Ambassador Marten van den Berg
Over 30 years before he became the Dutch ambassador to India, the colours, smells and intensity of the country made a deep impression on Marten van den Berg when he travelled there as a backpacker. The many powerful contrasts, like those between the north and the south, and the varied array of religions have fascinated him ever since. But Van den Berg also likes to highlight a side of India that many in the Netherlands are unfamiliar with: the innovative strength of Indian business.
You’ve been ambassador to India since 2018 and this is your first posting as ambassador. Why was India your first choice?
Of course, my love for the country absolutely did play a role. I first travelled in India in 1986, as a backpacker. I was mesmerised immediately by the contrasts everywhere in the country. An amazing country, full of paradoxes, dramatic, intense, colourful and dynamic. Another factor that influenced my choice was the fact that my wife is Indian.
What are the biggest differences between living in India and living in the Netherlands?
You’re almost better off asking what the similarities are. Essentially, everything here is different to the Netherlands. The sights, the sounds, the way people interact, the food...
When I first arrived, I did find the poverty rather shocking. These days, things are much improved, but the social disparities are still tremendous.
One of the things I like most about India, and always did, is how open people are. Everyone tries to start a conversation with you, even if they don’t speak much English. A meal with Indians is never boring. They are generally very outspoken in their opinions. That said, in some situations hierarchy is everything and they won’t speak their minds. These are the kinds of paradoxes that continue to fascinate me.
You are also the Dutch ambassador to Nepal and Bhutan. Why is that?
It just makes sense: Nepal is about one hour’s flight from New Delhi, and Bhutan is under two hours away. They are interesting countries that the Netherlands has long-standing diplomatic relations with. And that’s no small thing, particularly with regard to Bhutan, a country that was extremely closed up until the 1980s. We currently have several projects, both in Nepal and Bhutan. Our royal house maintains friendly ties with the royal couple of Bhutan. I try to visit Bhutan and Nepal three or four times a year.
What are the most important themes that the Netherlands, and the embassy, are working on with India?
The Sustainable Development Goals, the set of 17 objectives intended to make the world a better place by 2030 form the basis of our work. Clean drinking water, poverty and hunger, healthcare, energy and the climate are all major issues in India, and we are pursuing multiple projects and partnerships in these areas. We have a very inspiring agenda based on social challenges that we link to our partnerships with the private sector and NGOs.
In the Netherlands, the prevailing image of India is usually one of poverty. What people in the Netherlands generally don’t know, however, is that Indian industry is extremely innovative, especially in the tech sector. It’s with good reason that Shell has established one of its biggest labs in Bangalore, for instance. Indian business has fantastic ideas that we as the Netherlands can learn from. Take OLA, which is India’s Uber. They have concepts for making mobility in big cities a lot more environmentally friendly. Another Indian company has produced a wonderful innovation: a QR code for packaging that lets you see the origins of the milk you’re buying, for example, right down to the farm where it came from. These are really exciting innovations.
How do you connect societal themes and the Netherlands’ policy goals with initiatives from the business world?
One example would be the position of women and girls. India still has a long way to go on gender issues. Fokker has opened a factory in India that makes cabling for aircraft and the factory is only hiring women. Having a job and an independent income is a step forward on the path to improving women’s position in society.
Are there results from the past three years that you are proud of?
The Netherlands is making a real difference here in the areas of water, water purification and agriculture. One project that I’m extremely proud of is a joint research project with Indian and Dutch students on organic water purification. We are now preparing to use this application on a wider scale. There are also a number of Dutch companies that are very active in India. Companies like Philips, which is helping to improve access to healthcare; DSM, which is working on improving nutrition; and Stahl, which is trying to make India’s vast leather tanning industry more environmentally friendly. So we’re also working intensively with companies towards achieving the SDGs.
What do you still want to achieve as ambassador in the coming years?
I’m going to be ambassador here until 2023, and I have high hopes for achieving great things with our projects. I’m hoping to contribute, through my official and unofficial contacts, to the trade agreement between the EU and India. And I still think it would be great if India were to invite the Netherlands to the G20. The Netherlands is not a standing member. It would be wonderful if we got an invitation from India.
Early this year, India was severely affected by coronavirus. How significant has the impact of the pandemic been?
It will take several years for India to recover from the wave of coronavirus infections it experienced early this year. The social impact in particular has been huge. For a significant period of time, children could not go to school, and the pandemic has set the advancement of women and young girls back several steps. If a family only had one mobile phone for children to do online classes on, it was usually the boy who got it. The pandemic has also led to increased unemployment, which has pushed many below the poverty line.
It was also a difficult time for our embassy. A small group of us remained in India, but the rest had to go back to the Netherlands and work remotely from there; my wife among them. One employee, who had worked at the embassy in New Delhi for twenty years, sadly died from the virus.
For me, the worst was the sense of helplessness. I received many requests from people asking for medical help. Often, there was little I could do. But when I compare our situation to that of most Indians, then of course we did fine, and we had work that we could continue doing, even if we did have to improvise sometimes. I hope that we, as the Netherlands, and as an embassy, can help India’s economy and society recover.