OPINION: How India and Sweden can find new ways of looking at each other

For two nations starkly different in every studied aspect, the similarity of situations between Sweden and India is uncanny. Rupali Mehra, shares her experience from Sweden's Almedalen political festival where she worked on a series of seminars for [email protected]

OPINION: How India and Sweden can find new ways of looking at each other
Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi and his delegation pictured during a working lunch in Sweden. Photo: Pontus Lundahl / TT

This year, as India made its debut at the Almedalen Week, the focus was on sustainability. It is increasingly clear that sustainability goals cannot be achieved in isolation defined by international borders. Unconventional approaches and new ways of collaborating are needed at multiple levels; nation to nation, region to region, and people to people. 

The [email protected]: Future Urbanisms seminar series at the 2019 Almedalen Week was one such attempt towards a collaborative partnership. Hosted by the Indian mission in Sweden and Uppsala University Campus Gotland’s Future Urbanisms Programme, the aim was to explore common challenges and possible pathways to a more sustainable and resilient future. 

READ ALSO: The Local interviews Sweden's Ambassador to India

Interview: 'India and Sweden are very different in size, but similar in principles'
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting his Swedish counterpart Stefan Löfven in Stockholm in 2018. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

“Sustainable urban development has been identified as one of the most important areas of cooperation between Sweden and India,” said India’s Ambassador to Sweden Monika Kapil Mohta.

“If we look at the acceleration of the economic boom in India, the purchasing power of the people and rapid urbanizations, all this has put pressure on the existing urban infrastructure in India” she added.

“There is a pressing demand for a transition from the present infrastructure to a sustainable infrastructure which will help us move into a healthier, sustainable urban environment. India needs smart cities that are sustainable and resilient and can a provide better quality of life. This is a huge challenge and also a great opportunity.”

A case in point is the mobility challenge. According to studies, a person in Bangalore spends 21 working days stuck in traffic in a year while for a Stockholmer, it's 13 working days. Bangalore might be many times the size of the Swedish capital, but both cities are grappling with the question of how to design intelligent, clean and sustainable transport systems.

The seminars also looked at the housing challenge, and lessons these two countries could learn from each other. Sweden’s ambitious housing programmes of the 1970s, the 'Million Programme' is an example of how to overcome a housing shortage for a growing urban workforce.

Participants at the seminars also praised Stockholm for its smart approach towards clean tech, including electricity generation and waste management. A total of 42 percent of the city is devoted to green areas and parks. Can Indian cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad, in the cusp of rapid development, take a cue from Stockholm’s planned development?

And the energy and water challenge could be another two-way learning curve. The Indian farming community in the drought-prone area of Hiware Bazar in Western India has found solutions to recharge their water table and reverse water stress. So could Gotland, which has been witnessing its own water table deplete, engage with and learn from Hiware Bazar? 

The Swedish island that's suffering a water crisis
Visby in Gotland, which has been battling a water crisis for years. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT


A person or small business in Bangalore faces similar challenges to their counterpart on Gotland: both have been grappling with shortage of water for the last few summers, and both feel the impact of an unsustainable world. At a national level, India and Sweden have been engaging in a host of technological initiatives. The seminar series shed a new light on engagement at a smaller scale – a micro local engagement through people, research and innovation.

“What is known is that the notion of sustainability is normative. You can debate what it means, how to approach it, when, where and by whom. But there is not really an option not to go there,” said Professor Owe Ronström from Uppsala University.

“So the programme Future Urbanisms is based on the idea that it will be worthwhile to approach sustainability by following closely into the steps of common, ordinary people, the steps they are already taking, the changes already being implemented and the innovations taking place. In short, whatever sustainability needs to mean. We must handle locality and diversity and do it from the bottom up perspective,” he added.

India is a rapidly urbanizing countries. More than 55 percent of India’s GDP comes from urban areas, and by 2025, 68 of its cities will have a population of more than one million each — the size of the Swedish capital. So how can sustainable solutions be designed for a population of urban Indians expected to reach 800 million in the not-so-distant future? The scale can be overwhelming, but also an opportunity. India's Bangalore is the world's third biggest startup hub after Silicon Valley and London. Many of India's young entrepreneurs are creating high-tech sustainable solutions that are already catering to world economies.

Collaborations in research and innovation are the natural way forward. If India can learn from Sweden on sustainable and innovative technologies, so can Sweden learn from India, especially at local levels. Sweden’s advantage has always been its commitment to incubating research and development for world class innovation; India’s advantage is the entrepreneurial spirit of the people to build new technologies in the most cost effective manner. If the two are come together, they could create world class solutions for a sustainable, urban future. 

READ ALSO: Readers' tips: Where to find the best of Indian culture in Sweden

Rupali Mehra is the founder of Content People AB, an impact communications company, and an organizing partner of [email protected]: Future Urbanisms. She can be reached at [email protected]

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‘The Sweden Democrats no longer need to worry about how they appear’ 

The Sweden Democrats spent years distancing themselves from their extremist past, but recently the far-right party has edged back closer to the fringes of the nationalist movement, says Expo Foundation researcher Jonathan Leman. 

‘The Sweden Democrats no longer need to worry about how they appear’ 

When the Sweden Democrats entered the Riksdag for the first time in 2010 they were isolated and shunned by all other parties. In 2014 their share of the vote grew and the establishment parties cobbled together the so-called December Agreement to keep the Sweden Democrats at bay. 

By 2018 the sands of Swedish politics had shifted again. Months after the election that September the leader of the Christian Democrats, Ebba Busch, ripped down the cordon sanitaire that had surrounded the Sweden Democrats when she shared a meatball lunch with its leader Jimmie Åkesson. The Moderates, then the biggest party on the right, soon followed suit and the party that had emerged in 1988 from the ashes of the racist Keep Sweden Swedish movement was finally in from the cold. 

This centre-right embrace kickstarted a new approach from a party that for years had publicly washed its hands of the more extreme elements of the broader nationalist movement, says Jonathan Leman, a researcher with the Expo Foundation which monitors and exposes far-right extremism in Sweden. 

“The Sweden Democrats no longer need to be worried about how they appear so that they can be accepted. Because once the door is opened to them by parties who are willing to cooperate with them, their worry about appearing racist or extremist becomes rather a worry of appearing politically correct or not radical enough,” he tells The Local’s Sweden in Focus podcast (out Saturday, March 11th). 

By re-building the bridges it had previously burned with Sweden’s complex and influential network of right-wing alternative media outlets the party could neutralise a potential enemy and re-connect with the grassroots nationalist movement. 

“These alternative outlets are either a friend or a foe. As a friend, they will sort of pave the way for you, they will attack your political opponents. And as a foe, they will give you a headache. So I think it’s a calculation that ‘we can get away with the closer relation with this alternative media environment now.’” 

In 2022 the Sweden Democrats became the biggest party on the right of Swedish politics, with a voter share of 20.5 percent, and Leman says he’s worried that the three governing parties’ reliance on support from the Sweden Democrats means they are reluctant to express criticism when the party oversteps accepted boundaries. Like many other countries, Sweden upholds a principle that politicians should stay at arm’s length from decision-making in the cultural sphere: they help establish the framework but agree to stay out of day-to-day decision making. 

But what happens when a party refuses to accept this principle? And is there cause for concern when, as happened recently, Sweden Democrats at the local level move to block cultural events like drag queen story hours, or a Lucia procession fronted by a student who identified as non-binary?

“I think it’s very worrying. And I think that this sort of relative silence from the other parties in the Tidö cooperation makes it even more worrying,” says Leman. “I think it encourages SD to move forward with this sort of culture war, this sort of war they’re waging on constitutional democracy or liberal democracy.”


Tune in to Sweden in Focus on Saturday to hear more from Jonathan Leman on why the Sweden Democrats espoused the idea of “open Swedishness”, how far its anti-racist zero tolerance policy stretches, whether the party’s links to pro-Kremlin sections of the alternative media sphere represent a security threat for Sweden, and how the party will navigate a balancing act between the centre-right and extreme right as it seeks to further broaden its appeal to voters. 

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