NRI Pulse

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Q&A with Consul General Dr Swati Kulkarni

Consul General Dr Swati Kulkarni talks to NRI Pulse about India’s vaccine drive, US-India relations, farmers’ protests, and India’s commitment to combating climate change.

Can you update us on India’s vaccine drive?
On January 16, we launched the world’s largest vaccination drive. The vaccination drive has been planned in a phased manner. The Phase 1 work is in progress. As of date i.e.  17th February 2021, we have vaccinated over 9.42 million people, mostly frontline and health workers. The 2nd Phase is starting shortly. It will give priority to people over 50 years and those with co-morbidities. Both the phases will vaccinate about 300 million people, almost the entire America minus 32 million or so. This will fast track our economic recovery.

The launch of Vaccine Maitri in January has been a landmark in our diplomacy. In accordance with the Hon’ble Prime Minister’s commitment to deploy vaccine production and delivery capacity for the benefit of all humanity, vaccines have been delivered to 25 countries as of February 17, 2021. So far, we have delivered about 16.5 million doses. A limited quantity of vaccines has initially been supplied as grant assistance/as a gift as our commitment to neighborhood first policy and our commitment to special relationships. Rest supplied on a commercial basis. Our exports have taken place to Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Bahrain and other countries like Brazil, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Canada, and others. 49 more countries will be supplied shortly. By doing this we re-enforced our image of brand India as the ‘pharmacy of the world’. We demonstrated in practical terms our intent of being good international citizens and responsible stakeholders in global healthcare supply chains. Our COVID response needs to be seen in the context of Aatmanirbhar Bharat– where we have come out with not one but two made in India corona vaccines to protect humanity. You may recall that we earlier supplied made in India Hydroxychloroquine, paracetamol, PPE, RT-PCR test kits etc to our international friends. Our Hon’ble PM says: “Wherever India has capabilities, the benefits have reached the entire world”.

What is the overall philosophy of the budget?
As far as our economic fundamentals are concerned, our economy is forecasted to contract by 7.7 % in 2020-2021. It will witness a sharp recovery of 10-12 % in 2021-2022. So, we will witness V-shaped recovery. During early COVID, we saw interim measures such as liquidity infusion and direct cash transfers. We gave free cooking gas to over 80 million families, free food grains to about 800 million. Then we saw launch of structural reforms – Aatmanirbhar Bharat 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 – i.e. reforms in growth sectors in agriculture, power, defense, civil aviation, mining etc, reforms are introduced in MSME sector with focus on manufacturing, fast Track Investment Clearance through Empowered Group of Secretaries, New Education Policy, Tax Policy- Transparent Taxation- Honoring The Honest including Product Linked Incentive Scheme in over 10 sectors. So, it was crisis period for us, but an opportunity was taken to usher in five-mini budgets to bring in important reforms that have been long overdue.

In fact, during pandemic, we have seen certain positive developments. India’s foreign exchange reserves rose to all time high of more than US$ 586 billion and external debt decreased by US$ 2 billion -we are expected to see a current account surplus after a gap of 17 years. FDI inflows were nearly US $ 50 billion in last financial year as compared to US$ 44 billion in year 2019. We added a record number of 12 start-ups to the Unicorn list last year with valuation of over US $ 1 billion. Most significantly, India for the first time entered the top 50 innovative economies.    

Our recent historic budget needs to be seen against this backdrop. The Union Budget itself carries forward this process of reforms and other initiatives. It focuses on healthcare and wellness, universal water supply, voluntary vehicle scrapping, infrastructure, skilling, education, innovation – basically on holistic, inclusive development and a mantra of Minimum Govt and Maximum governance.

Why are farmers protesting in India?
As you are aware, the Parliament of India, after a full debate and discussion, passed reformist legislation relating to the agricultural sector as our Government is committed to the socio-economic empowerment of the farmers. These reforms give expanded market access and provide greater flexibility to farmers. They also pave the way for economically and ecologically sustainable farming. A very small section of farmers in parts of India have some reservations about these reforms. Union Ministers have been part of the negotiations, and eleven rounds of talks have already been held. The Government has even offered to keep the laws on hold, an offer iterated by no less than the Prime Minister of India. It is highly unfortunate to see vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on the farmers protests and derail them. The vandalization of the Red Fort on Republic Day was a deplorable and an anti-national act. Some of these vested interest groups have also tried to mobilize international support against India. Instigated by such fringe elements, Mahatma Gandhi statues have been desecrated in parts of the world. This is extremely disturbing for India and for civilized society everywhere. Indian police forces have handled these protests with utmost restraint and have taken all these incidents of violence in the most serious manner. It may be noted that hundreds of men and women serving in the police have been physically attacked, and in some cases stabbed and seriously wounded.

We would like to emphasize that Government is committed to resolve the impasse within the framework of our democratic ethos and polity.

Motivated campaigns shall not succeed. We have self-confidence today to hold on our own. This India will push back any propaganda.

In view of the new administration in the US, tell us about US-India bilateral relations. What are India’s priorities in this regard?
India’s global partnership with the US continues to deepen across extraordinary breadth. There are very many dimensions to our relationship, and it has assumed new significance in the changing world. Our co-operation is expanding at all fronts. Trade is growing. With new administration in Washington, both sides will carry forward this momentum especially in the context of post-pandemic recovery. The leadership in both our countries had a telephone conversation on two occasions – one in November 2020 and another in the beginning of this month. Both the leaders have agreed to work closely to advance our comprehensive partnership built on shared values and common interests. The dialogue at Ministerial and official level too continues for enhanced diplomatic consultation and coordination.

The first priority area is to work on Healthcare and wellness front to contain the pandemic and promote access to vaccines on fast-track basis. Other major areas of India-US collaboration are digital, innovation, IT & start-Up; Education & Knowledge partnerships, clean energy including LNG & Solar and defense & related sectors.

What is India doing to combat climate change?
India remains committed to the goals of the Paris Climate Accord. We know that climate change requires integrated and comprehensive approach. India, therefore, has included climate action strategies in its national and developmental agenda. India has also   demonstrated leadership by creating the International Solar Alliance and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure. Our solar energy production will reach 450 GW by 2030 as we expect to cross 220 GW in the next two years. Our National Clean Air Program aims to reduce greenhouse emissions by 20-30% in next four years itself. Several other initiatives like safe drinking water for all by 2024, planting more trees, using LED lamps, promoting electric vehicles, creating Smart cities and green transport network will help us in reducing impact of the climate change.

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