Elevating Other Tools in the U.S. - India Relations Toolbox

02/03/2015 12:15 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

Amid the thick New Delhi haze and winter rain, America's stars and stripes and India's tricolor flags flew beside President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they watched India's 66th Republic Day parade last week. India's colorful heritage, trumpeting marching bands, and military hardware were on full display as the leaders pursued greater cooperation on issues from security to trade to climate just three months after their first summit in Washington. The focus on these major strategic issues makes sense - the two great democracies can achieve much more together. But the long-term ability for them to realize the vision articulated last fall requires them to elevate particular initiatives that grab fewer headlines: health and education.

The vision of a real strategic partnership between two strong nations with major industrial, technological, economic and security ties depends more than ever on people power. The U.S. and India must prioritize human capital.

Long-term investments in people are crucial to the continued success of the U.S. - India relationship. Without a skilled, healthy, and adequately compensated workforce, the economic and political strength of both nations will suffer - regardless of how well their leaders connect or how strong their defense and trade relationships are.

From fighting the pandemic spread of Ebola and TB to addressing diabetes and obesity, the U.S. and India have recognized that health issues know no borders. An increasingly interconnected world has helped in rapid response mechanisms across a range of developed to developing nations through easy deployment of health professionals, information technology for disease surveillance, and basic medicinal supplies. However, given the frequency of global health crises over the past decade - from SARS to Ebola - and the significant impact they pose on the global economy and many nations' homeland security, more attention must be paid to health diplomacy.

Last week in Delhi, President Obama and Modi committed to furthering the existing joint collaboration between the U.S. National Institute for Health and Center for Disease Control with the Indian Council of Medical Research and India Centre for Disease Control on best practices in healthcare delivery, immunization, and research-training collaborations on maternal and child health to HIV/AIDS and eye disease. While both leaders gave a nod towards increasing stakeholder representation in global health security matters, they should focus on diversifying their global health structure to include non-state actors and civil society representatives. These entities - be it foundations or grassroots social enterprises - can test real-world solutions to critical health challenges while simultaneously enhancing trust between respective communities. Both India and the United States should put forth more incentives so that organizations will choose to further their partnership with the government rather than bypass it.

The two leaders also pledged to take on the issue of pharmaceutical safety and trade regulatory barriers - a critical point of friction between the two countries. Whether the obstacles are constraints related to commercial interests or differing domestic regulations, they erode the appetite for placing global health as a top security concern. Open and honest dialogue is much needed in this space to ensure that safe and low-cost drugs are not mutually exclusive.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi focuses on bringing in greater foreign investments and industrialization to his country - both areas where the United States intends to be a leading partner - he will need to reconcile the imbalance between India's youth bulge, its lack of skilled workers, and poor education standards. This trifecta has the power to either sink or bolster any number of U.S. - India proposed initiatives, from defense modernization, clean renewable sources of energy, to increased private sector trade. The 2014 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) found that while rural India classroom enrollment was at an all-time high with 96.7 percent of children between ages 6 - 14 enrolled, a third of seven-year-olds in India could not identify letters.

As more young people without secondary education or vocational training fail to enter the job market, and older workers are pushed out of the workforce as they no longer qualify for the jobs created by Modi's economic push, the long-term worker and income deficit will become pronounced and deep-seated. While there is robust U.S. - India engagement on higher education, greater collaboration is necessary to address needs of low- to medium-skilled workers. Decisive action by policymakers and business leaders from both nations will be a breath of fresh air. By 2020, India is expected to have the third-largest consumer market in the world, after China and the United States. As U.S. business interests are drawn towards tapping into that potential, India will need to address how to deliver for its growing middle class, estimated to be somewhere between 150-200 million and expanding rapidly.

As the symbolism settles over President Obama and Prime Minister Modi, their imagination and joint vision can build a stronger U.S. - India partnership that has historically held bipartisan support from the U.S. Congress and previous administrations. In order to do so, Obama and Modi should utilize the influential smart power tools available to intensify the cooperation that is already underway.