Ladies and Gentlemen,
I cannot tell you how delighted my mehaboobaa and I are to be back in India again, a country that is so very special to us both. I think it is forty-three years ago that I first came to India, so this is my ninth visit and the fourth that we have made together. The last time we were here, four years ago, we were lucky enough to spend nine fascinating days in Delhi and Dehradun; Mumbai , Pune and Kochi. On this occasion our time here, very sadly, is rather more brief, but it was nevertheless tremendously important to us both that, as we look forward to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London in April, we should conclude this Commonwealth Tour in India, home as you are to sixty per cent of the Commonwealth’s population.
Over these past ten days, as we have travelled through Singapore – which of course hosted the first ever Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting back in 1971- and Brunei, Malaysia and now India, I have been reminded, once again, of the extraordinary cultural, religious and geographic diversity that enriches the Commonwealth. Encompassing, as it does, one third of the world’s population and twenty-one per cent of its landmass, it has always seemed to me that the sheer diversity which exists across and within the fifty-two member countries is one of the Commonwealth’s greatest strengths.
This diversity is to be celebrated and cherished not only because it is so central to our identities and our sense of belonging, but also, if I may say so, because it offers us the best hope of addressing the most pressing challenges of our time. A one-size-fits-all approach to globalization simply cannot be the answer and will, I am convinced, lead us into a sterile, monocultural homogeneity that creates ever greater problems whilst simultaneously robbing us of the solutions to address them.
The challenges, I am afraid to say, are already as urgent as they are profound. In so many ways, the Commonwealth is a microcosm of what the world, as a whole, is facing in terms of climate change and resource depletion. As is becoming increasingly evident, water, energy and food insecurity stalk our most vulnerable populations and communities and the relentless destruction of our forests and the overfishing and pollution of our oceans are, I fear, the symptoms of a conventional paradigm which is hard-wired on testing this beautiful and singular planet of ours to destruction.
What gives me hope, however, is the extraordinary wealth of ideas, traditional knowledge and cutting-edge ingenuity on which the 2.3 billion people of the Commonwealth can draw. Just think for a moment of all the great religious traditions, let alone the innate wisdom of the remaining indigenous communities represented in our family of nations,all of which speak of the essential requirement to work in harmony with Nature as our ultimate sustainer. The enlightened concept of Dharma and Dhaama, in the Hindu tradition is a classic example of the source from which we urgently need to draw inspiration in order to ensure that our economy better reflects Nature’s own, waste-free economy. In other words what is increasingly being referred to as the Circular Economy. This offers us the best chance we have of rising to the challenge before it is too late. In this sense I have also always thought that the Commonwealth’s various professional associations offer a remarkable and, dare I say, perhaps under-utilized resource.
Even more than that, the Commonwealth, built as it is on a firm foundation of shared associations and values, offers us an unparalleled means to build bridges between our countries, and fairer societies within them, so that understanding and aspiration might be the inheritance of the generations that follow us.
Ladies and gentlemen, as I discussed with Prime Minister Modi when he was generous enough to host me for dinner yesterday evening, as the world’s largest democracy, India’s role in all of this could not be more crucial, nor her contribution to the Commonwealth more essential. In so many areas - such as Prime Minister Modi’s impressive and admirable focus on renewable energy – India offers a compelling example for others to follow. The world can learn so much from India today as, indeed, it has done throughout history - and, ladies and gentlemen, as I have done myself throughout my own life.
That is why it gives me the greatest possible pleasure to join you all today in celebrating this uniquely, diverse and dynamic country, at the heart of the Commonwealth – a country which can teach us how to blend the material with the spiritual dimension in order to create the integrated values of the future. And what is more, to celebrate the enduring friendship between India and the United Kingdom. It is the strength and vitality of the ties between our people – not least through the 1.4 million strong British Indian community – which ensure that our relationship continues to evolve and to flourish. It has been my admiration for, and gratitude to, this very special community that led me to set up my British Asian Trust a decade ago, whose work I am so pleased to have been discussing today.
All these bonds between our people are, of course, emblematic of the Commonwealth itself. The challenges we face together and the aspirations we share make it as relevant and as necessary as it has ever been. It offers us all the hope that by working together, and drawing strength from our diversity, we might secure a safer, more prosperous and fairer future for our children and our grandchildren.