Friday, July 13, 2012

The Lecture on "The Changing Role of India in South Asia" by Hon. Mr. Jairam Ramesh

The Minister of Rural Development, Drinking Water and Sanitation of the Government of India, HE Mr. Jairam Ramesh delivered a lecture on the topic "The Changing Role of India in South Asia" at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) in Colombo on Thursday, July 12, 2012, while he was on a short visit to Sri Lanka.

Born in 1954, Jairam Ramesh attended St. Xavier's College, Ranchi, when he was small. Later, he entered the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-Bombay) and completed his B. Tech in Chemical Engineering in 1975. He also studied at Carnegie Mellon University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2004, he was elected to the Rajya Sabha of the Indian Parliament from Adilabad district. He was the Minister of Environment and Forests of the Indian Government for two years from 2009 and in July 2011 he was handed over the Ministry of Rural Development. Later the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation was also handed over to Hon. Ramesh.

Opening the event in the afternoon of July 12, 2012 at BCIS, Chairman of the Academic Board of the BCIS and Adviser to the President of Sri Lanka, Mr. Sunimal Fernando said that Hon. Ramesh's lecture was an important event as both Sri Lanka and India were developing rapidly. Sri Lanka, like India, was a different country from what was just a few years back. Therefore, more integration and exchange of ideas was essential.

After Mr Sunimal Fernando's initial remarks, it was the turn of Professor W. I. Siriweera to welcome the gathering. He surprised many of the audience by revealing that Hon. Jairam Ramesh, who looked in perfect health that afternoon, had been hospitalized just a few days earlier. But he did not want to miss the visit to Sri Lanka. Professor Siriweera admired Hon. Ramesh's courage, commitment and consideration.

Thereafter, Hon. Dr. Sarath Amunugama, Senior Minister of International Monetary Cooperation and a personal friend of Hon. Mr. Jairam Ramesh rose to speak. He stated that the world was now looking at Asia, especially China and India. The way out of the present economic morass seemed to be these two economies. This was inconceivable 30 years ago when the world described India as having a "Hindu Rate of Growth".

India is modernizing. Its middle class is growing. Dr. Amunugama stated that this is the opportunity for new openings. It is time to discard the old baggage of troubles and misunderstandings and look at the new prosperity. Dr. Amunugama described Hon. Jairam Ramesh as a symbol of this modern India. He praised the courage of his friend in implementing bold steps especially during his tenure as the Minister of Environment. Instead of paying lip service to all the buzzwords in politics such as environment, disarmament and gender equality, Mr. Ramesh was a bold implementer of what he believed was right.

After Dr. Amunugama's speech, Hon. Mr. Jairam Ramesh rose to speak. He started his address stating that he was pleased to have started the day at an event at an institution named after a distinguished Sri Lankan (the late Hon. Lakshman Kadiragamer) and to end the day at another institution named after another distinguished Sri Lankan, late Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. Mr. Bandaranaike was well known in the political circles of India for his favourable relationship during the 1940s and 1950s with both the Indian government and its leader Sri Jawaharlal Nehru.

Minister Jairam Ramesh argued that the changing role of India in South Asia was a result of a larger paradigm shift of how India perceived Asia and vice versa. He stated that India had always been concious of her role in Asia. It was way back in 1947 when Nehru took the initiative by convening an Asian Relations Conference. However, according to Mr. Ramesh, it is the Asians who forgot India. Until 1990, Indian policy was "look to the east and go west". It had changed today to "look to the east and go east". He supported this argument by recalling the changing perception of India with respect to China, the ASEAN states, countries in North Asia such as South Korea and Central Asia. It is this backdrop that India's changing relations with South Asia was to be viewed.

Hon. Mr. Jairam Ramesh stated three main elements which he saw as crucial for the change in India's role in South Asia. The first and the most visible aspect was a belief that there was a prospect of unilateralism. This is a change from the usual insistence of reciprocity. India, being a large country, could at times be magnanimous without waiting for the small countries to reciprocate. However, some of his later statements made clear that there was still a long way to get free of the reciprocity factor.

The second factor was trade and more importantly, investment. Trade opens doors that usual diplomacy could not open. Mr. Ramesh argued that the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement was one such event. It was natural for a small country to be afraid of swamping by a larger country. Even India has a fear of Chinese goods swamping her markets if more trade opportunities are opened between the two countries. However, the free trade agreement between India and Sri Lanka suggests otherwise, argued Mr. Ramesh. Before the agreement, India's exports to Sri Lanka had been ten times that of Sri Lanka's exports to India. During a period of five years ending with 2010, the Indian exports to Sri Lanka was just five times that of the latter's exports to the former.

Investments are far more crucial for trade partnerships. It is a two way street. Sri Lanka's exports were growing partly due to Indian investments in the country while one of the larger investments of a regional company in India is that of a Sri Lankan apparel company. India has allowed Bangladeshi companies to invest in India a few years back and will most probably give the permission for even Pakistani companies to do so. Hon.Mr. Ramesh argued that while trade can be imbalanced, it can be balanced by increasing investment. It will help the huge trade deficits the South Asian countries have with India.

The third factor affecting the change in India's relations with South Asia is the reasons for regional and sub-regional cooperation. The main reason for such cooperation is energy. India is and will be an energy hungry nation. It has invested in neighbouring countries such as Bhutan and Nepal to increase their hydro power output and enable them to export power to India. Bhutan is currently earning 300 million US Dollars annually through exporting electricity. Meanwhile in Tripura, power generation projects are thought to be beneficial for both the North East of India and Bangladesh.

Water also remains an important factor for cooperation in South Asia. Hon. Jairam Ramesh acknowledged that it was a highly contentious political issue. The flooding in the rivers of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar will be affected by the catchment areas of the rivers in those states, some of them situated in Nepal. What Nepal is to India is similar to what India is to Bangladesh in this aspect as Bangladesh is downstream from India.

Although India could be magnanimous because of its size, all these cooperation has to be on a give and take basis. Here, the one factor that stymies the increasing cooperation was the lack of concern for legitimate security interests. This is a greatest concern for India.

Despite this, from early 1990s, India has changed its role in South Asia. This new outlook has survived several regime changes also. It is expected to continue to grow and prosper.

After the lecture, the Chairman of the BCIS, Mr. Rajah Kuruppu, delivered the vote of thanks. The event was attended by the Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan High Commissioner in India and other dignitaries.

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