal level, based on which we conduct workshops where our people come here and go to the field to show water management and other skills. Recently, irrigation officials from India participated in a workshop in Israel.
What did the mayor say to your proposals?
We offered what we can do and he asked us to send in material about this. I presume this will go into the pipeline.
And what about cooperation in IT?
We are a hub of innovation in R&D, most of it is commercial. We are doing in India two things. We are trying to establish bilateral platforms at the Union level, at the state level, at the private sector level and between universities that are designed to encourage industrial R&D. One of the most effective layers is try and connect between private sector on both sides and also connect between Indian private sector and our chief scientist of Israel, who is really the czar of industrial R&D in Israel.
We have had very intensive discussions with TCS in the last couple of months and we are into an R&D partnership, joint innovation platform. TCS came to Israel and focussed on software and other fields. Infosys signed an MoU with the chief scientist of Israel, which will give them access to our IT highway. Tata & Sons have signed an MoU with Tel Aviv University and has full access to everything in the labs of Tel Aviv University. The biggest challenge is to create companies designed to take the science R&D in labs and translate them into products. About 40 per cent of the Israeli university budgets can be converted into products.
What about social science research? Will there be any cooperation, say between Hebrew University and Presidency University here?
We are doing academic joint research at the government level. It cannot stay at that level. It has to go down to universities. Once both the governments decide on the platform and call upon the universities and researchers to apply together, we can look into the proposals and budget them.
During your last visit to the city, there was talk of the state government seeking your expertise in internal security matters. Is there any cooperation on that field?
I can fully understand the amount of interest that these kind of issues generate but we do not discuss this. Israel is a close partner of India and attaches high importance to the wellbeing of its citizens.
Social media is very strong in Israel. A lot of young people there are using social media to protest against certain government decisions. For example, the price of cheese was brought down when it had spiralled through mass demonstrations organised through social media. The government is also using it to reach out to your people. What do you think about this?
Social media is a part of reality. This is an important and common platform for human beings to converse. It has its challenges but also has its advantages. You can reach a large number of people directly, you can interact with them. Representing a government or a nation is not only about putting your position but it is also about hearing what they think and social media is an important platform for that.
In the last couple of years, we have invested quite a lot of resources and efforts in this and I hope it’s working. The website of our embassy is a popular site. A lot of things we do, we do there and am happy to use it.
Despite Israel’s success in agriculture, it has moved from being an agricultural economy to a service-driven economy. But back here, we have a huge debate on the role of agriculture versus industry in development. What do you think about that?
Agriculture cannot be the sole provider for nations for a long time. But let me tell you that whatever I say is based on Israeli experience and we do not take this experience and apply it to other countries. There are similarities between India and Israel but there are also differences. We do not do copy paste.
In the Israeli case, we moved from an economy that was once based on agriculture and small and medium-sized industry to a services economy in which a large part of it is hi-tech. There is a huge difference between 8 million people doing something with their economy or finding the right formula to move somewhere else and between a state of 95 million people, in which I understand, 75 per cent do agriculture. It is a totally different culture, the DNAs are different, the genes are different, the aspirations are probably not the same.
You have met our chief minister a couple of times. How has it been working with her?
Whenever we had our interactions with the chief minister, we always found her a good partner, as someone who takes great interest in what can we do together to improve conditions and to move forward. I enjoyed the interactions with her very much. It has always been interesting, enriching and stimulating for me.