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Meet the Indian behind G8, G20 summits in Canada

Last updated on: July 22, 2010 11:48 IST

Sanjeev Chowdhury, director general, department of foreign affairs in Canada, headed the team that organised the G8 and G20 summits in Huntsville and Toronto from June 25 to 27.

When Sanjeev Chowdhury joined Canada's foreign service 15 years ago and became a part of the team that organised the G7 summit -- as it was then called -- in Halifax, he never imagined that he would one day be responsible for organising these major events. He spoke to's Ajit Jain.

How would you describe the achievements of the two summits?

The prime minister's communiqué runs to 42 sections; one has to read that to understand the amount of work done by him, by the G20 leaders. What is significant is the decision of the G20 leaders not to impose the global bank tax. (Canadian) Prime Minister Stephen Harper succeeded in persuading other G20 leaders that we don't have to have this tax, as it would be passed to consumers like you and me.

Our second achievement was the leaders' decision to reduce deficits by half by 2013. Japan is the only exception; they have two more years to cut their deficit. It is a great achievement and puts great confidence in the international financial market. 

Besides these and other achievements, the G20 has emerged as the premier financial institution in the world today. The leaders have decided to work as a group, so that if there are economic issues, they can mobilise and make decisions as a group and move the world in one direction. That, I would say, is the biggest achievement because it means no country has to act alone when there are financial crises. 

We all know the difficulties that the financial markets encountered during 2008-09. The G20 leaders are working as a group to make significant decisions that will impact our lives. It has become a world body that people can look up to.

It is going to be very interesting to see what will happen at the G20 Summit in Seoul, (South) Korea, in November, 2010.

Before the summits were held, there was an impression that the G8 was becoming irrelevant.

After the G8 Summit, I would say that's not so. The G8 has a completely different mandate from the G20. While the latter deals with financial issues, the G8 deals with political and security issues. At the G8 table, a lot of discussions that are of significance to the world take place. These discussions don't take place at the G20 forum.

The international economy is now intertwined, linked. The G20 countries control 80 percent of the global gross domestic product. That explains why G20 as a group has become so important. For the world economy to succeed G20 countries have to march in the same direction.

You believe world leaders have the time to attend these two summits every year?

I believe what happened in Canada is a perfect example of how you can have a number of events together. There's no doubt that people suffer from 'too-many-summits' fatigue… But if these were not considered important, United States President Barack Obama wouldn't have come, as also Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and other world leaders.

How would you describe your first experience of organising these two major summits?

I have been very fortunate to have a lot of great assignments in foreign service. But I never had anything quite as challenging as these two summits in terms of logistics and infrastructure in a small town, and doing two events back-to-back in separate cities. Managing a team of several hundred people was an enormous challenge too.

It was a great honour and a major responsibility. I have had sleepless nights thinking about various aspects -- weather and how it would affect transportation, who the prime minister would choose to invite as special guests outside the G8 and G20 members, how many of them would come and whether we would be able to accommodate them.

Our work comprised four important divisions -- communications, administration, environment and outreach. Communications was the biggest and most challenging. But I could draw from my experience as former spokesman of the department of foreign affairs, press secretary to foreign affairs minister, consul general to Vietnam and being on the panel of John Manley to Afghanistan, etc.

These assignments really helped me assist my colleagues, getting our key messages out to the public.

The G8 in Huntsville was superb. People there were 100 percent behind us. I became part of the community, as I travelled there regularly for months.

People invited me to their homes for dinner. They embraced me as a member of their families. As a bureaucrat, it was also nice for me to get out of Ottawa; we spend so much time in Ottawa that we never get time to meet the community.

I developed a close relationship with the city mayor and industry minister Tony Clement, who's a lawmaker from that riding.

How did the idea of having the G8 Summit in a small cottage town like Huntsville come about?

The departments of foreign affairs and public works went across the country for over two years to look at various locations. We analysed the number of rooms available, infrastructure, airport facilities, etc. That's how the locations were ranked. The list was presented to the prime minister and he selected Huntsville.

When the G20 was announced, to be held back-to-back with G8, we had to look at other options. We needed infrastructure much larger than that for the G8, so we chose Toronto. Keeping security in mind and proximity to major hotels, we decided on the Metro Toronto Convention Center, a great building with huge facilities. 

In Huntsville, we had no real demonstrations or damage to properties like in Toronto. We had a designated speech zone for protesters where we had at the peak 20 people walking down the main streets.

So, Huntsville was a very different experience from Toronto. At the end, I will say Huntsville proved to be a wonderful location for G8. The leaders enjoyed it. British Prime Minister David Cameron even went to the lake for a swim.

Toronto Mayor David Miller was very critical of your decision to convene the G20 at the MTCC instead of the Exhibition Grounds in Toronto.

The Exhibition Grounds is only a few kilometres away from MTCC. Do people think that had we hosted the G20 at Exhibition Grounds, there would have been no demonstrations in Toronto? The property damage that happened in downtown Toronto was not because it was close to the MTCC. It is because it was downtown. People who want to cause destruction will do it wherever the summit is. 

When we had the G8 at L'Aquilla in Italy last year, demonstrations took place in Rome. L'Aquilla is a 90-minute drive from Rome. Today, with the technology that we have, the leaders are well protected. But people are going to make a noise, they will get television coverage and the feed will reach the G8 and the G20 leaders.

Image: Sanjeev Chowdhury (right) greets US President Barack Obama

Ajit Jain in Toronto