Interview: H.E. Shri Ajay Bisaria, High Commissioner of India to Canada

24 August, 2020, 12:00 2527 Views 0 Comment

Meet the High Commissioner

Ajay Bisaria has been the High Commissioner of India to Canada from March 1, 2020. He is a career diplomat who joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1987. After training at the Foreign Service Institute in New Delhi, Ajay Bisaria chose Russian as his language of specialization and was posted at the Indian Embassy in Moscow (1988 – 1991) where he was attached to the economic and political wings of the Embassy. He served as Under Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs on the East Europe desk (1991 – 92) when India was engaged in building new relationships with the post-Soviet countries. He then moved to the Ministry of Commerce (1992- 95), in the era of economic liberalization. He was posted as First Secretary in the Indian Embassy in Berlin (1995–1999). He was appointed Private Secretary to the Prime Minister of India in 1999, and served in this capacity till 2004. Bisaria was posted to the World Bank in Washington D.C. as Advisor to the Executive Director for South Asia (2004–2008). In 2009, Bisaria moved to Delhi to serve as Joint Secretary (Eurasia) in the Ministry of External Affairs (2009–2014). He was India’s Ambassador to Poland, based in Warsaw, with concurrent accreditation to Lithuania from January 2015 to November, 2017. From December 2017 to February 2020, Ajay Bisaria served as the High Commissioner of India to Pakistan. He also holds the rank of Secretary to Government of India.

Q. What are the broad contours of India-Canada economic cooperation?  How do you see India-Canada ties, going forward in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic?  What types of initiatives are you planning to build with Canada when this crisis is over?

India Canada relations are multifaceted and growing stronger by the day. As large democracies and major G-20 countries, we have much to collaborate on, particularly as the world grapples with the pandemic. India and Canada are consulting not only on the health and medical aspects of dealing with the pandemic but also on the subsequent economic recovery and in building a post-COVID mechanism that safeguards us against such future shocks. Our people to people relations are unique with 1.6 million Canadians of Indian heritage and almost 700,000 Indians living in Canada, including more than 225,000 students in Canadian universities and colleges. The Indian community in Canada has contributed to the diversity and resilience of Canada. It is completely integrated into Canadian life and is playing strong leadership roles in all sectors from public life to science to arts. The community has provided four Cabinet ministers in the current government, in all 22 MPs in the Parliament. This gives a very strong base for the growth of India Canada relations. We have in place the entire spectrum of collaborative mechanisms on areas ranging from counter-terrorism to the promotion of science and technology to arctic research to cultural exchanges. 

India Canada bilateral trade has now grown to more than USD 10 billion. Canada is an important source of primary produce to India, including uranium, potash and bituminous coal. India exports pharmaceuticals, steel and IT services to Canada. Canadian funds have invested more than USD 60 billion in a range of sectors in India. Major Indian companies like TATA, Mahindra, Birla, and Infosys have a strong and growing presence in Canada. We see bilateral commercial relations growing as Canadian companies appreciate the importance of India in diversifying the risks and building a robust international supply chain. 

We are not waiting for the crisis to be over. We have already started a whole series of engagements with Canadian enterprises, institutions, provincial governments and federal government agencies, to identify areas where we can collaborate for mutual benefit. We are looking at an increased frequency of business delegations and meetings at the leadership level, even if virtual for the moment, to give impetus to our relationship.

COVID-19 is a global pandemic that has impacted the whole world. Historically, sharp slumps are followed by periods of boom. We are confident that we will come out stronger and there will be a sharp rise in commercial exchanges on the other side.

The need is to start preparing for riding the post-COVID 19 wave. We are encouraging Canadian companies to look at India as a dependable link in global value chains, as a destination for manufacturing and as a profitable investment destination.

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the fragility of having a one-point supply dependency, and India, with its youthful and skilled population, competitive labour rates, a growing domestic market and democratic and rule-based governance system is the obvious choice. In this task, we are enlisting the support of Chambers of Commerce in Canada and of the Indo-Canadian business community. We would be pursuing commercial engagement more aggressively once the crisis is over but even now we are open for business and would be very happy to guide and support Canadian business as they explore possibilities in India.

Q. What do you think is the biggest learning experience from the pandemic?

The biggest lesson that we have learnt from COVID-19 is how interconnected we all are and how we must cooperate to ensure not only our continued prosperity but our very survival. As India’s Prime Minister recently said while addressing an event in the US, ‘it is all of us who have to collectively give shape to the future. I firmly believe that our approach to the future must primarily be a more human-centric one. Our growth agenda must place the poor and vulnerable at the core. ‘Ease of Living’ is as important as ‘Ease of Business’.’ Recent experience has taught us that the global economy has been too focused on efficiency and optimization. Efficiency is a good thing. But, on the way, we forgot to focus on something equally important. That is resilience against external shocks. It has taken a global pandemic to remind us how important resilience is. The pandemic has also demonstrated the folly of global supply chains relying heavily on a single supplier. India is an attractive alternative for firms looking to de-risk and diversify their supply chain options.

Q. India has emerged as an important trading partner for Canada.  It is fair to say that the potential of the overall bilateral trade and investment relationship between India and Canada has been largely – so far – unrealized?

I would tend to agree that while our bilateral trade has increased now to a level of USD 10 billion, (including both goods and services) it is still much below the actual potential, given the complementarities that exist between the two countries. We look at Canada as a major energy provider and as and when Canada is ready to step up the export of its hydrocarbon resources, India will certainly be one of the major beneficiaries. This is because our demand, even as we increasingly switching to alternative energy sources, will continue to be substantial to power our growth ambitions. There is also tremendous potential for an increase in our bilateral services trade.

Q. India and Canada have been undertaking bilateral negotiations toward both a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement and a Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA).  When will it become a reality and how will the two countries benefit from this arrangement?

India and Canada have resumed talks on CEPA and FIPA. We must capitalize on the expected commercial surge that may follow the COVID-19 crisis. Our political leadership has already given guidance that we want to accelerate our negotiations. The differences between the two sides are not insurmountable and focused negotiations can yield productive results. Officials from both sides have been discussing the matter in video meetings since even before the current crisis. We are hopeful that we will make early progress.

On CEPA, we are keen to make some early harvest and finalize agreement on the issues where we have the least divergence so that we address the more difficult issues at a later stage.

On FIPA, India has demonstrated flexibility on several issues and we are confident that the Canadian government would reciprocate and we can move towards finalizing the agreement at the earliest.

Q. New Delhi and Ottawa are poised to take their bilateral ties to the next level.  What more, needs to happen to boost trade between these two natural partners?

Our President in his recent goodwill message to the Canadian Governor-General on the occasion of Canada Day had called India and Canada ‘natural partners’. There is a strong complementarity between what Canada and India and what their market requirements are. As I said earlier, as the Indian economy accelerates and continues on its growth trajectory, Canada can become a major provider of resources including energy as well as technologies and manufactured goods. India’s economy also offers tremendous investment avenues to Canada, avenues that promise high and stable returns in the long run. One of the most important aspects of the relationship will be the increasing people to people exchanges, particularly as Canada continues to rely on immigration. Indian students have increasingly been choosing Canadian educational institutions and India has become a major provider of human resource capital to Canada. These trends will ensure our relationship continues to deepen. We are also confident that we will be able to move ahead with negotiations on FIPA and CEPA, and those will provide a robust legal framework to our businesses and investors to boost our commercial ties.

Q. What are the main pillars of the international reputation of India?

As our Prime Minister said recently, we see global optimism about India. This is because India offers a perfect combination of openness, opportunities and options. India has made great gains in areas such as total financial inclusion, housing and infra construction, Ease of Doing Business, bold tax reforms, including the GST, roll out of the world’s largest health care initiative – Ayushman Bharat. These gains have laid the foundations for the next round of development. India celebrates openness in people and in governance. Open minds make open markets. Open markets lead to greater prosperity. We have made many efforts to make our economy more open and reform-oriented. Reforms have ensured increased ‘Competitiveness’, enhanced ‘Transparency’, expanded ‘Digitization’, greater ‘Innovation’ and more ‘Policy stability’. India is again being seen as a land of opportunities.

India’s competitive advantage in terms of land and labour availability and exports has always been a big hope historically but it is now seeing a turn as global manufacturers long-settled elsewhere are looking to diversify their manufacturing bases. India has a scale advantage. Key success factors locally are also improving. Much groundwork has been laid and new policy changes are being made even as you print this. New schemes like Production-linked initiative (PLI), Scheme for promotion of manufacturing of electronics components and semiconductors (SPECS) and Electronics Manufacturing Clusters (EMC) 2.0 introduced by India are game-changers. Our investment climate is continuously improving thanks to greater policy flexibility and sensitivity to the concerns of investors. Several measures had been announced in budget 2020, like abolishing Dividend Distribution Tax (DDT); increase in foreign portfolio investors limit; lowering of corporate taxes; and measures to improve ease of doing business. These make India a more attractive destination for investments than ever. India presents a fantastic growth opportunity for Canadian companies looking to increase their competitiveness and scale. Leveraging production in India can help Canadian companies make a mark on the global market.

Q. How important is foreign investment to India’s economic growth?

Ans. Apart from being a critical driver of economic growth, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has been a major non-debt financial resource for the economic development of India. Foreign companies invest in India to take advantage of relatively lower wages, and special investment privileges like tax exemptions. For a country receiving foreign investment, it also means achieving technical know-how and generating employment. The Indian Government’s favourable policy regime and robust business environment has ensured that foreign capital keeps flowing into the country. The Government has taken many initiatives in recent years such as relaxing FDI norms across sectors such as defence, PSU oil refineries, telecom, power exchanges, and stock exchanges, among others. The technology-driven growth in India has inspired greater investments. FDI inflows in India in 2019-20 were 74 billion US dollars. This is an increase of 20 percent from the year before that. Even during the ongoing pandemic, India has attracted foreign investment of more than 20 billion US dollars between April and July 2020. India offers a gamut of options for all classes of investors. In an otherwise difficult global environment with increasingly low/negative yields, India provides the opportunity to generate healthy returns over a long period. In the last 5 years, Canadian investors have been at the forefront of India’s private equity and infrastructure investment landscape, taking the Canadian investments in India from USD 5 billion to over USD 60 billion dollars.

Q. What are the key areas where India wants Canada to focus on in order to boost this relationship?

Our relations are multifaceted and there is hardly an area where India and Canada do not have an intersect. India is and will be an important economic, development, and higher education partner for Canada. Canadian investors have already shown remarkable foresight in taking advantage of India’s strong growth trajectory.  We expect more Canadian investors to choose India for stable and long term returns. We also invite Canadian global manufacturers to use India as a production base for international scaling by taking advantage of India’s competitive labour and production cost.  Take higher education for example. It is an important pillar of the growing India-Canada cooperation. We now have more than 225,000 students from India, the largest from any foreign country, enrolled in various post-secondary institutions in Canada. These students bring to the Canadian economy upwards of CAD 5 billion every year in tuition fees alone. Indian nationals, and persons of Indian heritage, make up an ever-increasing percentage of the faculties in Canadian universities. Indian and Canadian universities and institutions have concluded more than 300 agreements. The two countries have signed and renewed an MoU for expanding educational collaboration and promoting student and faculty mobility. The India-Canada partnership in education, with student mobility between the two countries and research partnerships, can be strong engines for powering our bilateral relations. Recent changes in India such as the new National Education Policy, which envisages support to international students, student exchanges and inviting the best universities in the world, including a number of Canadian universities, to operate in India, opens up numerous avenues for deepening our collaboration.

As democratic societies which cherish freedom, India and Canada have the responsibility to ensure the safety and security of their citizens. This is an important area for our collaboration. We expect the Canadian leadership to be sensitive to India’s security concerns and for us to work together in tackling the global scourge of terrorism. As strategic partners, India and Canada remain committed to each other’s safety and integrity.

Q. Are there any challenges that hamper Canada’s trade and investment relations with India? How do you think these will be addressed?

The challenges stem essentially from the geographical distance. We are progressively removing structural barriers and legal hurdles and improving the information flow leading to more awareness of business opportunities between India and Canada. For our bilateral ties, the potential is only limited by our imagination.

Q. How in your opinion India can capitalize on its unique customs and cultural hallmarks to create a strong national brand to shape the country’s future on the world stage?

India already has a global presence and there is increasing recognition that a stronger more resilient India is good for the world.  India has recognized as the ‘pharmacy of the world’ and India’s generic producers have ensured affordable and equitable availability of crucial medicines across the globe. India’s pharmaceutical and research capabilities will play a crucial role in delivering any vaccine for the COVID-19 pandemic. India’s soft power in areas such as yoga and Ayurveda is already recognized worldwide and millions of people across the world are increasingly adopting ancient Indian wisdom to improve the quality of life. India has been a development partner to friends in the neighbourhood, in Africa, in the Caribbean and in Indo-Pacific. The initiative of our Prime Minister in creating an Aatmanirbhar Bharat is a reiteration of India’s global reach and role.   The India brand continues ancient wisdom and respect for tradition, with a contemporary India willing to do business with the world.

Kanchi Batra
Kanchi Batra is the Managing Editor of The Diplomatist.

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