“A Resurgent US/India Partnership” – Remarks by Ambassador Richard R. Verma at the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce Gala in Houston

Shared Sacrifices and Shared Successes

Dear Friends, what an honor to be with you in Houston for this auspicious occasion. I want to thank the Indo American Chamber of Commerce, and their great leadership, for not only visiting India this past spring but also for inviting me here to this terrific gathering. When they invited me, I don’t think they ever thought I would say yes! But here I am, and I am delighted to be here. Let me also thank Mayor Parker for leadership, her highly successful visit to India and for the bridges she has built between Texas and India. Her work, and all of your work, has paid off in spades. As you all know, Texas leads the nation in the amount of foreign direct investment from India – nearly $4 billion dollars – spurring important growth and collaboration in key sectors like information technology, energy, health care, financial services, manufacturing and so much more.

Governments have played a critical role in creating the conditions that would facilitate these greater economic linkages between our two countries, and including right here in Houston.  But we in government can only claim part of the credit. The real credit goes to all of you. You, your parents, your uncles, aunties, cousin-brothers and sisters at some point took a chance on a new life, in a new country. You did so to build a better future, to gain new skills, to pursue education, to chase your dreams. You did so with some risk, and often with great emotional sacrifice, leaving close friends and loved ones behind. You gave up so much, and in return this state and this city welcomed you.

You helped develop the critical energy and high tech centers of Texas, you worked in the famed space program, you helped bring advances in medicine, you opened shops and restaurants, and you attended the great Texas universities and colleges. You became critical leaders of this state, while retaining your culture and embracing your roots. You were the ones, perhaps without even knowing it, who kept these two great democracies – India and the United States – close, even through the toughest times, with your vast network of people-to-people and business ties, and with your commitment to uphold our shared values of hard work, education, commitment to family, the rule of law, inclusion and tolerance.  Thank you for all you’ve done, and thank you Texas for making this such a welcoming place for all those with roots in South Asia and beyond.

Your experience was the American experience – and immigrants for hundreds of years have taken exactly the same journey. Our family’s experience was no different. Growing up my dad would tell a familiar story – “I had $24 dollars in my pocket and a bus ticket to Iowa when I arrived in New York City in 1963. I knew no one. We had nothing.” We heard the story so many times that we used to beg him not to tell it to us again. And now, years later, I am so proud of that story, and seek out every detail of that experience so I can fully understand what he and my mom went through, what hard work they endured, what sacrifices they made.

I think of our wood paneled station wagon pulling into a small town in Western Pennsylvania in 1971 – the first Indian family in the community. The images of my mom in her sari waiting for the bus in the blowing and drifting snow to go to her job as a special needs teacher are etched so clearly in my mind. My parents showed such courage and perseverance. Yes, they worked hard on assimilating, but they also worked hard on retaining culture and traditions, and proudly instilling those values in their kids. What I learned was that these gentle people were made of steel. I often wonder if I could have done what they and others like them, and many of you in this room, achieved in those early years.

These First 9 Months in India

One of the great privileges of being Ambassador is that I get to travel around India – a lot. In these first 9 months, I’ve taken 25 trips, from North to South, East to West. I’ve witnessed first-hand the excitement of the US/India relationship; I’ve seen the impact that our people and our programs can make; and I’ve seen the great promise of our strategic partnership – what clearly has become the critical strategic alliance for the 21st Century.

Off the coast of Kerala, I was able to accompany 10 Indian naval officers onto the USS Carl Vinson to explore US/India carrier cooperation; in Mysore I sat with migrant workers along the side of an expressway – they made cricket bats – and with a small amount of USAID funding, they now had solar panel batteries to power their tools, and to light their work and living spaces, keeping their families safe; in Hyderabad, I met the kids that had been rescued from the streets, and were now participating in enrichment programs funded by the US government; in Calcutta, I met brave young Americans from the mid-west who were training women who had been rescued from the sex trafficking industry, providing them with new skills to weave donated saris into handbags that are now sold in European department stores; in Assam, I saw the good work that our environmental protection work does to save elephants, rhinos and tigers from poachers; and just last week in Mumbai, I was able to join Sir Ratan Tata and legendary film star Amitabh Bachchan in a collaborative effort to end tuberculosis in India.  What an adventure it’s been!  And how wonderful to see the impact of America – and Americans, including right here from Houston, working across India with their Indian partners to make such a difference.

One of the very special trips I was able to take was back to the neighborhood in Jalandhar where my mother and father were from. My grandmother and mother were from the Jhang district of today’s Pakistan.  They settled in the Basti Sheikh neighborhood of Jalandhar following partition. My grandmother was a teacher in a girl’s school across from a slum area. My mother would also become a teacher and the head of a girl’s school during this very tumultuous time in India.  My father was also from a small village just outside of Jalandhar.  He was the eldest of 11 children, and the first one to be formally educated, defying the odds, and graduating from DAV College in 1952.

On my trip there in May, I was able to visit my grandmother’s school and meet with the young girls who were ready to tackle the world. I saw my grandmother’s pay records from the mid-60s where she collected just over 200 rupees per month. I went to DAV College and saw the classroom where my dad studied, and was privileged to give the commencement address for this year’s graduates. And I went to my grandmother’s house – a two room flat, down a long alleyway. It was the same place I lived in the summer of 1974, when at that time, that flat had no flush toilet, no stove, and no refrigerator.

Times have changed, and that neighborhood has greatly developed, but the people were still the same, warm, caring people I remember. So many came out to tell me their stories about my mother and grandmother. Two women, now in their 80s, said my grandmother had set them on the right track, and thanked her for keeping them safe.

I tell this story about my visit there not simply to reminisce about the past, but to draw some lessons from that experience as well. First, I know what a long way – and frankly what a long shot it is – to go from that alleyway in the Basti Sheikh neighborhood to the driveway of Roosevelt House at the US Embassy in New Delhi – a journey that would not have been possible without the support of so many friends, teachers, mentors, and neighbors.

I also know that our journey is not necessarily unique. This is the American story, and increasingly a very Indian story.  We have to ensure those stories of migration, of having the opportunity to pursue one’s dreams, continue to be possible for current and future generations. The philosophers like to say you can’t know where you want to go, until you know where you are from. Well, I understand where I’m from, I’m proud of those roots, and it makes me even more committed to work with all of you to build stronger ties between our nations.

Our Resurgent US/India Partnership

So, where is it we are trying to go? I think its fair to say that in the past 12 months the US/India partnership has soared to new heights. This was made possible by a very successful visit of Prime Minister Modi to New York and Washington last September, and then followed only four months later by the President’s visit to New Delhi to be the Chief Guest for Republic Day.

Obviously, there is a chemistry between our two leaders that is undeniable – both overcoming significant odds to become leaders of these two great democracies. But, as the President has said, it’s only natural we are friends, since our countries have so much in common. When the Prime Minister was in Washington, he went to the memorial for Dr. Martin Luther King. And when our President was in Delhi, he paid his respects at the memorial for Gandhiji. These were not only symbolic gestures of mutual respect, the visits were a reminder of our deeply held shared values.

So when someone asks me what my priorities are, I only need to follow the lead of these two heads of state, who set our nations on a new path of cooperation during these two landmark summits.  The President calls us “best partners”; the Prime Minister has referred to us as “natural allies”. However you want to describe it, it has become increasingly clear, this has become one of the most consequential relationships of the 21st Century.

It’s also become clear that what we can do for each other is too limiting a lens on which to view our partnership. The real promise of our relationship, as Prime Minister has said, is in what we can do for global peace and prosperity. That’s why our doctors are working together on maternal and child health in Africa; that’s why our militaries are helping to train peacekeepers and working together on humanitarian and disaster response in Asia; that’s why our scientists cooperate on deep space exploration and low earth orbit weather and monsoon monitoring; and that’s why we are working together collectively to unleash the potential of our youth to help tackle the challenges of tomorrow.

This kind of partnership has not always been possible.  While our people-to-people ties have blossomed over decades, our government to government relationship was sometimes a step behind. I’m pleased to report that is no longer the case. Since the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington last September, we launched or re-energized some 30 different working groups, from trade to the environment. And, following the President’s January visit, we are working on some 80 different lines of work. But perhaps most significantly, we are becoming increasingly aligned on the key strategic questions of our time.

We are close partners on combatting terrorism, a threat that still impacts too many people across South Asia. We have aligned our vision for cooperation in the Asia-Pacific ocean region, standing up for the post World War II rules based order that both our countries hold so dear. We support India’s move to become a rising power, with global political, strategic and economic influence. That’s why the President has explicitly called for India’s permanent seat on a reformed UN Security Council.

The Progress Achieved

So, one may rightfully ask, how are we doing on these ambitious goals? Where is the evidence of our progress? Let me answer that by going back 10 years and measuring our success, and then looking at the progress and activities of today. The data, I’m happy to report, confirms we have a relationship on a strong upward path. First, the 10 year numbers: in 2005, our two-way trade numbers were around $30 billion.  Today, they stand at $105 billion. 10 years ago, we had around 30,000 Indian students studying in the US. Last year, we had some 105,000 students study in the US – the highest number ever. The same goes for visitors – in 2005, we had close to 400,000 Indians visiting the US. This past year will be the highest on record, with over 1.2 million visas issued. That’s up over 30% from last year, and we see no let up in the interest. And in defense we went from $0 in defense sales to well over $10 billion, in just a few short years. I could go on and on across the categories, but I think you get the picture – with your help, we’ve achieved a strong, solid record of performance, but we can do more.

That brings us to this year, and following up on the President’s historic visit – let me try to give you a snap shot of what we’ve been working on.  In our strategic cooperation, we’ve deepened our military to military relationships. We now train for joint operations, we’ve moved to joint production of defense items, and have developed a close and consequential counter-terrorism partnership to help keep both our populations safe.  In fact, just yesterday, I was able to see our troops conducting counter-terrorism training operations with their Indian army counterparts in a signature military exercise called Yudh Abhyas, an experience that reaffirmed for me that we are stronger together.

We’ve also moved aggressively over this past year to support India’s energy needs, especially its renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind, biomass, and yes, nuclear too.  Clean energy cooperation may be the single biggest growth area of cooperation in the years ahead, as India copes with effects of climate change, while attempting to meet the significant energy needs of its population.

We’ve also redoubled our efforts to increase two-way trade, taking on the “ease of doing business” factors that tend to deter US companies and investors, such as tax and legal certainty, and improving the regulatory burden. We are making some good progress, as reflected in the fact that our first-ever Strategic and Commercial Dialogue will be held in Washington D.C. on Monday and Tuesday. Secretaries Kerry and Pritzker will lead this joint dialogue with their Indian counterparts, with the aim of continuing to break down trading barriers and laying the foundation for reaching that $500 billion target in two-way trade.

In so many other areas, we continue to push our cooperation to new heights – from global health security, to agriculture, deep sea and deep space exploration, cyber security and law enforcement – we are expanding our work together, and we will continue to do so in the months ahead.

The Real Challenges and the Great Promise

I am quite optimistic about the good path we are on, and the results we will continue to achieve for both our countries. But I am also clear eyed about the obstacles we confront together, such as climate change, income inequality, and a range of transnational threats. India will also have to grapple with several significant development challenges – some 300 million people have no electricity, nearly 500 million are without access to a toilet, air pollution impacts the health of too many, massive urbanization and migration from villages to cities continues at break neck speeds, too many girls drop out of school at the 8th grade, and the government must continue to grow the economy around 8% per year just to keep pace with the 1 million new entrants to the job market each month.

To be sure, these are real challenges and they will have to be addressed. It will be important to unleash the full potential and energy of India’s vibrant civil society to help imagine new approaches and innovative solutions.  But I am also heartened by the real promise that we see in modern India – a fast growing, thriving and innovative place. Soon to be the world’s most populous country, with the largest middle class, the most college graduates, the largest youth population, the most new millionaires, the most patent holders, the most IT professionals, and of course, the biggest film industry. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.  India’s sheer scale, its democratic traditions, commitment to the rule of law, innovation and learning will help ensure it remains exceptionally competitive in the years ahead.

Your Role Going Forward

So, how do you all fit in to this US/India story of growing convergence and what can you do from this important perch in Houston? First, you can continue doing exactly what you have done for so many years – building deep and rewarding commercial and personal relationships between our two countries. This is the foundation for our ties, and I can assure you we will continue to work hard to break down barriers so you all can take part in the economic growth of both nations and help create new opportunities for Americans and Indians at all levels of the economic pyramid.

Second, your continued good service, in this community, across Texas, and even back on the sub-continent will also go along way. Remember the big impact you can have with only a small investment of time, ingenuity or resources.

And, finally, as we celebrate all the success of this impressive diaspora community here tonight, remember that many of our colleagues — both recent and long-standing immigrants to this country — have not yet made it and are still struggling to make it. Keep your eyes, ears and hearts open for them as well, and stand up for them when they need a hand and lend them your voice when they have trouble being heard. Our shared value and commitment to social justice inspires us to make this a natural calling.

You should all be so proud of what you have accomplished and the way in which you have demonstrated such pride in your heritage and roots, while simultaneously making enormous contributions to the US, Texas and Houston in particular. I also know you won’t forget the hard work and sacrifice of all those who came before us. I certainly won’t forget, and in fact, it is a driving inspiration for me moving forward. You have my admiration and continuing respect, and I look forward to our work together as we collectively march toward a stronger and resurgent US and India partnership. Thank you very much.