Indian Diaspora an asset to India, country they live in and world
I‘m on my first visit to Fiji, not just as External Affairs Minister, it’s my first visit ever. And after two days, I’m wondering why it took me so long. So for me it’s a very interesting visit, a lot of things that I can relate to, a lot of things that I learnt from being here. So what I’d like to do today is perhaps talk a little bit about my visit, because by doing so, I think you will get a sense of what is happening between India and Fiji. I’d also like to talk briefly to all of you about what is happening in India, because when I travel abroad and meet the Indian community, that’s something that I always do.
Now, I’m here, partly because a visit from an Indian Foreign Minister was overdue. But I’m also here because the Vishwa Hindi Sammelan is taking place right now, in Nadi. It’s something which probably would have happened a few years earlier, but for the COVID. But still, I must say, from the meeting yesterday, that we really got a very, very fulsome cooperation from the Government of Fiji, a very strong participation by the Fijian-Indian community, and really a very good global response. I think we have Hindi scholars and pundits from more than I think, 30 countries.
So, now, I begin with the Vishwa Hindi Sammelan, because in many ways, it is illustrative today of what India means to the world. The fact (is) that there is virtually no country in the world, without an Indian community of some size. The reality that this community spreading across the world has achieved its own successes, its own, I would say, milestones, and is today an enormous asset, both to India, to the country where they live, as well as to the world.
Now, in an era of globalization, it is reasonable to expect that this will only increase with time, because I think all of you would readily appreciate that today in the world, the world needs talent, world needs skills, world needs professionals, world needs mobility, because where the demand is, is not where the demographics is, and how to balance that out today is one of the big developments in the global economy. But I also mentioned all this to you, because at home, there has been enormous change, there has been great growth, but we have come through a very, very difficult time, like the entire world, dealing with the COVID. But we have come through stronger, because I think we handled the COVID with a great deal of thought, with a very sound strategy, with capabilities which many doubted we had, with a degree of self-assurance, which I think even surprised ourselves. So today, the picture really is of an India very much on a recovery path, quite confident about handling what is clearly a difficult global situation. Because the world has been impacted by three years of COVID, by a year of the Ukraine conflict and all the complications of that by other stresses, some of which predated COVID, by debt, by trade disruptions, by climate change. So it’s a messy world out there. But it’s a world which India is today looking at with a degree of self-assurance and a degree of self-confidence. And that is also the perspective which I bring to bear in relationship to Fiji.
Now, at the Vishwa Hindi Sammelan yesterday, we were very honoured by the presence of the President of Fiji at the inauguration, by the fact that the Prime Minister of Fiji hosted the welcome event in the evening, by the presence of a number of leading members of the cabinet and as I said, by representatives of the Fijian-Indian community itself. Today, I’ve had, I think, a fairly long and certainly very detailed discussion on the future of our relationship with Prime Minister Rabuka, as well as his senior Cabinet colleagues. And the message that I brought to him from Prime Minister Narendra Modi was that India’s interests in the Indo-Pacific today are very substantial, whether you look at it as economic or trade interests, whether you look at the diaspora, or whether you look at the politics, and the security and the strategy, or the technology. So, when we look at the Indo-Pacific, we certainly see Fiji, as a very important partner. A partner with whom there is a historic link, with whom there is an established relationship and the challenge for us as the two governments is how do we refresh this relationship? How do we make it more up to date?
How do we address the issues which may have arisen, especially in the last few years, because there’s no country in the world which can say the last three years has not been transformational for them; transformational, both in a challenging sense, and in a sense of discovering new capabilities. So our meeting today spent a lot of time addressing how to expand our development partnership. From the side of Prime Minister Rabuka, I certainly heard very clearly and loudly, how much the Fijian-Indian community and their contributions are valued, how keen the Fijian government is today in actually upgrading our relationship and intensify cooperation.
So, we discussed a number of areas, I think they range from health and education, to sustainability, to development partnership, to business, to investment, to issues pertaining to the sugarcane industry. I mean, nothing which would come as a surprise to you. But I would certainly say the intent was to have a very open talk about what we could do for each other and with each other. And I leave with a sense of an agenda in an outline, you know. I got a clearer picture of where Fiji wants to go, what are their priorities, where they think India can be helpful. And my task going back, after reporting to Prime Minister Modi, is really to fashion an agenda, that how do I take this relationship forward, where do we invest our resources and energies, what is it we prioritize, where is it that our capabilities can be useful. And our own experiences with different countries, really working together can make a very substantial difference. They can make a substantial difference in terms of projects, they can make a big difference in terms of capabilities, exchange of experiences, training.
Now, if I can switch gears and speak a little bit about what is happening in India. As I said, for everybody in the world 2020, 2021, 2022 have been extraordinarily difficult years, because when they called COVID, a once in a century pandemic, believe me, they really mean it. The last time the world saw anything like this was during the Spanish flu, which was almost exactly a 100 years ago. Now, some of you may know this, I mean, that time, Spanish flu records were not kept so well. But it’s generally agreed that probably the geography where the maximum casualties happened was the Indian subcontinent. When COVID happened, there was a very strong expectation that something along these lines would be seen again, you know, that in very, very serious levels, concerns were expressed, how would a country like India with its level of income, its level of development, the inadequacies of its health system, shortcomings of its medical (inaudible). How will we deal with a challenge like this? Now if you fast forward three years. Actually, what we saw during this period was a country, because of leadership decisions, was able to create COVID centers, literally, by the tens of thousands; was able to manufacture ventilators, PPEs, masks; was able to produce vaccines, not just for itself, but for the world; was able to invent vaccines during this period; was able to get two and a half billion shots in the arm and give you a digital certificate, which not many countries did initially and not many countries, by the way, got shots in the arm also, with the kind of frequency and coverage that they should have. So that’s one part of it that we came through, I would say, the public health challenge. Again, not without cost, not without challenges, not without loss because there would be nobody in India, who has not in some way been impacted personally by the COVID.
But there’s another part of this, which is less known. And it’s important that all of you appreciate it, which is that especially during the lockdown, and the economic consequences that followed, there is the genuine fear, what happens when the informal sector shuts down, what happens when people go back to their villages, how do people deal with the loss of income (inaudible) during this period. And that is where the results of nine years of better governance actually showed up. We were able to undertake the biggest food distribution effort in the history of the world. That for two and a half years, till end of last year, actually the Indian system, the Indian government was able to give food to 800 million people, was able to give food free to 800 million people, was able to put money in the bank accounts of 400 million people and all this would not have been possible had the changes, which enabled them not already happened. That because people were encouraged to get their Aadhaar number, because people were told, go open your bank accounts, because people were told get digital, use your phone to link up with the real world. It is actually for those of you who may not have been to India, in the last three years, the biggest change which has happened in the last three years is the faster digitalization of India, that so much more today was done, because it could be done on a digital platform. In fact, even the vaccination, we would not have been able to get that coverage so systematically with no disruption, had it not been for the fact that it was riding on a digital system.
Now, the digital system is not just meant for emergencies, it is also meant to improve daily governance. And that too, we are seeing today that at this time, we are constructing a social safety system in India, a social welfare program in India, which envisages people getting easy health access with the coverage, with the affordability for it, which promotes people getting pensions, which supports funding from government for people to build their own houses, which actually has enabled farmers, by the millions, by the tens of millions to get support for their crop on a rotational basis. And where, you know, you read about schemes like they replaced firewood with cooking gas, or they’ve connected up houses with the power lines or right now, what is the big change happening, which is to connect up houses with clean tap water. Now, all this is happening, because at the end of the day, there is the ability to deliver without leakage, without what leaves Delhi not reaching beneficiaries. And that is an enormous governance change, which has today truly transformed India.
That’s one part of what is happening. There’s so much more that I think it’s important you people should know. Again, a common complaint, which any of us who lived abroad and who came back to India. We would first make an infrastructure comparison. You know, I came from this country, I transited that country and by the time I reached India, look at the state of the roads, look at the railways, how long did I have to wait, see the airports. Today it is not just the scale and number of infrastructure projects which are taking place. It is the fact that for the first time, under the Gati Shakti programme, they’re actually being done in an integrated manner that because again, one of our problems was different departments or different domains would do their own thing, sometimes at cross purposes with each other. Now, the fact that entire government of India is kind of working in a way in a coordinated way for you can say a kind of master plan, that is making a huge difference in the state of infrastructure.
Something similar is happening when it comes to human resources. You know, this budget which was just presented, envisages doubling of our nursing schools. When we look today, even at the last eight years, and the number of new medical institutions, engineering institutions, IT institutions, broadly speaking, you could say what was the situation between 1947 and 2014, today, you would see increases somewhere between 50% to 100% of what was the achievement of the previous tenure. It will naturally vary by domain. So the picture I presented is really an India today, which is where the rate of the pace of change has picked up, where there’s a very strong determination that the next 25 years, the years we call, we see as an Amrit Kaal, these are years which will move us towards being a developed economy, that we will become much more, I would say central, to what is happening in the world. Certainly, our presence in the world, our contribution to the world will be very much more in the coming years. And in many ways, I hear this not from Indians in India, I hear this actually, as Foreign Minister, when I travel out. You know, I was in New York, last September. We have this, every September all the countries gather, often Prime Minister heads our delegation, he did not go, so I was representing India. I actually had Foreign Ministers of other countries wanting to do a function in New York, in the middle of all that UN hungama, which was going on, because they said, we need some forum to say thank you for the fact that you sent us vaccines. That’s the kind of thing I mean.
Many of you would have seen in your TV sets in the last two weeks, what’s been happening in Turkey and Syria. The fact, was, within 24 hours of the Turkey earthquake, we were actually able to get a plane in, we were able to get a plane in first with a rescue team, we were able to very rapidly set up a field hospital there. There’s on Twitter, for those of you who have the time and inclination, there’s a very interesting, I think it’s a TRT video, there’s a Turkish video, it’s a Turkish video of an Indian hospital operating in a school, you know, they made it into a makeshift facility. Do watch it. And as Indians, people of Indian origin across the world, I think we should look at this, and then try and understand what has changed today, in our country.
Even where Fiji was concerned you know, some years ago, I think you had a tropical cyclone called Yasa. Now, at that time, we did what we could, you know, we sent supplies, we tried to be of help, even today, I think some of our supported programs are trying to deal with the consequences of Yasa. Even during COVID we made sure that small countries who would normally have not figured in other people’s calculation, could have therefore been left behind in the agenda, they were remembered, they were cared for. And that’s something which we are again, trying to do with the G20 Presidency.
As you all know, this year, we hold the chair of the G20. And we genuinely want our Presidency to make a difference. And we want that to make a difference, not through political headlines. What we are interested is, you know, ask around the world, what is it that is missing? Which part of your concern did not get on the table? How do we voice that, how do we bring the agenda to the right concepts. And why we are doing it internationally, is because we are doing it domestically.
That if you look at India’s foreign policy today, and I say this as someone who has finished 45 years in the business. What for me has changed in foreign policy is today, foreign policy is beginning to reflect lot of the deep socio-economic concerns we have in India, just like we are transforming the world within the country, we want to also transform the world outside. We know that it’s not something any country can do alone, certainly, we cannot at our stage of development. We therefore are looking at partners, we are working with other countries. So, that’s really, in a sense, a caring, but pragmatic, a realistic, but at the same time, a very helpful view of the world.
And I think you will see a lot of that today applied to the relationship with Fiji. So, what I can promise you as people who live here, that this relationship will certainly grow in the coming years, it will get full attention, we will look for ways and means of intensifying our cooperation, of finding ways of helping the community here because, for us, again, you know, Indians abroad are both a source of strength and a matter of pride. Part of the reason why we take such extraordinary pains during COVID from the Vande Bharat mission, or you saw in Ukraine during Operation Ganga that we feel today, India must look after its people or people of Indian origin to the best of its ability. And our abilities have grown. So this too, will grow in the coming years.
(Excerpts of the Speech by the Indian Minister of External Affairs at Suva to Indian community in Fiji on February 16, 2023)