Q&A with India's new high commissioner to Canada

The author of the novel that inspired the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire says he's now setting his sights on boosting trade and cultural partnerships with Canada as India's new high commissioner. 

Speaking on CBC Radio's All in a Day​, Vikas Swarup called Canada "a beacon of hope and tolerance" in today's world.

Swarup, who officially took over the post March 2, said he specifically chose the job in Canada after serving as spokesperson for India's Ministry of External Affairs.

Canada is a G7 nation with a large Indian diaspora, Swarup pointed out, adding that 19 Canadian MPs are of Indian origin, "which is something no other country in the world can boast of."

His 2005 novel Q&A, about a poor waiter who surprises the country on a popular Indian TV game show, came to life on the big screen three years later. The acclaimed film went on to win eight Oscars at the Academy Awards. 

Below is a Q&A with Swarup and All in a Day host Alan Neal. It has been edited for length. 

Q: Trade is a major priority between Canada and India, so how do you think we could improve the relationship between those two countries?

A: Distance is a barrier, there is no doubt about it because the physical cost of transporting certainly adds to the price of commodities that are sent. But still today Canada is the largest supplier to us of pulses and peas. Potash also, you know, 25 per cent of all potash comes from Canada. Then we see a lot of potential on the investment side. Canadian pension funds have already invested about $8 billion in India and they see India as a huge opportunity where investment can be safe and predictable. So I see a number of areas in which we can really scale up the partnership between India and Canada, and that will really be my primary job during my tenure here. 

Q: How do you shift the trade relationship to the next level?

A: Very few people know a lot about India. So there is an information gap. I think one of my main tasks is to fill that gap to tell Canadians about the business opportunities in India. We are a nation of 1.25 billion people, we are a huge market. We are the fastest-growing major economy in the world and we'll be providing the labour force for the rest of the world because the median age in India today is just 23. Even by 2030, it will be only 27 so, come 2050, 25 per cent of the world's workforce will come from India. So, there's a huge business opportunity for Canada and I think my job as high commissioner is to educate the business community in Canada about the opportunities in India and about the partnership because in India we are now undertaking the massive task of domestic transformation.

Q: When you consider what's happening with the arts in India, are there elements of that that could come to Canada, or could Canadians see a market there, too? 

A: Indian animators are in great demand in Hollywood and I believe Canada also has a very strong animation business here so that is obviously one sector where we can collaborate together. Media is another sector where we can have profitable partnerships. So I see a lot potential there. We have Indian-Canadian filmmakers based in Canada like Deepa Mehta. The Toronto International Film Festival hosts one or two Indian films every year and this year we are celebrating the year of Canada in India and next year we will be celebrating the year of India in Canada. So that's an opportunity to showcase each other's cultures. 

Q: Indian-born novelist Anita Desai is coming to the Ottawa International Writers Festival in May. Do you have a relationship with her work?

A: Of course. I know her, I know her work So certainly, [it's] not just Anita Desai. You have Rohinton Mistry living here, you have M.G. Vassanji living here, Rupi Kaur has just gone on to the New York Times best seller list for her collection of poems. So there's a lot of India talent in Canada, and don't forget your most famous Canadian, Russell Peters, also owes his origin to India.