With its focus on education, skills for youth, girls and women, digital technology and the promotion of cultural heritage, the agenda of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, in office since late May 2014, resonates deeply with UNESCO's mandate, stated Director-General Irina Bokova during a series of meetings held in New Delhi on 24 November, the first day of her official visit to India.
After opening the conference on the role of ICTs for persons with disabilities, the Director-General met with six ministers to discuss their projects, vision and prospects for reinforced collaboration with UNESCO.
"India is a founding member of UNESCO and understands the soft power agenda for the transformation of societies," she said in meeting the Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj.
"India has also been a strong supporter of culture as an enabler of sustainable development," she continued, thanking the country for this backing.
The Minister commended UNESCO for the successful inclusion of education and oceans as full fledged goals in the proposed post-2015 development agenda, and affirmed the importance of intangible cultural heritage and cultural diversity for social cohesion and development.
The Director-General also praised the Government for its support to gender equality, reflected in the number of women Cabinet ministers and several nation-wide initiatives to empower the girl child.
This was emphasized by the Minister for Human Resource Development Smt Smriti Irani, who drew the Director-General's attention to the Government's emphasis on a cohesive approach towards the girl child, from early childhood to higher education, including through support with tuition fees and scholarship schemes, together with a focus on achieving better learning outcomes, plans to launch a new national mission on teacher training in December, and another to encourage students' interest in math and science. In 2015, the Government will embark on deliberations to develop a new National Education Policy through "a bottom-up and top-bottom approach -- our endeavour is to go down to the village education councils and engage with them, and move up from block to district to state and national levels," she said, asking for UNESCO's expertise to inform this process in the area of skills development.
Several initiatives aim to promote equity and bridge the urban-rural divide, including a scheme, rooted in Mahatma Gandhi's vision of the "soul of India residing in its villages," whereby higher education institutions will adopt villages and transfer technologies to them, as well as the launch of an Indian platform for free Massive Open Online Courseware.
The Director-General welcomed these initiatives, encouraging India to take leadership also in promoting literacy in the region and stating that 2015 will be critical to defining the education agenda for the next 15 years.
During her meeting with Minister of State for Culture, Dr Mahesh Sharma, Ms Bokova handed over the certificates establishing Rani-Ki Vav and the Himalayan National Park as World Heritage Sites following their inscription in June 2014.
The Minister, whose mandate encompasses culture, tourism and civil aviation, noted that India is embarking on a special drive to improve infrastructure, cleanliness, safety and security, so that international tourists may benefit fully from the country's wisdom and knowledge in the course of their travel experience.
The Director-General underscored the India is a prime example of the role of culture as source of jobs and a force for social cohesion, inviting the country also to be active in other UNESCO programmes, such as the Creative Cities.
She drew attention to UNESCO's work on illicit trafficking of objects of art, indicating that UNESCO stands ready to work with India on this front, a proposal welcomed by the Minister.
Intangible cultural heritage is also a central focus for the Government, with the launch of a dedicated mission that will notably produce an open source repository of all India's traditions, including yoga, expected to be declared an international day by the United Nations in December.
Safeguarding heritage and culture in cities is the focus of work undertaken by the Minister of Urban Development Shri Venkaiah Naidu.
He informed the Director-General that the Government had identified 7 Heritage Cities across the country, where special attention will be placed on protecting and promoting culture, and requested UNESCO's expertise in sharing best practices and international standards in this area.
"Nature and culture combined makes a better future. It is an issue of mindset - we have to make people realize the importance of heritage," asserted the Minister. "To preserve and modernize, we need skills and best practices."
In offering UNESCO's guidance, the Director-General noted that many cities face the challenge of reconciling heritage with modernity and drew attention to the UNESCO Recommendation for Urban Historical Landscape as a complement to the World Heritage Convention.
She underscored the crucial role heritage plays in strengthening and respecting identities in today's globalized world. The Minister and the Director-General agreed to collaborate towards the execution of Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY) scheme, launched by the Government in July 2014. It aims to preserve and revitalize the unique character of heritage cities, while improving their infrastructure and quality of living.
Dr Harsh Vardhan, Minister of Science, Technology and Earth Sciences also expressed his ambition to reinforce cooperation with UNESCO to build capacity in disaster risk reduction and oceanography.
To this end, he signed a letter of intent with the Director-General, affirming that "training and capacity building will help us to better predict disasters and improve our systems."
The Director-General asserted that this was a mutually beneficial partnership, noting India’s role in the tsunami early-warning system and UNESCO serving as a universal platform for sharing best practices.
The letter of intent foresees collaboration on data exchange on natural hazards, remote sensing applications in the coastal and oceanic region and courses for early warning systems.