In 2017, when the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan alighted from his plane at New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke protocol to receive him with a warm hug.
Two years later, he did the same with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Apart from the fact that Mecca and Medina – sacred sites for many of our citizens – are physically located in that region, our mythologies, languages, religions, food and architecture have seeped into each other in ways that have not yet been fully understood, or explored.
Under Modi’s vision, the leadership has made assiduous efforts to fortify relationships with countries in the Gulf region through its “Look West” policy.
With some of these countries, our relationship has upgraded to the strategic partnership level, which is a higher level of commitment than bilateral relationships, and that generally include strategic dialogues in diverse sectors but not formal alliances.
New Delhi and Riyadh have established the Strategic Partnership Council at the level of our PM and the Saudi crown prince.
The UAE also significantly elevated the strategic relationship with high level ministerial groups driving the relationship.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia are India’s third and fourth largest trading partners respectively.
There has been a significant increase in the investment component in our bilateral economic engagement – major announcements include potential investment by Riyadh of $100 billion in the areas of energy, refining, petrochemicals, infrastructure, agriculture, minerals and mining.
Meanwhile, the UAE features in the top 10 sources of FDI inflows into India.
8.5 million Indians - Inflows of remittances, estimated at $50 billion from the Gulf countries in 2018
The host countries reap the benefits of having a skilled working populace at their disposal
Consequently, there has been a significant shift in the approach of GCC countries to the sensitivities of Indian diaspora – be they cultural or in their social engagements.
However, the backbone of trade and investments has been the hydrocarbon sector.
For 2019-20, India’s hydrocarbon trade with the region was worth $62 billion, which is 36% of total hydrocarbon trade.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE may partner us in the next phase of the Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR) programme in India.
Also, in a historic agreement, during Modi’s visit to the UAE, a consortium of Indian oil companies were awarded a 10% interest in Abu Dhabi’s offshore Lower Zakum concession.
In August 2015, Modi became the first Indian PM to visit the UAE in 30 years, which he visited again in 2018 and 2019.
During his last visit, he received the Order of Zayed, the UAE’s highest civil decoration, in recognition of his role in improving ties between the two countries.
Three years prior, he received the King Abdulaziz Sash Award of Saudi Arabia and the King Hamad Order of the Renaissance, the third highest civilian order of Bahrain in 2019.
Modi has had a calibrated approach to the Gulf region’s powers with high profile visits to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Iran and Bahrain, which were followed by Gulf dignitaries’ visit to New Delhi.
When one of the most revered leaders of the region, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the Emir of Kuwait, passed away in September, the Indian government declared a day’s state mourning throughout the country – a gesture that was much appreciated in Kuwait.
This personal touch between the top leaderships paid rich dividends in the crisis that ensued globally after the Covid-19 disease became a pandemic.
India ensured uninterrupted supply of medicines, food and other essential items to the Gulf region and also facilitated the deployment of about 6,000 Indian health professionals to several Gulf countries amidst the lockdown to cater to the health needs of their citizens.
In April 2020, India sent a 15-members rapid response team to Kuwait for capacity building and sharing of experience in tackling the pandemic.
In turn, the UAE supported us for our urgent need during a peak of the pandemic for LPG for a new scheme announced by Modi of providing three refills to BPL families free of cost.
The Gulf region is a reliable partner for energy security for India while India augments food security in the region.
Prime Minister Modi and the Gulf leadership are recreating a civilisational connect that had rusted over the years.
Legalise marijuana | ToI
India has voted in favour of a move by the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 convention, where it was listed alongside drugs like heroin.
This means India supports reclassification of marijuana to drop it from the strictest drug control list.
If government thinks marijuana is a less dangerous drug and has potential medicinal and therapeutic value, then why has it been coming down heavily on Bollywood for what can at best be classified as a minor offence?
Bollywood has contributed the most to India’s soft power.
Besides, the contradiction in the implementation of the law is even more glaring when sadhus and ascetics can openly consume marijuana while Bollywood personalities have the book thrown at them.
The fact is marijuana use has long been part of Indian tradition. It was only under American pressure that the Indian government banned all narcotic substances, including marijuana, in the 1980s.
India too must reverse course and decriminalise marijuana.
A BJP government ought to be more inclined towards upholding what’s been for long an Indian tradition anyway.
Costly neglect | ToI
Nearing the end of a year wrecked by the Covid pandemic, realisation would have dawned belatedly among policy makers on the importance of public health.
After the extensive blow dealt to the Indian economy it is no longer possible to regard health as a private problem.
Covid’s impact on GDP growth and the number of infections and deaths have left India among the worst affected countries in the world.
India’s public spending on healthcare is a mere 1.3% of GDP, barely up from 0.9% two decades ago.
This is inadequate to sustain the edge against infectious diseases or the rising cost of treating non-communicable ailments.
A few months of economic disruption was enough to set back India’s $5 trillion economy dream by some years.
More pandemics could be lurking and India cannot get caught napping a second time.
It needs a robust public health system to tackle the disease burden and avert such radical measures like national lockdowns that put the economy in the ICU while vaccines undergo development, testing and manufacture.
The National Health Policy 2017 promised to hike public spending on healthcare to 2.5% by 2025.
Setting up medical college hospitals in backward districts addresses the twin goals of treatment facilities and producing more doctors and nurses for underserved areas.
The need for more field workers who can serve as paramedics, nurses, phlebotomists, contact tracers, vaccinators, data entry operators, lab technicians etc was exposed by Covid.
Sensible collective actions are needed now to overcome the shortsightedness in planning for pandemics.
East Asian countries showed how it is done with masking, testing, tracing and other well-drilled public health responses.
Culture and peace | TH
In a strong statement at the UN General Assembly discussing resolutions of the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) on the ‘Culture of Peace’, India criticised the world body for what it called “selectivity” in seeking to protect Abrahamic religions — Islam, Christianity and Judaism — over others.
The Indian delegate pointed out that previous resolutions of the UNAOC dating back to 2006 had repeatedly decried the hatred against those religions — “Islamophobia, Christianophobia and anti-Semitism” — but didn’t condemn attacks on other religious groups including Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, who have suffered terror strikes and seen their shrines destroyed in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In particular, India said, the UNGA statement welcomed the Kartarpur Gurudwara corridor agreement between India and Pakistan, but failed to note that Pakistan’s government has taken over the management of the Sikh shrine, which it called a contravention of the agreement and a violation of Sikh beliefs.
India’s delegate also accused Pakistan of a “culture of hatred” against “religions in India” and fostering cross-border terrorism and said a culture of peace cannot exist until that is changed.
Above all, the Indian statement said, the UN’s selectivity under the aegis of the UNAOC, an organisation that was set up in 2005 to prevent polarisation between societies and cultures and to bridge differences between them, only serves to further the theory of an inevitable “clash of civilisations” instead.
India’s concerns over the UN resolutions that portray only three religions as victims of religious hatred are completely valid, and it is important that they are broadened to include every community that faces religion-based violence.
India is keen to push back on the UNAOC and other UN arms, like the UN Human Rights Council, that have criticised the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
India cannot call for a culture of peace that stitches together an alliance of faiths, while Indian States bring laws that seek to make difficult inter-faith marriages.
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