Educationallinkages are most influential in fostering better understanding between any two countries, says Professor Balbir Sahni, Professor Emeritus of Economics, Concordia University. “Education,” he says, “serves as the linchpin connecting trade and technology” – an axiom he illustrates through the prism of Canada-India relations with particular reference to the signing of the bilateral Science and Technology agreement in 2005. Though the Colombo Plan signalled the shift into higher gear of relations between the two nations, academics suggest the relationship actually began with the establishment of the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute over four decades ago. Initially, the Institute focussed on promoting Indian studies in Canada, without any reciprocity.

In 1991, Sahni was asked by India’s University Grants Commission to co-chair an expert group for the development of Canadian Studies in India, and that “set the ball rolling.” The latest momentum, Sahni says, came when he became a member of the committee to restructure India-Canada academic linkages. At this point, the Institute was restructured to allow Indian academic institutions to become members of the Shastri Institute. The membership has now swelled to over 80 where, before Shastri came along, membership was the sole preserve of Canadian Universities. “We have provoked enough interest to the extent that every institution is now interested to see how to promote education linkages — institutions like the ACCC (Association of Community Colleges of Canada), CBIE (Canadian Bureau for International Education), Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada, Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce and the Canada-India Business Council have begun to see merits in education linkages,” Sahni says. Sahni is co-chair of the education committee of the Focus India group of the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. He has successfully persuaded the CIBC to organize two Synergy education conferences, that saw the participation of dozens of Canadian educational institutions and major organizations, besides evoking interest among the business community. Sahni recalls a time when French institutions from Quebec used to believe they cannot have linkages with India, until he persuaded them about the need for such ties.

That’s how Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s made his first official visit to India in January 2006, including in his delegation a large number of representatives from area universities. “Quebec hasn’t looked back since then,” says Sahni.”And once Quebec did it, I told Ontario to talk to Quebec.” In classic knock-on style, this led to presidents and vice-presidents of dozens of Ontario Universities and Colleges forming part of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s first official delegation to India in January 2007 [McGuinty will be taking his second delegation to India in December this year]. Such visits have been fruitful. Thus, McGuinty’s first delegation saw an agreement between 17 Ontario universities and 10 Maharashtra and Goa universities for the exchange of 25 students from either side, called the Ontario-Maharashtra-Goa Agreement. Besides these activities, Sahni has for ten years now served as Director of the International Academic Cooperation of Concordia University. “I always used to say, as far as academics is concerned there are no borders,” he insists, and to prove the point discusses increasing academic links between US and Cuban universities, between Chinese and Taiwanese universities and between Palestinian and Israeli universities.

To him, “academic links are the best links to promote understanding between countries and peoples.” When Infosys founder Narayana Murthy arrived in Montreal earlier this year to receive an honorary degree from Concordia University, “I told him that it has taken India long to recognize that the Canadian Universities are world class institutions and at par with the Americans, but the unfortunate reality is that 60,000 Indian students go to US universities but sadly, only 5,000 come to Canada.” Besides his role in pushing academic ties between Canada and India, Sahni in his role as economist and professor covers Canada and India in his classes; a similar mindset illuminates the dozens of publications that bear his name, including books such as Industrial Efficiency: An Indian Perspective, Issues in Public Sector Analysis and Savings and Economic Development. Sahni remembers with pride that his work in promoting educational linkages between Canada and India earned him the ‘Bhai Vir Singh International Award’ at the hands of then Finance Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in 1993. The Shastri Institute nominated Sahni to the Honor Roll for building knowledge and understanding between Canada and India, and the CIBC gave him a special award – “literally, a brick” – for founding the ‘education corridor’. “Academic links are sustainable,” Sahni argues. “Academic links thrive where there’s two-way flow of students, and result in further linkages in trade and technology areas. This has sunk into the psyche of the two countries,” says Sahni, who believes that such links between Canada and India have reached the tipping point.

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