Let me begin with a very basic thing. What does the Ministry of External Affairs do? And, what is foreign policy? The primary objective of the Ministry of External Affairs is to advance our national interests across the world -in whichever way possible.
We get access to resources, increase trade and investment; encourage an enabling environment for growth and development in the country. So, whatever we do is closely linked to the priorities and initiatives of the Government-Make in India, Digital India, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or any of the many programmes that are Government priorities. In essence, we further those objectives. We contribute to furthering the priorities and agenda of our Government and our nation.
Under the Government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, foreign policy has received greater focus; has become more proactive. You have seen that PM has himself visited close to 40 countries across the world. He has not only established a tremendous personal equation with the top leadership of countries around the world, but also has gone and met people who matter – top corporates, scientists, researchers, the Indian diaspora in countries. He has brought in investments and generated much greater interest in India.
NE Region is gateway to SE Asia!
FS @harshvshringla delivered 4th Global Lecture at Sikkim University in Gangtok.
During his visit to Sikkim (2-3 April) he called on CM, Governor & other senior dignitaries, & interacted with a cross-section of people.
Here are the highlights pic.twitter.com/Te5JfGESQ9
— Arindam Bagchi (@MEAIndia) April 18, 2021
As I go on, I will explain to you the practical aspects of our foreign policy. Talk about foreign policy sounds esoteric, and in many senses, high flown. I want to try to tell you how it matters to you in real terms. How does it impact on you? What does foreign policy do for a student who is aspiring for a career? What does it do for someone looking to make a living that could be of benefit to him? I am trying to demystify foreign policy and put it in a context that all of us can relate to.
To be honest, there has been criticism that foreign policy has been conducted in an ivory tower. It is isolated from the thinking and desire of our citizens and our compatriots.
Let us look at the important state of Sikkim. You are at the crossroads of not only our own country, but at the crossroads of the entire region. You are a neighbor of Nepal, Bhutan, China, Bangladesh. A little further Myanmar and South East Asia. When you talk about Neighborhood First and Act East policies – Professor Khare did dwell on it – you obviously look at the North East as a gateway to this entire region. If the North East is not part of our Act East and Neighborhood First policies, then these policies cannot be successful. At the same time, I would say that linkage with the Act East policies, and the connectivity policies, also benefit the North East.
Now, to put it in a certain context, let us look at what happened after the global crisis hit us. We all know that Covid pandemic was, I think, the greatest crisis to hit the world since the Second World War. We have not had a greater crisis. We still don’t know where the end of this is. What are the implications of this crisis?
What did we do, in foreign policy terms, and in terms of matters relevant to us, when the crisis came? First, India worked with our other international partners in arranging global and regional action to deal with the pandemic. Clearly, this pandemic was beyond individual countries. Larger countries like ourselves could manage but there are many smaller countries which could not. Even for us, we have to work as part of an integrated world. When you talk about health supply chains, when you talk about medicines, when you talk about expertise, you have to collaborate and work with others. You cannot work in isolation. So, in that context, in March 2020 itself, when the pandemic was really in its very incipient stages, Prime Minister convened a SAARC regional conference to deal with the Covid pandemic.
All SAARC Heads of Government and State actually attended that virtual conference, including Pakistan, and there was a very good discussion on how regional cooperation could help in mitigating the effects of the COVID crisis. And in that conference, the heads of state and government led by the Prime Minister, decided to start what is called a COVID Emergency Response Fund. All our countries contributed. Bhutan contributed US$1.5 million; Bangladesh contributed US$3 million. We contributed US$10 million dollars, which has since been utilized. This fund went to help other countries in terms of buying medicines, equipment.
We also put together a network of health professionals in our SAARC region. They met on a platform that we created regularly to share best practices, lessons learned, and discussed how can we benefit from each other. So, there’s a lot of mutual benefit and self-help in this.
That was one example. Many countries also told us that they simply didn’t have the capacity to deal with this crisis and that they didn’t know what this means or where they should start. They asked us “Where do we start screening people? What sort of help do we give people and how do we isolate people.” They told us “We have no idea”.
So, what we did was that with the help of our Director General, Armed Forces Medical Services – which Vice-Chancellor Grewal, here with us today, has been the head of earlier – we sent rapid response teams to countries that asked for this assistance. We sent rapid response teams to the Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros and Kuwait. A range of countries got these teams that help them deal with the COVID crisis.
After that, the Prime Minister actually initiated the call for a G20 Summit. And as you know, the G20 consists of the most powerful countries in the world, the United States, Russia, China, France, U.K., Germany, Japan. These countries convened to deal with the pandemic. At that event, Prime Minister in a speech which was not at that time public, but during which I was privileged to be present, said that G20 has only convened for economic or financial reasons. In other words, it was created to deal with these crises. It has never dealt with any other situation. This is the first time that the G20 has met to deal with a humanitarian situation. And he suggested that the G20 should work for the global good. So, this is, again, very new. And I know that the summit took decisions that actually made a huge difference to countries.
One decision- I will just share one example – was the debt service suspension initiative. This means that countries that have borrowed money from other governments or other countries, for example, Nepal, Bhutan. Seychelles – by way of example – would have borrowed money from us and are repaying these loans. The G20 decided to place a moratorium on the repayments. A timeline that allowed these countries to defer payments was created. And these helped. This helped countries enormously.
India extends helping hand
We realized that when the pandemic broke out, there was no clear cut indication of how large the pandemic or what the impact would be; how many people would be affected. So, what happened was that a range of medicines and pharmaceutical products were put on a restricted or banned list. And that included Hydroxychloroquine, which was needed by countries to deal with the pandemic. It included paracetamol. It included AIDS antiretrovirals. So we had countries all over the world who said, “please help us, because without your medicines, we will be very vulnerable.”
We spent a lot of time in an inter-ministerial process trying to work out what quantities we could export, what quantities we needed to keep for ourselves, etc. Ultimately, it was decided that the Ministry of External Affairs would decide which countries would get what quantities and those quantities were identified. And we managed to, I think, to send hydroxychloroquine, paracetamol to as many as 150 countries, both on a grant, i.e., a gift basis, as well as commercially. Most of the medicines were sent on a commercial basis, of course, but there were some grants to developing and underdeveloped countries.
Let me give you a final example of an international initiative that the Prime Minister was associated with. This initiative I think is a reflection of our standing globally. It is the first Summit that President Biden of the United States convened. It was that of the United States, India, Japan and Australia -what is called the ‘Quad’.
That summit was convened, not, I would say, on geopolitical or security considerations. That Summit was convened to deal with the COVID crisis. The biggest decision that the Quad took was to use Indian manufacturing capacity to produce vaccines funded by the United States and Japan. These vaccines would be delivered, using last-mile Australian support, to the Indo-Pacific, mainly Southeast Asia. In other words, all of these countries recognize that it is India that has the capacity today. We are not only called the pharmacy of the world, but today we are the largest producer of vaccines anywhere in the world. We have now, I think, vaccinated close to 70 million of our citizens. I think, we have also exported 60 million of our vaccines, mainly through our obligation to Covax, a facility that had provided seed money to many of our companies. Some were gifts, but others were supplied according to commercial contracts that had been undertaken.
So, vaccines have become a very important part of our diplomacy, our foreign policy. We have to appropriately consider much we give each country and in which manner. You may have noticed that countries from our neighborhood to the Gulf, to Africa, Latin America to the Caribbean have received Indian vaccines. They are grateful to India and the people of India for those vaccines. Most have been supplied commercially. This illustrates our standing in global health chains. We are seen as a stable, secure, sustainable component of reliable global supply chains. I think that is important.
Let me give you yet another example. When this crisis became a little acute, with a large increase in the number of cases, we decided to go into a lockdown. I think it was 22-23 March when we went into lockdown. We couldn’t give too much notice because people had to go into lockdown as soon as possible to prevent transmission from a local level to a community level. I think many of you are familiar with it in Sikkim at that time. We gave 72 hours for people to come in from abroad when the lockdown began. Despite that, in our estimation, about four or five lakh Indian citizens, remained abroad. They might have been on holiday; to see relatives; for medical purposes; or for conferences. They were stranded in different part of the world From Peru to Fiji, many of our citizens were stranded. Now in the lockdown, I don’t know how many of you worked, but I know that I worked very hard. There was not a single day of holiday.
What did we do? One of our preoccupations was those who were stranded all over the world. We mobilized associations, mobilized community centers, mobilized the Indian Community Welfare Fund to look after people who were stranded and who were in a difficult position. And actually, things were acute, I don’t know if many of you are aware that, you know, once the lockdown started globally, not just in India, but all over the world, everything stopped. So, the economy in some senses came from 100 to something like 10; tourism, hospitality, airlines, everything came to a grinding halt. People working in these organizations were told, “Sorry, you do not have a job anymore.” A lot of people were not only stranded, but were out of work, particularly in the Gulf. Many used all their savings. They were destitute. They were desperate to come back. And at that time, I think it’s on May 07 that after the 50-day lockdown, that we launched the Vande Bharat Mission, which, in many senses has been the largest and most complex exercise ever undertaken by the Government of India for the repatriation of our nationals.
And one thing which is relevant to you is that there were about 450 people who are from Sikkim and Darjeeling who were mainly in the Gulf area- Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the UAE. They just wanted to come back. Flights were coming only to the big cities, to Mumbai Delhi. Chennai, Hyderabad. How were they to move from there? Kolkata airport was closed by West Bengal Government. How do you then come back to Sikkim or to Darjeeling? There was no way to come back. So, here, we were approached again. My cousin Dechen was approached by many of these associations, and they said “Do something!”
We worked closely with several groups in these countries; got the entire red tape working because it is not easy to get all the permissions. You have to hire; charter an aircraft that would bring you to Bagdogra; to get the permission of the government of West Bengal; to get the permission of DGCA, to get the permission of a range of authorities. After this, I want you to see a short video clip which our Ministry has prepared on the repatriation of Indians under the Vande Bharat Mission. A small segment of it is about people who came back to Sikkim.
Act East and Neighborhood First
So, what is Neighborhood First? What is Act East? And how do these impact you? I think that this an important thing. I’ll just share with you a few of my thoughts. Why do we have these policies? Why do we need to work with our neighboring countries? Why do we need to take them along? Why do we need to bring them closer to us? There has to be good reasons for that. One of those reasons, of course, is that we have a high rate of growth. In the early part of the millennium, after 2000, we started having higher rates of growth. But many of our neighbors had, as you know, rates of growth, which were difficult. They had had to deal with situations of instability, political instability, or deal with crises of different kinds of radicalism, fundamentalism, etc. That itself had an impact on our country. Take the example of Bangladesh. Before 2008-09, this country had seen enormous problems such as huge political instability, radicalism, and terrorism. Much of it spilled over onto us. In some ways this destabilized our northeastern states. It provided a haven for insurgencies and terrorism against us. There was a large influx of illegal immigrants.
More recently, we have invested a lot of money in Bangladesh-close to US$ 10 billion in lines of credit, grants-in-aid and for connectivity projects. That country today is experiencing a rate of growth and socio-economic indicators that are among the highest, not only in our region, but in the world. I want to be very clear that I’m not saying that it is because of us that this happened. We were a contributing factor. We became a partner in Bangladesh’s development. In 2011, Bangladesh was perennially short of electricity. People used to come out in the streets and agitate. And I think it became a major issue with the government of the day. We supplied1650 megawatts of electricity to Bangladesh through two transmission lines- the west and east. It stabilized the grid. There is no shortage of electricity, of power in that country today. It’s a success story in many senses.
But what does it mean for us? Look at it, in a converse sense. It means greater trade, greater investments, people-to-people ties, less instability, more security, less illegal migration. In other words, you are living in a zone of co-prosperity. You’re living in harmony with your neighbors. When the prime minister talks about ‘Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas’, it is not only just for our country. It encompasses our entire neighborhood. You include them in what you have to do. You take them with you so that when you grow, when you develop, they develop and the fruits of that go to them and you. It is a Win-Win situation. It is not a zero-sum game. That is, I think, very, very important.
Now, in Sikkim, in 2019, you experienced a 90 percent increase in tourism. Can someone tell me why that happened? Fifty percent of those tourists were those who came from Bangladesh. This is a good example of how diplomacy can positively impact domestic economic outcomes. When I went to Bangladesh in 2016 we were giving 5 lakh visas. In a year or two, we were giving 15 lakh visas. How? I noticed that Bangladesh was on a list with Pakistan and one or two other countries who could not be issued visas for the North East. And why was that so? Because since the 1971 war, we had not corrected our visa manual. The visa manual continues to link Bangladesh with Pakistan. So, when the then Home Minister, Shri Rajnath Singh was coming to Bangladesh, I explained to him that it doesn’t make sense for us to equate Bangladesh and Pakistan. One is an adversary is promoting terrorism against you. The other is a country that our soldiers have shed blood to liberate. And we are working closely together. And he said, absolutely, “bilkul sahi baat hai.” He got that policy changed. And as a result of which, the immediate outcome is a huge influx of tourists. And mind you, these are tourists who are high spenders. Why is that so? Because the purchasing power in Bangladesh is increasing with eight percent growth over the last 10 years. There is a lot more money than we think there is. Secondly, this for many Bangladeshis, a huge opportunity for recreation. You have natural beauty in this lovely state. People want to come here, want to spend money and want to buy things. I think these are examples of how a Neighborhood First policy, an Act East policy and Indo-Pacific policy can come together to directly benefit people in our Northeastern states.
When we talk about connectivity, we also talk about the fact that we are building today roads, railway lines. We are building inland waterways and dredging them. We are working with all our neighbors, creating pipelines for energy, to integrate. I was talking to the Honorable Governor about the Motihari-Amlekhganj pipeline that takes diesel to Nepal. It has saved Nepal a huge amount of money because the cost of transportation and has also reduced pollution. It creates a mutuality and mutually beneficial relationship. A relationship in which they can benefit, we can benefit. Similarly, we are building a pipeline that would connect Parbatipur in Bangladesh with Siliguri. We are building connections that could and are helping the movement of goods to the northeast. It used to cost a lot of money, used to take a lot of time to go, all around from Siliguri, all-around to Manipur, Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram. But today, we are using Bangladesh as a link to our Northeast and connecting to Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan. These are all examples. The Vice-Chancellor mentioned BBIN. Sub-regional cooperation makes all of this happen.
PM in Dhaka
And again, recently, if you noticed, the Prime Minister, when he went to Bangladesh, inaugurated the fifth of six pre-1965 rail connection between us and Bangladesh, that is Chilahati and Haldibari. This links Bangladesh with Siliguri and New Jalpaiguri. And they started a new train called the Mitali express which will go from Dhaka to New Jalpaiguri. And there is already a train called the Bandhan Express that goes from Kolkata to Dhaka.
Before 1971, the Darjeeling mail used to go through Bangladesh into Siliguri. It saves three hours and is a much shorter route. You don’t have to go over the Hooghly- the Farakka barrage-you can go straight. Today, that has become a reality that is, you know, different.
And Bangladesh is not so far away. If you go down from the hills, you go down along the Teesta. The Teesta, of course, flows into Bangladesh. You see it in the distance. It’s a country of 170 million people. Densely populated and an enormous market for our northeastern states. Meghalaya produces limestone, coal, rock boulders, vegetables. Where does it go? Where’s the natural market? It’s in Bangladesh. You produce surplus hydroelectric power. Sikkim is a state that is producing a lot of hydroelectric power. That hydroelectric power has a demand in Myanmar. We had already done radial interconnections with Myanmar. We want to take a line all the way to Yangon. You then can export power to Myanmar. We want to create a network of energy integrations within South Asia that will link all our countries together, and completely revolutionize this entire area.
Japan is one country that is working closely with us in the development of the Northeast. They have, I would say, invested and would continue to invest a lot of funds, specifically in developing the Northeast. And one of those projects, in fact a signature project, is the Sikkim Biodiversity Conservation and Forest Management Project. It is a project of Rs 330 crores, a major part of which, the Government of Japan is giving. It helps you conserve your forests, to manage your forests and your green areas properly. You are an ecologically sustainable state. And that is the USP that you can project in our country and outside – for tourism and for other things. Projects like this give you clean air and clean water. It also helps people who live in the periphery of these green areas to increase their income. That gives them a stake and makes them partners, stakeholders in the greening of the state of Sikkim. This is not the only thing that Japan is doing.
The bottom line for governance all over the world is in many senses the opportunities for younger people. Sikkim is an education hub. You are becoming a knowledge hub. There is 82 percent literacy in Sikkim, which is among the highest in the country. You are developing centers of excellence – which I think Prof. Lama is working on. Knowledge hubs will develop expertise. It will attract good people here and upgrade the capacities of this state.
Role models are important. And I’m very happy to see that, you know, your state already has many, many young people who are inspirational in many senses. My own colleague, Tseten Nordon Cargyal, who worked with me in Dhaka, is the only foreign service officer from Sikkim. She was with me in Dhaka. Her father, Mr. Dorjee is here. Thank you for joining us. Outstanding officer. Chose the Foreign Service.
Yesterday, when I was in the aircraft coming in, I was with Zenden. He’s from the Indian Economic Service. He has just given the exam again. He wants to join the foreign service. I said that you would be welcome in the Ministry of External Affairs. We want more people like you to be in our service.
We have with us already, a role model, which is Mr. Tenzing Lepcha, IPS officer from Sikkim Cadre. By dint of your hard work, you have set an example to become a youth icon, a role model. Thank you for joining us today, Tenzeng and for doing what you’re doing to so many young people in your state, inspiring them, inspiring us.
And so, in a certain sense, you already have role models. From Ambassador Topden, right down to the younger generations. And this is important. Guidance is important. Let me be honest. Many of us really stumbled into our lives. It’s not that we were told that this is what you should do. “Here’s how we should take the exam.” “Here’s what you could do.”
Today, the government is doing that. They are funding your studies. If you pass a certain level, you would be supported through your preparations for the civil service exams. I think more and more people from the state should look at joining some of the premier civil services, serve the nation. Do what you have to do to contribute in terms of your own ideologies and visions. And I think that is important.
But government is not the only employer. Let us be clear. You have an enormous private sector that’s developing in India. I travel often. Every time I travel in an airline, I find someone from our part of the country. The other day I asked this, you know, very smart person in the cabin crew. I asked “Where are you from?” And she said, “I’m from Sikkim.” And I asked, “What brings you to the airlines?” She said, “Well, it gives me mobility. I travel. I’m independent.” This was on Jet Airways which doesn’t exist anymore. When I met its owner, Naresh Goyal. I said, ‘Thanks for employing so many people from the Northeast.” He said, “But I do it because it benefits me. They are smart, educated, hassle-free and they bring in social graces, etc, that, you know, very, very good for our industry.”
The hospitality industry, tourism industry, airline industry have huge scope as we develop. And in your own state, of course, you have homesteads, you have organic farming, you have traditional medicines that are in demand all over the world. Talking about traditional herbs, I would certainly say that we develop a pharmacopeia of everything that is produced and can be produced in Sikkim because, those are your intellectual property rights, and you must guard them. But at the same time, ensure that these herbs and these increasingly important parts of our tradition and are given the value that they deserve. It is very important that you catalogue them. You should also work on producing them in your homes, your farms and your land. Cultivate things that give you maximum value for money.
Connectivity will ensure that they have markets. You are doing the Sevoke-Rongpo rail line. I was Ambassador in Thailand. I saw that the direct link between Bagdogra and Bangkok was very good for a lot of people from Darjeeling and from Sikkim. I found a lot of Thais coming to our areas for tourism. A lot of our young people from here are also going there for various opportunities. They don’t have to go to Kolkata. Just go to Bagdogra and catch a plane to Bangkok.
Increasingly, we are looking at connections from other countries. But today connectivity is much more and will continue to improve as we go along. I think the world is going to be a smaller place. As Tom Friedman said, the world is flat, and it will be increasingly flatter. And this is the future that you come into. And this is where you, I think, make the difference. Of course, I think it’s important that you preserve your heritage, your environment. As I say, that is your USP, that is your future and the future of your children and so on and so forth. So, you need to have a stake in preserving the environment, conserving your green area and seeing this as a national asset, as a resource that is there for the future.
What can the Ministry of External Affairs do? We just started what is called an internship program, which is a novel program. Dr. Anupam Ray is one of those who thought about this. This program seeks to take young people from every state in the country-particularly from aspirational districts. I think those of us who are from administration will know what aspirational districts are. There is priority for women, weaker sections. We will take people who will spend around 3 months with us. They will have an exclusive opportunity to work on a desk of their choice in the Ministry of External Affairs. You will have the mentorship and guidance that you deserve. And at the end of that process, it will give you a much wider view of foreign policy and international relations. A first-hand view. It will enhance your ability to not only work in our country, but also with opportunities that are international in nature. If it can inspire you to join the foreign service or civil service, I think it’s a fantastic thing. That is even better. But this is something that we have just started. It is on our website. Feel free to apply for this and we will make sure that in every batch, there are a few people that represent Sikkim.
We are also very happy to partner with the Sikkim University in the Kanchenjunga Lecture series. This is a Track-2 dialogue, in association with Sikkim University and other universities like ICFAI. It will create a prestigious international event that will upgrade Sikkim’s standing as an education and knowledge hub. We have started this domestically. But I think with time, we can attract participation of some of the best minds who will come and participate in a dialogue. Prof Khare and Prof Lama are already exposed to the international situation. They have worked with the best institutes all over the world. They will know how to bring-in people and we will work with you to make that a reality.
(The author is the Foreign Secretary of India. These are excerpts from his speech at Sikkim University)
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