The US relationship with Kolkata dates back to 1794 when the first US president George Washington appointed businessman Benjamin Joy as US Consul to Kolkata
It has been a great honor to serve as the US Consul General in Kolkata. I have absolutely loved my time here and I am departing with many cherished memories. The people I have met and the friendships I have made are what made my tenure particularly special and what I will miss most. I have visited all 11 states in our consular district (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, and West Bengal). I have enjoyed experiencing the vibrancy and diversity of the culture, art, music, food, literature, architecture, religions, ethnicities, languages, and geography of east and northeast India. It has also been very fulfilling to experience first-hand the bilateral cooperation in action during my tenure.
Over my three-year tenure, we have accomplished a lot. But it has not always been easy. We have witnessed the destruction and suffering caused by Cyclone Amphan and the global pandemic.
We chartered flights and arranged ground transportation for over 200 American citizens stuck in eastern and northeastern India after the pandemic lockdown; we cooperated on vaccine diplomacy; we assisted vulnerable communities and supported small and medium businesses; and we continued our work to prevent human trafficking.
Our public engagement programs moved online and are reaching new audiences across the consular district, advancing diplomacy, and supporting education. Our visa operations are back up and running. Despite these dire times, we have built relationships, strengthened existing ties, and found new ways to cooperate in advancing our shared interests and values.
In 2019, the US Consulate General Kolkata celebrated 225 years of continuous diplomacy between the United States and Kolkata. The US relationship with Kolkata dates back to 1794 when the first US president George Washington appointed businessman Benjamin Joy as US Consul to Kolkata. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to be part of this long tradition and substantive relationship.
On March 24, 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered what became the largest Covid-19 lockdown in the world. Hundreds of American citizens were stranded in eastern and northeastern India.
Working with India’s Ministry of External Affairs, state governments, law enforcement, transportation companies, Kolkata airport authorities, and Air India, Consulate staff helped US citizens travel from remote corners of our consular district to the Kolkata airport, where we chartered flights to take them to New Delhi and then on to the United States.
We received great cooperation and support from all the state governments and partners in our district. This was really what we call a whole-of-government approach from both the US and Indian governments to help stranded citizens re-connect with their loved ones.
Covid-19 and vaccine diplomacy
Just as India came to our aid when our own healthcare system was under tremendous strain last year, the US stands with India. While the Covid-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone, it also provides us an example of what strong partnerships, like the US-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership, can accomplish when working together.
The US government rapidly deployed seven planeloads of life-saving supplies to India during the recent second wave. The US government assistance amounted to about USD 100 million in commodities and technical assistance, and the American people through the private sector donated an additional USD 400 million worth of assistance support.
Additionally, both Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) built upon more than 70 years of strong partnerships with Indian counterparts on public health initiatives to provide training and technical assistance.
Indians and Americans worked together to strengthen laboratories, disease surveillance and epidemiology, emergency responses, infection prevention and control, vaccine rollout, contact tracing procedures, and risk communications. They trained 10,000 frontline healthcare workers on safe sample collection, transport, and testing.
Also, on vaccines, the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) is expanding manufacturing of safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines with funding to Indian manufacturer Biological E Ltd. to produce one billion doses by the end of 2022.
President Joe Biden has announced the US will share 80 million doses of our vaccine supply with the world, will purchase an additional half-billion doses of Pfizer to donate to nations in need, and at the recent G7 Summit, announced a commitment with G7 leaders to provide more than 1 billion additional doses for the world. The US government is committed to ending the Covid-19 pandemic everywhere for our collective global health security.
Comprehensive global strategic partnership
The US-India relationship has always enjoyed strong bipartisan support in the US, and in recognition of that has been designated as a Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership. The Biden-Harris administration has continued to grow the relationship by expanding cooperation through the Quad to support a free, open, and secure Indo-Pacific; enhance collaboration on public health initiatives on Covid-19, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, antimicrobial resistance, and the Global Health Security Agenda; and reinvigorate coordination on the fight against climate change.
President Biden has placed a high priority on maintaining and strengthening our partnership with India. We’ve seen this already with the visits of Secretary of Defense Lloyd James Austin in March, followed by Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry in April; the phone calls and virtual meetings between President Biden and Prime Minister Modi; and most recently, the visit of Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar to Washington, D.C., the first cabinet-level visit from India to meet the new administration.
Indo-Pacific and the Quad
The United States recognizes India as a leader in the Indo-Pacific region, and it welcomes its voice as part of the Quad, or quadrilateral dialogue, that convenes the likeminded democracies - the United States, India, Australia, and Japan - to coordinate in the Indo-Pacific, ensuring the member countries’ collective commitment to peace, security, and prosperity in the region.
The US will work with its partners, including India, to continue to advance coordination on development assistance, post-pandemic economic recovery and climate change, as well as the promotion of human rights, democracy, and rule of law issues throughout the Indo-Pacific. The Quad will also work to address disinformation campaigns, transnational threats, and humanitarian disaster response.
The US Consulate Kolkata sees Northeast India as a strategically and geopolitically significant region that will play a pivotal role as the gateway to the Indo-Pacific. We have expanded engagement to the Northeast both economically and culturally, strengthening our ties in the region. We are happy to announce that Northeast India is now home to one of India’s two US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) projects.
The project will document the ancient cultural traditions of 18 indigenous communities in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. Dovetailing with efforts by the government of Arunachal Pradesh, the project will develop sustainable and responsible tourism to the region by both promoting and safeguarding indigenous culture. We are excited that the project will serve as a living example of the US-India partnership in Northeast India.
People-to-people connections between the US and India date back over 200 years and continue today to offer direct benefits to both of our countries in almost every field from trade and investment to scientific research, education, entertainment, and cultural exchange. Although US Consulate Kolkata’s American Center remains closed, we have a robust public affairs team that adeptly moved to program online and actually increased our audience base during the initial pandemic lockdown, allowing us to reach remote corners of Northeast India with virtual programs connecting students, entrepreneurs, music lovers, poets, and many others who took part virtually in our outreach.
In 2020, we reached over 6 million people across South Asia through over 225 programs and events, which amplified our continued focus on issues of shared interest such as investing in education, combatting human trafficking, promoting women’s entrepreneurship and STEM education, and supporting equality for all.
Our English Access classes for bright but economically disadvantaged students have continued despite the pandemic due to the dedication of our staff and outstanding local teachers. In the past three years, we implemented English Access programs in Kolkata, Patna, Guwahati, Shillong, and Ranchi with a focus on talented first-generation learners from underserved communities.
Implemented by enthusiastic local partners, these programs taught much more than English and provided students with the skills to take on leadership roles in their communities, particularly during the pandemic. In Ranchi, we launched our first all-girls English Access program for survivors of human trafficking and gender-based violence. In Guwahati, Sishu Sarothi completed Northeast India’s first English Access program integrating students with disabilities with the mainstream students. Despite pandemic challenges, 270 students graduated from English Access over the last two years. Attending their graduations and witnessing their infinite potential was a highlight for me.
Our EducationUSA advise center also moved its programming online to provide advice and assistance to students interested in studying in the United States, reaching over 1000 new contacts during the lockdown. We also started two highly popular new series for our youth audiences—the informal EducationUSA advising program Coffee with an Adviser, and our Business English and Communication course for young professionals. Welcoming Indian students to the US is a top priority for us and is the foundation of our strong US-India people-to-people ties. India sends the second-highest number of international students to the US and that trend continues to hold steady.
Combatting trafficking-in-persons (TIP) is a key priority for us. TIP is a complex and global problem and we worked through the Consulate’s signature annual anti-TIP Conclaves to combat this scrouge by convening stakeholders from multiple levels, including government, law enforcement, judiciary, NGOs, academia, sports, and schools. We worked to empower vulnerable groups, in particular women and girls; to rehabilitate survivors and reintegrate them back into society; to forge linkages between schools, law enforcement, and government on programs to prevent TIP; to share best practices and enhance methods of detection, arrest, and prosecution of traffickers; and to strengthen partnerships across states and with neighboring countries in the region.
I have been particularly inspired by hearing survivors’ stories and honored that US Consulate Kolkata has played a part to foster their resilience and has helped empower and educate young girls to avoid the TIP trap.
Women’s Entrepreneurship and STEM
We have worked together to empower women entrepreneurs in East and Northeast India through multiple programs, including a White House-led Academy of Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) project that supported more than 150 women in five states of Northeast India with online learning, mentorship, and networking opportunities to grow their businesses. We have paired local entrepreneurs with business students to invigorate the entrepreneurship ecosystem here in Kolkata, creating a Global Links network of over 300 women entrepreneurs and academics. Our Breaking the Glass Ceiling project identified top women entrepreneurs throughout our consular district for an intensive boot camp and “shark tank” style pitch session with investors.
We also support STEM education for girls and grassroots grants to assist rural women in skills development. In the coming year, we are planning programs to support the inclusion of more women and gender minorities in the workforce. We are grateful to our implementing partners for coordinating with us in this important work. It is through our local staff and partners that this work is sustained, and I know that it will continue with the next Consul General.
Equality for All
Our Consulate has also supported LGBTQI+ communities in eastern and northeastern India since 2017, providing a safe space for activists to discuss issues of concern to the community. The Biden-Harris administration has made human rights a priority issue and stands behind our efforts to strengthen LGBTQI+ networks and equip them with skills to find acceptance within the larger community. We supported targeted training for medical care workers, which led to the opening of eastern India’s first transgender clinic at Peerless Hospital in Kolkata in February 2020. In March 2021, I traveled to Manipur to inaugurate a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)-supported Transgender Health and Welfare Center and Health Desk in Imphal, implemented by I-TECH India and the Maruploi Foundation—the first of its kind in the Northeast.
Our present activities aim to raise awareness and safeguard the rights and choices of LGBTQI+ communities and to support educational and training opportunities, as well as access to public spaces and employment.
After three years of serving as the Consul General, I will depart Kolkata in mid-July after completing my assignment. I will return to the US Department of State in Washington, DC to lead the Office of Security, Transnational Affairs, and Assistance in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. I am fortunate I will be able to continue to support the US-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership from Washington, DC. India is so rich, varied, and vast, that after three years I feel I have only scratched the surface; I need to return one day to continue my explorations!
(The writer is outgoing Consul General, US Consulate General, Kolkata. The views expressed are personal)