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Remarks by Foreign Secretary at the Inaugural Session of the Training Module on India’s Neighbourhood, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration

March 09, 2022

Shri Srinivas R. Katikithala, Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA)
Shri Arun K. Chatterjee, Dean, Sushma Swaraj Institute of Foreign Service (SSIFS)
Smt. Monika Dhami, Senior Deputy Director, LBSNAA & Course Coordinator
Participants of the 96th Foundation Course

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration is where we began our life in the civil service. This is where we were trained to become officers. This is from where we proceeded on a lifetime of service to the nation. It is, therefore, a great honor to be speaking at the 96th Foundation Course.

2. This is the first ever training module on India’s neighbourhood at the Academy. This is part of the Government’s efforts to mainstream Neighbourhood First policy in the functioning of all Ministries and Departments of the Government of India.

3. I would like to thank the Sushma Swaraj Institute of Foreign Service for organizing this course. I also wish to thank the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration for providing this opportunity to present India’s Neighbourhood First policy.

4. We live in a globalized world. We are also a country with global interests. The future of our country, particularly in the time frame that you will be in service, will depend on how we are able to cope with, to manage, and to leverage globalisation.

5. Globalisation begins with our neighbourhood.

6. It is the neighbourhood that comes first and foremost amongst all our foreign policy priorities.

7. The Neighbourhood First Policy, at the instance of the Prime Minister, accords the highest priority to our relations with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

8. It is these countries - with the exception of Pakistan - that we work most closely with.

9. Countries in our neighbourhood are of special significance to us. Our ties with these countries are underpinned by a shared history and culture. Policy initiatives taken by India - and its neighbours – have implications for each other. Ties with the neighbouring countries have a direct relevance to our States bordering these countries. India also realizes its prosperity and growth are linked to that of its neighbours. We cannot develop unless our neighbours develop.

10. It was in this spirit that the Cabinet Secretary wrote to all Government Ministries and Departments asking them to accord priority to India’s neighbours in their international activities, programmes and projects. Mechanisms have been created to enable greater inter-ministerial coordination and enhanced focus on Neighbourhood First.

11. India’s foreign and security policies in this space operate at several levels and dimensions. We have separate bilateral relationships with each of our neighbours. We also interact with them on plurilateral constructs. We work with them within multilateral frameworks.

12. Subsequent sessions in this module will deal with specific countries and issues in detail.

13. We maintain excellent political relations with our neighbours. You might recall that South Asian leaders were invited when the present government was sworn in for the first time in 2014. Leaders of BIMSTEC countries, that include several of our neighbours on the Bay of Bengal littoral, were invited when the government was sworn in for the second time in 2019.

14. More than a dozen bilateral visits at the level of Heads of State and Government have been exchanged separately with Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka each since 2014.

15. The only country that our President, Prime Minister and External Affairs Minister have all visited since the pandemic struck has been Bangladesh. They did so to cement a very special relationship on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Bangladesh and the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations.

16. The first foreign visits by the President and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka after they assumed office were to India.

17. This intensity of political interaction is indicative of good and constructive bilateral relationships. They take place in a context in which many persistent problems have slowly and patiently been dealt with in a mutually acceptable manner.

18. You might recall Prime Minister convening a meeting of South Asian leaders in the early days of the pandemic in March 2020. At the meeting, the Prime Minister proposed setting up of a SAARC Covid-19 Emergency Fund to which India contributed USD 10 million to meet the requirements of SAARC countries for urgent medical supplies and equipment.

19. Amicable settlement of our land and maritime boundaries with Bangladesh is a prime example of this. In 2015, India and Bangladesh settled the land boundary issue which had been pending for several decades. For the first time, people living till then in enclaves on either side of the border got the right of citizenship. This also paved the way for forward movement on in the bilateral relationship. India and Bangladesh also settled their maritime boundary through arbitration in 2014.

20. Whether it is the "India First” policy of Maldives or Sri Lanka; "Sonali Adhyay” in India-Bangladesh ties; B4B – Bharat for Bhutan and Bhutan for Bharat – spirit, the epithets describing India’s relations with its neighbours are not by coincidence. They are manifestations of our Neighbourhood First policy in action.

21. Neighbourhood First policy has a strong economic dimension. We share a common geographic space with our neighbours. We share resources and commons. We share economic challenges. Many of our problems have the same solutions. Prime Minister’s vision of "Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishvas” encompasses our neighbourhood.

22. We believe that economic good is not just good in itself. It will also create win-win propositions for the region that will address any impediments that we confront.

23. Greater economic integration within regions is known to produce a whole that exceeds the sum of parts. Our policies in the region therefore lay the greatest emphasis on augmenting connectivity - physical, economic, energy and digital. We believe that this will, among other things, induce a virtuous cycle in which connectivity and growth feed each other.

24. Let me focus on two sectors where we have shown some striking results.

25. The first is connectivity. Connectivity within parts of our neighbourhood by road, by water, by rail and by air, and often by multimodal transport, has steadily improved.

26. Railways between countries are causing a "rapid shrinking of South Asia’s geography”. India and Bangladesh will soon be connected through six rail links and India and Nepal by two rail links.

27. Those of you here from the North East would appreciate that it is now possible to travel from Kolkata to Agartala by bus via Dhaka. You would also appreciate that goods can now reach Tripura using multi-modal networks through Chittagong and through inland water routes. Recently an inland waterways vessel carrying food grains sailed from Patna and reached Pandu in Assam. The vessel traveled from India’s National Waterway-1 to National Waterway-2 through the waterways of Bangladesh.

28. Improved connectivity means greater people-to-people contact and greater goodwill. Travel between India and three of its neighbours – Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives – does not require visas. Our diplomatic Missions in Sri Lanka and Yangon report an increasing trend in the number of visas being issued.

29. Expenditures by these visitors have considerable economic benefits and spin-offs for India.

30. The second area of focus has been the energy sector. The Indian grid is connected to Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh through high-capacity connections. Trans-national movement of electricity in the neighbourhood is a reality.

31. India supplies about 1160 MW of power to Bangladesh, about 700 MW to Nepal, and imports 1.8 GW from Bhutan.

32. India has also taken the lead in creating power capacity in the region and has created 2100 MW of hydropower capacity in Bhutan. More is being created.

33. India is also constructing the 1320 MW Maitree Super Thermal Power Project in Bangladesh.

34. Cross-border hydrocarbon pipelines link India and Nepal. An India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline is also under construction and a LNG cross border pipeline and LNG terminal are being explored. India’s energy grids are increasingly being integrated with those of its neighbours.

35. Neighbourhood First as a policy requires us to be proactive in augmenting cooperation with our neighbours in capacity-building and in the implementation of projects. Wherever possible, we should find ways of linking and leveraging national development plans without encroaching upon the sovereignty or the unique concerns of our partners.

36. Indian development partnership in the neighbourhood invests in the well-being of our neighbours and in the expansion of their capacities. We support the creation of institutions. We aim to improve the lives of people.

37. India’s Lines of Credit to its neighbours have jumped from US$ 3.27 billion in 2014 to US$ 14.7 billion in 2020. The bulk of our worldwide soft lending, almost 50% of our global envelope, goes to our partners in the neighbourhood.

38. A key differentiating feature of India supported projects in the neighbourhood is their people-centric nature. Whether it is hospitals in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal and Afghanistan; an ambulance project in Sri Lanka; institutes of higher learning in Myanmar; construction of tens of thousands of houses after the tsunami in Sri Lanka and the earthquake in Nepal; Supreme Court building in Mauritius; or upgradation of skills and capacities across the neighbourhood, projects funded by India are primarily human-centric.

39. There are two other important areas in which India is working closely with its partners in the neighbourhood.

40. First is healthcare. India is the healthcare hub for the neighbourhood. A large number of patients from our neighbouring countries travel to India for their medical treatment. During the pandemic, India provided COVID-19 related medical items and dispatched rapid response teams to its neighbours to help them deal with the crisis. Vaccine Maitri, the complex and far-reaching effort to make India’s vaccine manufacturing capacity available for the greater good of mankind at a difficult time, is Neighbourhood First policy in action. Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal were the first destinations for Indian made vaccines.

41. The second area is education. India has emerged the educational hub in its neighbourhood. At any given time, tens of thousands of students from neighbouring countries are enrolled in Indian institutions ranging from primary schools to super-specialised training institutions.

42. Physical proximity means that we often share solutions. It also means, unfortunately, that many of our major foreign policy and security challenges arise from the neighbourhood.You are all aware of the major problems such as cross-border terrorism, political volatility and instability, fundamentalist and radical ideologies, illegal movements across borders, narcotics, and arms trafficking. Some of our neighbours remain trapped in interpretations of history that do not allow them to adopt a progressive vision for the region.

43. In addition, we also have to contend with other challenges such as maritime security, natural disasters, etc.

44. We must persevere on the path to a better tomorrow for the region while dealing with these considerable threats.

45. India has an established record of being a net security provider in the region.

46. India has taken the lead in expanding maritime security in the region. Maritime Domain Awareness has been enhanced through linked radar systems with our Indian Ocean neighbours. Coordinated patrolling with Bangladesh, counter terrorism exercises with our BIMSTEC neighbours, Search and Rescue and Pollution Control operations with Sri Lanka are just some examples of activity in this area. India has also assisted in upgrading security capacities and capabilities of some of its neighbours.

47. India is also the first responder to many humanitarian disasters in the neighbourhood. Indian HADR capacities were rapidly and effectively deployed in response to disasters ranging from the tsunami and cyclones in Sri Lanka and Maldives, to the earthquake in Nepal, to natural disasters and inflow of displaced persons in Bangladesh, to extreme weather events in Myanmar.

48. Unfortunately, we must also contend with geo-political realities and extant threats such as cross-border terrorism and crime.

49. We will be resolute in dealing with them. We will continue to expand our capacities to do so. We will build alliances and networks through multilateral and plurilateral constructs such as the UN, the FATF, SCO and closer home through BIMSTEC and IORA and IONS, to deal with security challenges.

50. We have made it clear to China that peace and tranquillity in the border areas is essential for the development of our relationship. Development of India-China relationship has to be based on 'three mutuals' - mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interest.

51. We have continued our special relationship with the friendly people of Afghanistan. In response to the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, India has decided to gift 50,000 MT of wheat to the people of Afghanistan. The first convoy carrying wheat was flagged off last month from the Attari border. India has earlier supplied doses of COVAXIN, essential lifesaving medicines and winter clothing.

52. We remain engaged with Myanmar, a country with which we share a nearly 1700 km long border. In our engagement, we have emphasized India’s interest in seeing Myanmar’s return to democracy at the earliest. We remain committed to a relationship that provides for our cooperation with Myanmar in the areas of security, economy and humanitarian assistance.

53. While we desire a good relationship with Pakistan, it cannot be at the expense of our security.

54. Like all major government initiatives, the Neighbourhood First initiatives are whole of government efforts. Whichever branch of government you work in, whichever part of India you are posted to, your work will have a component that is linked to globalisation and to our neighbourhood.

55. I would request you to keep our neighbours in mind when you have policy formulation positions in your future careers. Please remember that domestic policies might have unintended consequences in the neighbourhood.

56. Many of these interactions with our neighbours are complex interagency efforts involving the Ministry of External Affairs, other Ministries and organisations. Many, if not most state governments, need to interact with neighbouring countries. Several of you here will go out to districts which have international boundaries. Your work, will, in such situations, have a component which will require you to keep broader foreign and security policies in mind.

57. We also look to your generation of officers to take forward our work in emerging areas.

58. I would urge you to encourage private business and civil society.

59. Your generation will build the digital commons and digital universe. Whether it is Aadhar, JAM, the UPI, satellites, telecom networks and digital solutions, you must remember that geography will remain destiny. Our neighbourhood must be with us in these digital commons.

60. You will need to build a greener South Asia fueled by renewables and hydrogen.

61. You will need to build innovative constructs such as the International Solar Alliance and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure.

62. In ending, I would like to congratulate you all. There is no more fulfilling journey than the one you have embarked on. It is a journey with excitement, with challenges, with difficulties - and hopefully with achievement and success.

63. There is no other career that I would have chosen other than public service.

64. I wish you all the best.

Jai Hind.

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