Packing his bags after a four-year stint, the British Deputy High Commissioner says he has enjoyed his travels, south Indian food and yoga
Just about when Chennai got used to saying his last name right, Mike Nithavrianakis, British Deputy High Commissioner, Southern India, is packing his bags, ready to go back to London.
After four years in this post, based out of Chennai, and a rather active stint at that, he will travel back to London as his successor takes over the reins.
His involvement with this side of the country has clearly gone beyond the demands of a diplomatic life. A live wire, he has taken great personal interest in making contacts, involving himself deeply with the rhythms of the Southern states: Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the Union Territory of Puduchery (Hyderabad until recently), so much so, it does not sound odd when he jokes that he is a “South Indian nationalist”. “I will probably be an ambassador for Tamil Nadu when I go back,” he says.
“I really wanted to come here. I bid for two jobs, and Chennai was one of them. It was the first post where I was not in a capital city,” Mr. Nithavrianakis says in a chat with TheHindu. “If you are happy, it feeds into your day-to-day life. Since my family was away, I obviously had a lot more time to do things, and I did not mind working Saturdays.”
Packing up at his office, he says he will be on a sabbatical from Foreign Service and serve as a consultant to some British firms and there is going to be a strong India element to it.
Top among the achievements that the outgoing British Deputy High Commissioner counts in his repertoire is the establishment of the Indo-British Health Initiative, jointly set up with Prithvi Mohandas of MIOT Hospitals.
“I would use that in the broadest sense of the health care sector, really. The IBHI has opened a number of doors for UK institutions in South India and vice versa…Tamil Nadu is a hub for the medical sector, whether it is private, public or the philanthropic sectors.”
In a list of priorities, setting up the British Business Group figures on top too. “It was about using my links to bring British and Indian companies together. We are also focussing on business opportunities in the Tier-2 cities: Kochi, Coimbatore, for instance. On the other side, half of the investment India puts into Europe is in the United Kingdom. We are obvious partners for India across a range of fields, including business, health and education. When companies get to the UK, we need to show them how attractive the business environment is.”
In terms of bilateral trade, according to figures provided by his office the aim is to double trade by 2015. In 2010 it amounted to £11.5 bn, and £16.9 bn in 2011. While good progress has been made towards the aim, last year was impacted by the tough economic situation.
Mr. Nithavrianakis says a lot more can be done, especially in bringing down small and medium enterprises to India, constrained by their resources. But efforts have already been made to expose them to the opportunities in the sub continent.
Mr. Nithavrianakis also counts among as fulfilling his engagement with the state governments with the State governments of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry, top editors, bureaucrats, leaders in health care, chambers of commerce, vice chancellors and other prominent members of civil society. “It is important to know what their future plans are and if the UK is a part of that.”
“If you are personable, accessible, engaged, that’s half the way to getting things done,” he says.
Which is why he thinks despite the cloud cast by Wikileaks on the role of diplomats, it has had virtually no impact on his own approach to work, and also in the way other people interact with him. “Frankly, these days, diplomats don’t write hugely lengthy reports. Email has turned this completely. Of course we must have our political antennae very sharp, we need to go beyond what newspapers say and have a perspective.”
“But people don’t have time to read lengthy documents any more. I might just email a couple of sentences adding to the Delhi report. 99 per cent of the work I do is completely unclassified and can be shared with virtually anyone. The slightly sensitive information that is classified, is commercial in context, for instance, a British company making an investment in India,” he confesses.
Mr. Nithavrianakis himself hopes to be making several trips to India in the future, so much is he in love with the place. As widely-travelled as he is, he still does feel he has not seen as much as he wanted to of rural areas.
“But I have enjoyed the travel immensely, and the food was a big part. What I take away from India at a personal level is yoga. I started with the exercises, but I’m now bought into the spiritual side as well. I’ve love reading a lot of Indian books, both fiction and non fiction, particularly a lot of R.K. Narayan, and other contemporary authors.”
He probably cannot put this in a suitcase, but Mr. Nithavrianakis will travel on, with the warmth of his Indian friends staying with him right through, wishing him well, and remembering vividly his high energy and involvement with their lives.