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Meeting the Indian President Pratibha Devisingh Patil on the day before her departure was an honour as also a great opportunity to bring up issues of a bilateral nature.
Rashtrapati Bhavan, the residence of the President is perhaps the most dramatic testimony to imperial architecture. Designed by Sir Edward Lutyens, it is spread over an area of about 330 acres featuring 340 rooms and wide expanses of billiard table lawns.
Two officials from the Ministry of External Affairs accompany me to the sprawling historical monument built in 1928. We undergo five layers of security checks as we enter the magnificent premises of the former Viceroy Palace.
Before meeting the President, I am taken to three reception areas. After clearing the first point, I am ushered into a room where tea and snacks are being served. The décor is museum-like and large portraits on the walls frown down on me as heavy as the history which they reflect. After a wait of 30 minutes, I am invited to a bigger, well-appointed room with chandeliers the size of a truck outside the main reception area where the President receives guests. There too I had to undergo another phase of screening and identity checks before finally entering the sitting room.
A few moments later the President enters and smiles warmly, putting me at ease. I present her a memento from the Khaleej Times which she graciously accepts and forwards her thanks to the paper’s management and staff.
Then she settles down and is open for questions. The interview on the eve of her state visit to the UAE is an in-depth one and Pratibha Devisingh Patil answers each one at length.
Khaleej Times: What are the priorities on your state visit to the UAE and Syria? What is the content of the agenda that lies before India and the UAE, given the stronger foundation of cooperation the two countries have been building in the wake of the two visits to New Delhi by the UAE Vice-President and Prime Minister His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum?
Pratibha Devisingh Patil: We have historical and civilisational links with the UAE and the Arab world. This is my first official visit to the Gulf region and the UAE is the first country that I am visiting in this region. The UAE is part of our extended neighbourhood and we share historic partnership. In the contemporary times, we have sustained and nurtured these links with exchange of high level visits at political level. We fondly recall the visit of His Highness Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, father of UAE, to India in 1975 and 1992. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited the UAE in 1981. My predecessor Dr Abdul Kalam also paid a successful visit to the UAE in 2003. India is committed to pursue a common strategic vision for promoting regional peace and security and for the enhancement of our relations in the political, economic, security and cultural fields. My visit is meant to renew our dialogue with the leadership of the UAE and to interact with the business and the Indian communities to provide momentum to our relations.
Q: There is a perception that energy and oil will figure prominently in your discussions, especially the need for upgrading India’s security concerns with regard to energy sources. In fact the media has called it the “energy security” trip. Would you like to elaborate upon it?
A: The UAE is one of India’s major suppliers of crude oil. It will continue to be important for India’s energy security. However, our relations with the UAE has broader strategic dimension in political, trade, economic and cultural fields. We have mature and multi-dimensional relations. The presence of a large Indian community has further cemented our fraternal relationship dating back to many millennia. My discussions with His Highness the President of the UAE and other leaders will be focused on how to take this unique partnership forward in a fast-changing world and to exchange views on major regional and global issues where we share common perceptions.
Q: Is there any move from the Indian side to promote and create awareness about the nation’s rich cultural heritage in the Gulf region with which your country enjoys several centuries of deep-rooted ties?
A: For many centuries, our people have crisscrossed the Arabian Sea from times immemorial, establishing, in the process, enduring bonds at people-to-people level. We have enriched each other’s cultural heritage. Islam came to India as early as 8th Century A.D. through Arab traders. Arabic books were translated into Indian languages. Similarly, many Sanskrit works were translated into Arabic language during the Abbasid caliphate. The Sufi tradition came to India from this part of the world. There has been fusion of ideas in architecture, paintings, literature, music, language, medicine and many other fields. Even in the contemporary times, we are continuing our efforts to celebrate the cultural dimension in our relationship. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations along with Indo-Arab Cultural Centres is working closely with Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and other institutions in the UAE. Recently, many Indian classical and modern literature have been translated into Arabic language. There is plan to translate Arabic works into Indian languages. The large Indian community in the UAE has been a major factor in showcasing India’s diverse culture in the Gulf region. The cultural interaction between India and the Arab world has been going on for centuries and will continue for many more.
Q: As the President of the country with largest expatriate community in the Gulf, have you any plans to discuss prisoner swaps, share thoughts on Indian expatriate labour and how to end the recruitment scams and the rackets in human trafficking? One area that has not yet been adequately addressed is an effective mechanism to look after the interests of the Indian population and ensure their welfare, particularly with regard to the large labour force working in the UAE. What are the new initiatives your government has in mind in this regard?
A: I am proud of the fact that the Indian community has made valuable contribution to the socio-economic development of the UAE. There are over 5.5 million Indian workers in the Gulf, of which about 1.75 million live and work in the UAE alone. We are very grateful for the UAE Government for the warm welcome they have received in the country. The welfare of the overseas Indian community is a high priority for our government. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs has been working for the welfare of the Indian community in cooperation with the host governments. I am happy to say that the UAE Ministry of Labour has initiated many measures to improve the working conditions of overseas workers. It is working closely with our officials to set up redressal mechanisms. Government of India is in the process of setting up an online attestation procedure for recruitment of Indian workers in collaboration with the UAE Ministry of Labour. The India-UAE Memorandum of Understanding on Labour is also being updated. I am also pleased to launch the Indian Workers Resources Centre in the UAE during my visit. It is an important initiative that will provide 24-hour helpline and counselling services to distressed workers. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs is currently involved in many initiatives including new legislation on the Indian Emigration Act to protect interests of the emigrating workers.
Q: Will India’s home ministry and other law enforcement agencies be working with their UAE counterparts on issues of mutual security and safety and upping the level of sharing data specifically where organised terrorism is concerned?
A: The relevant security agencies of the UAE and India are cooperating with each other on terrorism and other security issues. Terrorism is a common challenge that many countries in the region are confronted with. Terrorism does not respect borders and this menace has to be tackled through cooperation at international level. We have already signed agreements in the field of Mutual Assistance on Criminal matters and on Extradition Treaty. We have also reached agreement on security cooperation. This Security Cooperation Agreement is due to be signed during the proposed visit of the UAE Minister for Interior to India in the coming months.
Q: What is the value of India’s total global exports and imports in the first half of fiscal 2010-11? What was the growth last year and what is the outlook for India’s foreign trade this year?
A: During April-September 2010, India’s total exports and imports amounted to around $103 billion and $166 respectively. These figures represent a growth rate of about 30 per cent over the figures for the corresponding period during 2008-2009. Given this growing trend, there is reason to be optimistic that our overall trade for the current fiscal year would witness a healthy growth rate.
Q: How do you rank GCC among India’s global trade partners in terms of value? Is there any estimate on the current level of the two-way investments between India and the UAE as well as with the GCC? Is there any new initiative under your government’s consideration to tap the Gulf investments in Indian infrastructure development?
A: Our total trade with the GCC countries amounted to $91 billion and $83 billion in 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 respectively. Among all regions, GCC is our largest trading partner followed by European Union. As regards investments by the GCC countries, the UAE is, by far the largest investor in India with an FDI of $1.77 billion which makes it the tenth largest investor in India globally. In relative terms the investments from the GCC countries in India is small. This is surprising because this region boasts of some of the largest sovereign funds in the world. Indian economy is currently growing at a rate of 9 per cent. It is the second fastest growing economy in the world. A major share of the growth is accounted for by the services sector. A majority of our population is young and hence the growth in demand will be sustained in the long term. Our infrastructure needs colossal investments because the gap between demand and supply is wide in power, communications, transport, ports and other sectors. I am aware that more needs to be done to attract investments from the Gulf. Some major initiatives have already been taken. The creation of the Joint India-Oman Investment Fund is one such measure. We need to examine whether similar arrangements can be worked out for other GCC countries. We are also interested in investments from the sovereign funds in our disinvestment programme for the public sector undertakings.
Q: What is India’s big picture as a fast growing global economic powerhouse? How will you like to envision India’s standing on the global economic arena 10 years from now? Do you believe that India needs to have a bigger role in international finance institutions like the World Bank and the IMF?
A: India has been recognised as a major player in the international level in political, economic, climate change, trade and other major global issues. We are part of the G-20. G-20 meeting has taken action to shifts quota in the IMF in favour of India. I am confident that the strong fundamentals of the Indian economy will enable us to achieve our objective of double digit growth in the coming years. It should be noted that India, at an average growth of a minimum of 7.5 per cent in GDP per year will achieve a ten-fold increase in per capita income in the next 30 years and join the ranks of the developed countries. India has been at the forefront of reforms of the UN, seeking an enhanced global role as a permanent member of the reformed Security Council, commensurate with its size, capabilities, contribution to the UN peacekeeping operations and impeccable track record in upholding the UN system. On global economic issues, India has worked with our international partners to address the complex challenges to revive the global economy. India is playing a major role in the context of the ongoing Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations being conducted in the WTO. All these achievements have been made while safeguarding our democratic and secular fabric. All these reflect India’s growing profile that is vital in global affairs.
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