GATEWAY TO SOUTH AMERICA
By Dr. D.K Giri
South America is an unexplored territory for India and likewise this county is looking beyond their former colonial contacts to build new relations. India obviously is an attractive candidate for its plurality, diversity, democracy and market opportunities. As it takes two to tango, it would be worthwhile for the two countries to explore opportunities which appear to be coming their way.
One such opportunity presented itself in a summit between India and Ecuador organised by Indian Economic Trade Organisation this week in New Delhi. Out of all the speakers, the Ecuador Ambassador to India Hector Gonzalo Cueva Jacome spoke eloquently about India grabbing the opportunities in Ecuador, which could potentially turn to be the gateway for Indian entry into South American continent.
South America, which is also called Latin America in terms of cultural and linguistic identity, consists of 20 odd countries inhabited by about 420 million people. It has been largely under Spanish rule with some states having been under French and Portuguese influence and yearning for a change.
A small beginning perhaps has been made at the summit, organised by a non-state actor in the format of what is called the track-II diplomacy. It was very much in order as it is now universally accepted that business, global civil society, research organisations and think tanks could contribute to enhancing diplomatic relations. One is reminded here of the humdinger words of Charles de Gaulle, the mercurial former President of France, “Politics is too serious a business to be left to the politicians alone”. The same could apply to diplomacy. The summit in reference was therefore enriched by the participation of people from multi-sectors of the country.
India-Ecuador relations could be the prototype of bilateralism that can be replicated across South America. Tracing the ties between the two countries, the first diplomatic contact took place in 1969. Two years ago, both countries celebrated 50 years of their bilateralism. The diplomatic relations expanded when Ecuador opened its Consulate in Mumbai in 2013 preceded by only two other South American countries — Brazil in 2006 and Argentina in 2013.
The ties between India and Ecuador have been mainly on trade. By the figures of recent years, India has imported more from far-away Ecuador than it has from its immediate neighbours Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. India-Ecuador trade of USD 1.29 billion in 2014-15 was higher than that of India’s trade with Norway, Kazakhstan and Bahrain. India was also fifth largest importer of Ecuador oil, which by the way, is about 20 per cent of India’s oil import accounted by South American countries. Indian companies have a sizeable presence in Ecuador. Notably, HCL, the IT company, has over 2000 people working there.
All in all, India-Ecuador trade relations have been defined by two elements — trade and defence. Trade has been improving albeit slowly but it is the defence transactions that had run into a bit of rough weather. In 2009, Indian defence manufacturing, public sector organisation HAL bagged a contract in a competitive bidding to supply seven Dhruv helicopters to Ecuador. It beat competitors like Israel, Europe, Japan and Russia to a USD 45 million contract of chopper supply. Interestingly, this was the first defence contract that India won in a competition.
The Dhruv helicopters are popular in India, served effectively in the Kedarnath floods of 2013. About 200 choppers have been deployed by Indian Air Force and are said to have clocked 150,000 hours of flying. But sadly, four of the choppers supplied to Ecuador crashed; two owing to pilots’ mistakes and other two for mechanical errors. Although all the seven helicopters were transferred to Ecuador, the contract was unilaterally cancelled by the Defence Ministry of Ecuador. The contract contained insurance and supplementary supplies in addition to the helicopters. Those parts were cancelled. The ground staff support from India was withdrawn before the crash.
The helicopter episode left a bad taste in the mouth for Ecuadorians as a visit by their President was called off the same year the crash happened. Several ministerial level visits have taken place from either side but not by the heads of governments. The bitterness seems to have evaporated over a period of time as the crash points to the issues of technology transfer. Along with the machinery, the operational know-how needs to be transferred for gradual and eventual absorption of the technology by the host country. The skill upgradation of the handlers of the new technology is also equally important.
Mechanical accidents are bound to occur despite rigorous care and precautions. India- Ecuador relations need to move beyond this incident and expand into newer areas. In this summit, the Ecuador Ambassador listed the opportunities in various sectors for entire South America using Ecuador as an experimental ground. Following the pandemic, the ‘ease of living’ has become as important as ‘ease of doing business.’ The Ambassador hailed India’s tremendous success and promptness in manufacturing the vaccines. In fact, he was the first diplomat in Delhi to take the vaccine injection.
The Ambassador highlighted the big disparity in access and affordability of health care in both countries. A particular treatment costing Rs 350 in India could cost 5000 in Ecuador, most treatments cost 10 to 15 times more in Ecuador. India with its pharma manufacturing base and health care professionalism could enter Ecuador in a big way. The second sector is agriculture. India imports quite a few products from Ecuador; it could set up food processing plants, storage and transport facilities there. A centre of excellence in agriculture like it has planned in IT will come handy for Ecuador. The third sector is IT. India as the international hub of software could export this technology and know-how to Ecuador and South America. Fourth, education is another sector in Ecuador that needs expert intervention.
The Ambassador zestfully pointed out in anecdotal terms the popularity and practice of the English language in Latin America. Only 5 per cent people speak English although they consider this language to be the window to the world. The Spanish educational organisations are engaged in teaching and spreading English language in South America. Indians with a huge population speaking English could do better in teaching English there. He specifically mentioned the presence of American school, British school, French language institutes in New Delhi and posed the question, why is New Delhi not setting up Indian schools abroad!
The fifth sector is tourism. Indian tourists are in hundreds in South America whereas it has tremendous tourists’ attractions. One Ecuador Ambassador preceding the present one, talked about adventure destinations and honeymoon tourism in South America. India, with its huge young population could look at it as a tourist avenue. Likewise, many South Americans are not aware of the colour, festivities and diversities in India. The tour operators should be facilitated to advertise and attract tourists from South America.
In addition, there are other sectors like environment, art and culture, science and sports which can bring the countries together. All these sectors must be explored to build a robust and complex contact with South America. Ecuador is a part of integration economies, namely Andean, Mercosur countries comprising five sovereign countries, seven associated and two observer countries. So deepening of relations with Ecuador could lead to seamless expansion of Indian relations into other countries. It is time New Delhi focussed on the unchartered territory of South America. — INFA
(The author is Prof. International Relations, JIMMC)