In an exclusive interview, Indian Ambassador to Baku, Mr. Bawitlung Vanlalvawna, tells the Azeri Observer about the multiple events planned for the massive celebration of the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence, Indian investment projects in Azerbaijan and the development of economic cooperation between the two countries during the pandemic period. He also reflects on the opportunities opened up for bilateral trade with the International North-South Transport Corridor, which considerably reduces transportation costs and time. Finally, he speaks about intensive cultural and educational exchange as well as the deep historical and civilisational ties between the two nations.
BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Question: This year India celebrates its 75th anniversary as an independent nation. What does this date mean for your country?
Answer: India will complete 75 years as an independent nation on 15 August 2022. The Government and people of India have decided to celebrate this important milestone through an initiative called Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, which is a festival to commemorate 75 years of progressive India and the glorious history of its people, culture and achievements. The celebrations have already commenced on 12 March 2021, 75 weeks before our 75th anniversary of Independence and will end post year on 15th August 2023. The celebrations will have six broad themes, namely India’s Rich Cultural Heritage, Celebrating Unsung Heroes, Ideas, Achievements & Resolve, Aatma Nirbhar Bharat, Vishwa Guru Bharat and Independence 2.0.
India has come a long way since its independence in 1947. It is therefore a matter of pride to celebrate India’s success as a republic and its standing as the largest democracy in the world. We will also celebrate the progress India has made through its economic growth during the past 75 years as today, India is the fifth-largest economy and an important contributor to the stability and growth of the global economy. As a country, we aspire to continue our path of rapid growth, a goal which we hope to achieve by embarking on a very important movement – Aatma Nirbhar Bharat, whose objective is to increase the share of India in the global economy.
Q: Tell us about the events organized and planned by the Embassy to celebrate 75 years of Independence.
A.: In Azerbaijan too, we have commenced our celebrations of India@75 since March 2021 and have organised various events including photo exhibitions, tree planting, cultural and Yoga & Ayurveda related programmes. In the coming months, in collaboration with local authorities, we plan to organise more programmes including releasing a commemorative stamp to mark the occasion. We will also be organising painting and poster making, quiz and essay competitions and seminars in collaboration with Indian diaspora associations and leading universities in Azerbaijan. If conditions permit, we also hope to host cultural troupes from India in the coming months. All the upcoming programmes of the celebrations will be regularly posted on the Indian Embassy Facebook page @indiainazerbaijan and I invite all our friends in Azerbaijan to join us in our celebrations.
Q.: Over 200 Indian companies are conducting business in Azerbaijan. Tell us what spheres of the Azerbaijani economy attract Indian investors the most.
A.: Indian companies including ONGC Videsh Limited have an existing investment of over $1.2 billion in Azerbaijan. In the past few years prior to the pandemic, many Indian companies were investing in Azerbaijan’s hospitality and other service sectors as well. Beyond investments, Indian companies are also exploring opportunities in Azerbaijani energy, renewable energy and the infrastructure sector as well. This is understandable considering the fact that India has been one of the top markets for Azerbaijan oil exports during the past years. We also see good opportunities to collaborate in the field of agriculture, food products, pharmaceutical sector, IT and communications, electrical and engineering products, textiles, ceramic tiles, tea, spices etc.
Q.: The pandemic hampered economic ties between many countries. What effect did it have on the economic cooperation between our countries?
A.: As in other parts of the world, the economies of our two countries were not immune to the disruptions caused by the pandemic. However, we have seen a good recovery this year with bilateral trade between the two countries growing by over 21 per cent in the first half of the year as compared to last year. Even during this period, businesses of the two countries continue to maintain close contact online as well as other means and we believe this has contributed positively to the overall economic engagements between the two countries.
Q.: This summer, the first container train was sent from Finland’s capital, Helsinki to the Indian port of Nava Sheva via the International North-South Transport Corridor. How do you assess the prospects of this route, which crosses through Azerbaijan?
A.: It was indeed a positive development that the first shipment of goods from Finland bound for India on the INSTC route undertook its journey on 21 June of this year. This development was timely as stakeholders in all the countries along the route including Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran, all made a sound effort to operationalise the INSTC to make it an attractive transport route for the transaction of goods between these countries. Studies and dry-runs have shown that the 7200 km long INSTC which is a multi-modal network of sea, rail and road route for transportation of cargo between India to Russia & Europe through Iran and Azerbaijan, when fully operational, is expected to reduce the transportation cost by up to 30% and delivery time of cargo by around 40%. We believe this will also have corresponding benefits for bilateral trade relations between India and Azerbaijan as the segment of INSTC between the two countries will also have proportional savings on transportation costs and time and this will increase the competitiveness of goods in the destination markets and bring about a quantitative increase in the volume of our trade.
Q.: India is the third-largest pharmaceutical producer in the world and one of the main destinations for medical tourism. What kind of cooperation do we have in these industries?
A.: I think there is wide recognition of the strength of India’s pharmaceutical industry in various parts of the world including Azerbaijan. During the last year, despite the constraints posed by the pandemic, we have seen a 20% increase in India’s exports of pharmaceutical products to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani agencies are cooperating with Indian companies for registering their products in Azerbaijan as well as encouraging them to invest in the Azerbaijani market. Indian companies are also supplying various COVID-19 related medications to Azerbaijan and contacts have also been made between an Indian manufacturer of the COVID-19 vaccine and a counterpart in Azerbaijan and there are opportunities for collaborations in this field as well. In regards to medical tourism in India, there is growing recognition in Azerbaijan of the strength and opportunities offered by the multi-billion dollar Indian medical tourism industry. We have continued our outreach activities even during the pandemic to promote medical tourism as wellness tourism, including Ayurvedic based treatments.
Q.: Do you expect any meetings or visits aimed at boosting bilateral cooperation? If yes, what will be on the agenda?
A.: There are important meetings that were scheduled but could not be held in Baku due to the pandemic. For instance, we look forward to holding a meeting of the Coordination Council of the INSTC in Baku at an earlier date, as the holding of this meeting is important to take this important project forward. We are also hopeful that the situation will soon permit the business communities of the two countries to visit each other and meet as that would contribute significantly to the growth of bilateral economic engagements between our countries.
Q.: Several years ago, I had an opportunity to benefit from the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme (ITEC) and see with my own eyes how India shares its experience in many areas with mid-career professionals from all over the world. Could you tell us about the cooperation with Azerbaijan within this program?
A.: As you are aware, the ITEC is a fully-funded training or capacity building programme of the Government of India. Every year around 12,000 scholarships are offered to all our partner countries including Azerbaijan and premier institutions of India offer more than 300 short-term, medium-term and long-term courses throughout the year. The objective of the programme is to empower those who attended the training not just in their professional skills but also to prepare them for an increasingly globalised world. In a normal year, 20 to 30 Azerbaijani officials and professionals attend ITEC training programmes in India and we hope to resume this soon. Since the onset of the pandemic, these training programmes have switched to online mode and more than 80 Azerbaijani officials have attended the e-ITEC programmes in the past year or so. There is a network of alumni of ITEC participants in Azerbaijan and we organise an ITEC Day in September every year in Baku.
Q.: Before the pandemic, the Embassy supported many cultural events promoting Indian culture in Azerbaijan, like the Indian Product Trade Show, Celebration of International Yoga Day, and the Indian Food Festival. What activity do you have in this sphere in the new reality?
A.: As I have mentioned above, we have organised various activities connected to India@75 celebrations besides other activities, which were mostly held online since the onset of the pandemic. In more recent months, we have been able to organise some in-person events including the International Day of Yoga with the participation of Yoga teachers and practitioners in Azerbaijan. We have also organised various online B2B meetings, covering areas like pharmaceuticals, ceramic tiles, spices, rice, engineering goods, etc, and we plan to continue to step up our activities in all formats including in-person, hybrid and online modes in the months ahead.
Q.: India and Azerbaijan have deep historical ties, which date back to the Middle Age. Were you able to feel these ties and find some similarities between our nations while living here?
A.: Indeed, our two countries share deep historical and civilisational ties. For instance, the Ateshgah temple is one shining testimony of the strong connection that had existed between our people in the past. Indian cinema has contributed to foster a better understanding of Indian culture, dance, music and tradition to the Azerbaijani people who have a great love for music, respect for their culture and hold close family bonds like in India. It is heartwarming to see that Indian music and cinema continue to enjoy popularity in Azerbaijan. I am glad to share that in the past years there has been a tremendous growth in interest to visit and see Azerbaijan by many people in India and this has resulted in a surge to the number of visitors from the country. The hospitality and warmth I have experienced here in Azerbaijan are very similar to what I experienced when I visited different parts of India.