Difficult Dialogues is an annual open forum that takes upon itself the task of tackling some of the most vital issues facing South Asia today.  DD is the brainchild of Surina Narula, MBE, an Indian based out of the United Kingdom who has a long record of giving voice to the unvoiced and taking up causes that pique her passion.  Dismayed by the lack of progress being made on South Asia’s big policy issues and tired of the disconnects between grassroots practitioners, academics, policy makers, and CSOs implementing new schemes, the veteran NGO founder and serial social-entrepreneur decided one fine day to take matters into her own hands and craft a platform to force leaders from across the spectrum to meet up and find equitable answers to these priorities. 

The first “Difficult Dialogues” was inaugurated in January last year with eminent experts and scholars gathering in Goa to debate the topic of India’s position in a rapidly globalising world.  Curated by the London School of Economics and tv/e (Television for the Environment), the summit saw leading figures spanning the entire gamut of civil society sharing knowledge and formulating new approaches to existing and potential challenges.  The inclusive panel format at this annual festival of ideas was structured around four key areas of debate last year: Global Finance, India and West Asia, Civil Society, and Infrastructure.  DD16 in addition also hosted stimulating illustrated talks from two prominent guest speakers: author Amitav Ghosh, and activist Srjda Popovic.  The forum also showcased an exhibition of rare documents held within the archives of the Reserve Bank of India (Pune), providing a fascinating insight into India’s financial history.  One of the most eagerly attended aspects of the forum was the grand finale of the Daring Debates series, an annual high-level debate competition that provides a platform for university students from five regions (Delhi, Goa, Guwahati, Kolkata and Mumbai) to engage with critical contemporary issues.

Complementary to Difficult Dialogues were the Dialogue Derivatives – which, in partnership with tv/e, guaranteed that all information exchanged and created as part of the event found its way into channels that can make a positive change in society.  Dialogue Derivatives had eight discussions, with each panel representing a different area of concern. The first debate – Vision, addressed the lack of a coherent progressive agenda for India’s younger generation. Next, intensive deliberations on ‘child marriage’ led to the creation of a memorandum that was shared with a plurality of stakeholders.  Further panels began dialogues on ‘street children, the uses and abuses of wealth, social exclusion and tourism.’  An impassioned panel discussion on ‘agriculture, youth migration and ‘smart cities’’ considered the failings of rural-urban migration.  As part of the event, attendees were also treated to viewings of a number of films originally premiered at the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival.

In sum, Difficult Dialogues 2016 proved to be a resounding success – proceedings from the forum have thus far been directly responsible for the creation of four white papers – documents that form the basis of new parliamentary policy. The forum also produced two comprehensive concluding reports premised in the event’s debates – one on the topic of global finance, the other concerning India’s infrastructure. Informed by the forum, tv/e produced a well received film exploring the sensitive environmental aspects of economic development.

Difficult Dialogues now once again returns to Goa this year, in partnership with the University College London (UCL) to explore the challenges India faces in creating conditions for good health and healthcare access for its citizens.   It will include discussions under four broad themes: Inequalities in Health and Healthcare; Perceptions of Gender and Consequences for Health; Universal Health (Care) Coverage; and The Changing Burden of Disease.  The event is slated to take place during February 10 to -12, 2017, at the Goa International Centre at Dona Paula, Goa.

A hallmark of this year’s forum will be the concern for health including and beyond healthcare, to the social, political, economic and cultural factors that determine the health of a nation.  How and what type of healthcare people access across India varies enormously. But there are numerous examples of excellence – models created and practised in response to a range of challenges. These models are responding to everything from a lack of trained health professionals, gender inequality, and social exclusion to low education, nutrition, and economic welfare.  Given India’s strong achievements in community-led health, e-health technology and pharmaceutical innovation, the forum will also consider India’s leadership role in both regional and global health. With our diverse stakeholders and world renowned experts from UCL, our aim is to identify the pressing needs, best practices, and health policies that are effective, economically efficient and, importantly, ethical and equitable so that all may benefit from good health.

Building upon last year’s event, the question up for debate at February’s summit will be: “Is India’s Health a Grand Challenge.”  Partners University College London have have invited renowned health anthropologists and doctors to discuss issues of gender, disease, disability, mental health, and India’s conflicting public and private health sectors.  The forum is both apt timely, in synch with the times and climes that overshadow Indian healthcare.  This year, Difficult Dialogues intends to introduce the issue of universal healthcare to the heart of the debate and keep it right there until we begin seeing some signs of real change. This is vital: Indian public health spending as a percentage of GDP remains one of the lowest in the world – according to WHO statistics, developed nations such as the UK and USA spend around eight percent of GDP on public health whilst China’s government spends around three percent. India spends in the region of (a miserly) one and a half percent and current government plans suggest any increase over the next five years will be minimal – a position that is hard to defend in an economy that is growing as steadily as ours.

The bottom line is:  India does not take health seriously. By getting behind initiatives such as Difficult Dialogues and the processes it kickstarts, we too can begin to remedy this gross human failure.

If last year’s event is anything to go by, anyone attending can expect to see top government officials hash out new policy directions with a number of leading minds from academia, NGOs, the media and a host of celebrities with vivid experiences of the issues at hand.  From what has been announced, we see that amongst the highlights will be health secretary  CK Mishra discussing the options open to the country in terms of healthcare funding; actress Manisha Koirala – prominent women’s rights activist and cancer survivor – discussing treatment in India and abroad; and leading journalist Siddharth Varadarajan – who will be on hand to chair a number of panel discussions. Talks by renowned speakers like Gurcharan Das – who will give his views on Dharam and health – are all part of the atmosphere that makes this forum accessible to everybody .

Difficult Dialogues will also be graced by several local icons of Goa, the beautiful host state. Dr. Vikram Patel – founder of Porvorim based NGO ‘Sangath’ and listed as one of TIME Magazine’s ‘World’s Top 100 Most Influential People’ – will discuss his work in health, most notably in the field of childhood mental health in which he is a leading expert. Many of you might be aware of Dr. Patel’s entertaining TEDtalk, and If indeed you are, you will also be excited to hear that a number of alumni from the TEDtalk series will be joining him – including the humourous activist, Jo Chopra.  Finally, Drs. Abhay and Rani Bang – noted by TIME Magazine as ‘Global Heros of Health’ – will together be gracing the panel debates.

So, if you are a health practitioner, student, or a Goa holiday-maker with a vested interest in the nation’s health, Difficult Dialogues promises to be a vibrant, stimulating festival of ideas that truly believes that it has the power to change the future direction of Indian society. Building on last year’s successes, the 2017 summit is likely to be even more exciting, challenging and influential – a must-attend.

You could access further information on the Difficult Dialogues Forum series from difficultdialogues-dot-com.

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