SACHIN TIWARI was part of the second round of Indo-Norwegian Exchange programme of Masters Programme in Public Policy in the year 2016.
Sachin’s dissertation is on Who Uses? Who Pays? – A Study on Provision and Use of Personal Protective Equipment as a Social Welfare Aspect. Here, the author writes on why exchange matters and the takeaway from it.
What are the odds that you get a generously paid-for trip and yet find yourself debating if you really need that regular cup of coffee on a cold October afternoon at the harbor side, and which you would pay for so casually in India? That, in part, is visiting Norway as an exchange student. Generous allowance that evaporates in Oslo like water in Indian summer, short trips on public transport that takes half of your day’s allowance for a one way trip and miserably few public events and places with free entry. Norway is terrifying on pocket. However, beyond the living challenges an extraordinarily beautiful country unfolds. I clutched Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People as I made my way to Oslo. Booth goes after the ‘myth of the Scandinavian utopia’ – a cheeky read on contemporary life and history of Scandinavia. This piece is a recollection some experiences in Norway and in the process reflect upon ways in which NLSIU’s exchange program for policy students contributes to learning.
In Norway, the young do not understand the struggles of the earlier generation in building this country, said the elderly woman as we stood outside the reception of HiOA. It is a remarkable story of “two empty hands” as some Norwegians say. In the first week here this was an intriguing statement and perhaps less heard by visitors to this beautiful country at the far North of the world. If Australia and New Zealand were down under, I imagine this country should be up above. And I certainly wanted to hang out with her, to know more about what she meant.
Until this vist, Norway for me was about arctic explorers (of course Nansen), Nordic skiing, very strong long distance runners and deep winters. Besides these, the only people I knew and who made up this country’s poster in my head were – Arne Naess, philosopher and deep ecologist; Henrik Ibsen, Norwegian dramatist, poet and author of Peer Gynt; Fridtjof Nansen, explorer and humanist who promoted the idea of passports for stateless persons (later known as Nansen passport) and finally, for all the Norwegian peace negotiators who have time and again offered mediation between conflicting nations from Sri Lanka to Columbia. When I first read about Norwegian negotiators in Sri Lanka brokering peace between Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, I began thinking about who these people are and what might be their government’s motivation to fund and pursue peace halfway across the world with a country that doesn’t probably make half the strategic sense diplomatically.
During Oct – Nov, 2016 I spent time in Norway (mostly) and traveling around capitals of Western Europe. This was to be my roving introduction to the region. To a traveller, the time he visits always appear as an interesting time. My visit came at a time when EU was facing an unprecedented refugee crisis with a deluge of non-European immigrants escaping war and economic hardships. My education in world history, lifestyle in an affluent and less populated society and culture and tradition of people who live amidst stunningly beautiful landscapes, was beginning to get come together in a more complicated manner than before. That picture of Norway I carried in my head got much bigger, colourful and nuanced.
Ideas and thoughts was being worked at every single day. From listening to noted scholars like Dani Rodrik at Nobel Peace Centre to attending seminars the Department of Philosophy at University of Oslo on interpretation of texts and struggling to introduce India to a group of high school students on a drizzling afternoon in Lillestrom. HiOA too hosted an interesting conference on Global Migrations. The themes and concerns of most gatherings here appeared different from the academic spaces back in India.
What follows are a few observations on NLSIU’s exchange program and on the time spent as a part of the program.
i. Mutual understanding and appreciation of world and its history.
This impression is due to the travel opportunities that I had in other parts of Europe and visit historical places. Couple of years back, on a high mountain camp in Nepal’s Annapurna region, I was intrigued by a trekker’s often repeated wish and longing for a hot shower. A hot shower, over food, would be the order for her, she insisted. I couldn’t get this somewhat unusual talk of hot showers for most part of our time. Two weeks in Northern Europe’s winter, I could understand. That trekker was me now. I longed for it on most evenings. That’s mutual understanding kicking in, I guess.
ii. Political and social awareness.
The program contributes to political and social awareness in ways that only experiences do. Immigration, globalization, different perspectives on social issues, activism, racism, civil society, public awareness, all of these are intertwined and present themselves as a rich learning when one spends time in different countries. As a student, these observations, I believe, are even more transformative. For instance, homelessness in India versus experience of homelessness (and strong public sentiment against it) in Norway and Hungary. This was startling.
iii. Intercultural sensitivity.
Multi-ethnic and multi-religious settings aren’t new to Indians. There is a different constitution of ethnic and nationality that is encountered on exchange programs. For instance, the number of Somalis, Afghanis, Pakistanis, Poles, Americans, Chinese and other people that were seen around Sciences Po in Paris was a platter that one took time to get accustomed to.
iv. Joining a global conversation.
The program offered an opportunity to attend several conferences across Europe and listen to noted scholars. Even though one’s home country may be inviting scholars from across the globe, the fact that one travels to other cities to participate and meet them remains an added advantage. The cumulative effect is as though a global conversation on issues of the day is on and one is an active participant of it. I must admit that I have felt this at home in India as well. The feeling perhaps gets a bit accentuated when one attends other universities for a brief period of time.
v. Comfortable in ‘foreign’ settings.
There is an ease one acquires in conducting oneself, hold conversations and learn to listen and respond to various views as a part of multinational settings in large universities and research centers. This is different from an experience during a business trip. Having made both the kinds of trips – business and student exchange, I am sure that early experiences as a student in these settings make for a highly desirable life skill.
Here are some unstructured observations, which perhaps are commonplace but stood out for me. These are in my view why exchange programs are worth. One realizes it in course of time, as I have.
Living in a suburb
Waking up early on the second day in Oslo, I watched the garbage collection truck roll-in, into the lane from my window. This is what I was here for – to understand how the city handles its waste as well as provide for its workers, as a minor component of my master’s research. Oslo would clearly not make a good comparison to any city even within Scandinavia, I must add. I noticed that besides the driver, there was only one worker who stood on a console at the rear and with the press of buttons emptied segregated waste from differently coloured bins outside the house. This two worker team would handle over 300-400 houses in the area I guessed. No contact with the garbage at all. I spotted workers well protected from cold and wearing personal protective gear for the work, across many suburbs in the following days. Unlike India, there is almost no informal sector of work here. Understandably, formal sector employment guarantees safe working conditions, which explains the almost universal use of protective gear amongst workers. Though I was cautioned by a researcher about ‘disguised informality’, I imagine that workplace safety standards are exceedingly better compared to India. The rest of my time was quickly deployed to finding reasons for poor workplace safety in India and as one is prone to do, scratch beneath the Norwegian system to see if reality indeed is in line with what meets the eye.
A typical office setting
There is certain judiciousness to the work ethic of the people I met. They are earnest. I saw them finishing their work, bit by bit, over a long working day. Sometimes, all they can write to you about is how pressed they are for time. Compare this to what I make of the Indian style of working – there tends to be a loose cycle of binge working and resting. I found work in offices to be highly methodical and sticking to procedures all the time. This is in contrast to Indian offices where one might prefer convenience over procedure. Moreover, expect people to check out of their offices as the clock strikes the end of office hours. Unlike Indians who tend to be workaholics, Oslo appeared as though people had a healthy balance between family and work life.
The North Sea Bounty
This one and the following two observations are connected. The Norwegians struck oil in the North Sea in 1969. This discovery was of one of the largest reserves in the world, and which explains the course of Norway, Norwegian economy and the society in the decades that followed this. This also remains a less discussed reason in conversations, but has been at the heart of the transformation. It is admirable and worth noting how this vital resourced turned Norway into a prosperous society and not be a victim of resource curse that afflicted some other countries. The oil fund set up to hold and manage the proceeds from oil is a national asset and the interests earned on these earnings drive public expenditure for welfare.
This country is a frequent example in welfare literature, as a successful model. Norway’s generous welfare system stands in striking contrast to what Indians might have seen. A part of my research study was about understanding the structure and mechanics of this welfare system. To its population of over five million people, it provides an extensive healthcare, education, social security and high quality public infrastructure, which, quite honestly, was unbelievable.
Not many people tend to fix things, but replace them. Loppemarket was one such instance – it is a market of discarded goods. I can’t imagine even the very well off in India push household goods with barely any defect out of the house to replace with the latest. To an Indian, this behaviour struck as odd, especially when one figures that not long back Norwegians were not as affluent as they are now. The older generation remembers what Norway was. The modesty that sometimes lets out itself in conversations is a curious thing. Norway has a memory too and it doesn’t quite reveal itself often.
What constitutes Norwegian-ness was a curiosity that emerged from friluftsliv, or ‘open-air life’ when literally translated from Norwegian. There is an immense connect and perhaps a sense of identify drawn from nature and landscapes. This is also identifiable as a common theme across music, literature, paintings, photography, research themes in Universities and in lifestyle of people. Arne Ness probably developed his ideas in deep-ecology from this connection to the bountiful nature and scenery of Norway, which enviably is also helped by a low population density (11 per sq km, as I remember!).
Walking down Karl Johan Street one evening, it felt as though Norway and India went through a similar phase of nation-building. In the decade after Indian independence, there was this flurry of activity in arts and cultural discourse which tried to define and create the idea of “Indian” art and culture. When I heard Edward Greig’s delightful music scored for Peer Gynt and later read about Norway’s own attempts of identity building the similarity appeared an interesting common ground. Music reveals this effort of identity making when one notices how the early musicians tried to break away from the Germanic influence.
Packed Lunches or matpakka:
As social anthropologist Runar Døving (1999) puts it; matpakka “is a phenomenon connecting the individual to the nation through tradition. It represents healthiness, both in the people and in the nation”. The typical and ideal Norwegian matpakke consists of slices of whole wheat bread with toppings such as cheese, egg, meat, fish, tomatoes and cucumber, usually supplied with an apple. A person I re-described it as – ‘We bring these homemade “packages of food” (the closest I get to a translation other than “packed lunches”) to school, to University and to work, either in a box or, true to tradition, wrapped in greaseproof paper.’ To keep costs low and survive an expensive city like Oslo, I had a matpakka on me on all days.
The list of such observations is long. I have kept specific observations on public policy out of this piece. These are at best visceral responses to my experiences during the exchange trip in Norway and beyond. I imagine that this is where the true deliverance of such opportunities lie – to have these raw experiences and exposure to the world and spend time at home making sense of them. I saw a part of the world and I made an attempt to describe it. So, do I have a sense of where are we going? Do I know a little better than what news the papers get to me at my doorstep every morning in Bangalore?
Someone said a lot of travel is about having a very bad time. A lot of tourism is about having a very good time. I would add that an exchange program is about having a lot of both. Go for it and see the walls of those first floor classrooms dissolve away, revealing the world.
(Tusen Takk, literally translated as tusen – thousand, takk – thank you; and means “Thank you very much”)
Exchange group 2016 at Oslo, Norway
(Sachin is a student of Masters Programme in Public Policy from the batch of 2015-17 at the National Law School of India University. He can be reached at email@example.com)