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Transcript of Media Briefing by Official Spokesperson and Joint Secretary (North) on Prime Minister’s forthcoming visit to Nepal (November 23, 2014)

November 23, 2014

Official Spokesperson: Good Afternoon friends and thank you very much for being here despite it being a holiday for all of you. I have here with me my colleague Mr. Abhay Thakur, who is Joint Secretary (North) and who looks after Nepal. My other colleague Joint Secretary (SAARC) is already in Kathmandu, so he can’t join us; but between the two of us, we will try and give you a flavour of what to expect during Prime Minister’s visit to Nepal.

As you are aware, Prime Minister will be visiting Nepal for the 18th SAARC Summit to be held in Kathmandu on 26th & 27th of this month. Prime Minister will travel on the 25th afternoon and will return late in the evening of the 27th. The visit which is essentially for the SAARC Summit will also have a substantive bilateral component with Nepal. Prime Minister’s delegation will consist of the External Affairs Minister Smt. Sushma Swaraj, the National Security Advisor Shri Ajit Doval and the Foreign Secretary Smt. Sujatha Singh, apart from various officials of the Prime Minister’s office and the Ministry of External Affairs.

India sees SAARC as a regional cooperative framework for promoting active collaboration in economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields so as to accelerate regional growth and development. The 18th SAARC Summit is being preceded by a series of other meetings leading to it. The programming committee met yesterday, this is at the level of Joint Secretaries and the Indian delegate there was Mr. Ajay Gondane who is Joint Secretary (SAARC). The standing committee of the SAARC is meeting today and tomorrow and India is being represented by Foreign Secretary Smt. Sujatha Singh. On 25th the Council of Ministers of the SAARC will be meeting and the External Affairs Minister, Smt. Sushma Swaraj will be participating in it.

The Summit, itself, will begin on 26th morning. The morning session will be devoted to policy statements made by all the leaders following the initial inauguration of that Summit. All the Heads of Government are to make their policy statements following which they will consider reports submitted to them by the Council of Ministers and sign any agreements that have been recommended to them by the Council of Ministers. The Policy Statements after those of the outgoing chair and the incoming chair of the SAARC will be in alphabetical order. Prime Minister will lay out his vision of what he sees as regional cooperation in South Asia and India’s approach to harnessing the development potential of the region as a whole. In the afternoon, there is free time for the leaders to have bilateral interactions and it is our intention to hold as many bilateral interactions as possible. In the evening, the Nepal’s PM as chair of the 18th Summit will host a Banquet Dinner. On the 27th morning, the leaders will hold a retreat session at Dhulikhel. In the afternoon, they will again re-convene in the Plenary Session and will adopt the Kathmandu Declaration. Following this, the President of Nepal will hold a Banquet Dinner for all the Heads of the delegations, as well as the senior delegates. Prime Minister is scheduled to return to New Delhi later in the evening following this last event.

Our focus, during the 18th SAARC Summit, is on enhancement of connectivity and people-to people contacts. Now, there are a series of recommendations for agreements that have been made. These are in the areas of transport and energy especially electricity. Of course, whether these will be signed will be dependent on the recommendation of the Council of Ministers and the agreement of all SAARC countries. On our part, India stands ready to engage and sign these agreements should there by consensus in the SAARC.

Prime Minister, as I said, will also have a series of bilateral meetings and that is with the other SAARC members. In addition, as I did mention at the beginning, there is going to be a substantive bilateral component of this visit with Nepal. This will be Prime Minister’s second bilateral engagement with the leadership in Nepal in Kathmandu. You are aware that during PM’s historic first visit, we had broken new grounds in terms of our bilateral relations. Since then, there has been progress in a number of areas which had been agreed to between Prime Minister and his Nepalese counterpart. For example the Upper Karnali Hydropower project plant was signed on 9th September. Also, the Power Trade Agreement was agreed to and signed in October. Prime Minister is expected to engage in substantive discussions with the Nepalese leadership to cover a number of areas of development assistance, defence and security cooperation, energy, connectivity and tourism. We will share with you the outcomes of these deliberations, once these deliberations are over.

You would notice that Prime Minister has always emphasized, since taking office that ‘Neighbours First’ is for him a major focus. Exactly six months after he was sworn-in, on 26th May, he will again be with all the South Asian leaders in Kathmandu. You will also notice that two visits of the PM to Nepal in quick succession, within six months of taking over, is reflective of India’s intention to raise the level of interaction and engagement with Nepal based on enhanced trust and shared will. I will stop at this and the floor is open for any questions that you may ask, either on the SAARC part of it or the part relating to Nepal. We will be taking it in sequence so that it is easy for us to handle it. Subsequent to this, if any of you would like to ask any other questions; we will be willing to respond to that. The floor is now open.

Question: Sir, you talked about a series of bilateral meetings, in that sense Pakistan is also a neighbour, is there any talk about talks with PM Nawaz Sharif?

Official Spokesperson:
Ok, let me put it another way. If I were you, I won’t go down that road in terms of who PM is meeting, when he is meeting. But, let me put it in another way. Prime Minister’s intention is to have meaningful dialogue with as many of our South Asian colleagues as possible. This would mean, taking into account, all aspects of our relationship. This is a work in progress, in terms of scheduling, in terms of how we work out with other leaders and their priorities as well as our intent to have meaningful dialogue. Once we have the schedule ready, surely we will share it with you. At this stage, the schedule is a work in progress, taking into account as I said scheduling of various leaders’ priorities and intention to have meaningful dialogue of our leaders.

Question: During these last 29 years since SAARC came into existence, there have been several suggestions like a Schengen like visa for seamless travel across South Asia, a common currency and a South Asian Customs Union. These things are considered very important for any regional cooperation. Are these ideas likely to come up or you‘ll say that we are jumping the gun or something like that? Have these been taken into consideration at all?

Official Spokesperson: Let me tell you that there are a plethora of ideas. But this has to filter through a process in SAARC and I just outlined to you that process- the Programming Committee, the Standing Committee, the Council of Ministers before they reach the Summit level. At this stage, some of the thoughts that you have mentioned, have not yet filtered up. There are other thoughts that are being focussed on. And I specifically mentioned that India stands ready to engage and sign some specific agreements which will enhance connectivity and sharing of energy in the electricity sector. These are, in our view, substantive agreements. These are, in our view, agreements which will enhance greater cooperation among SAARC, however I also told you that SAARC is a cooperative endeavour where we work by consensus. Should all our SAARC partners be ready, we stand ready.

Question: Prime Minister Modi had proposed the idea of a SAARC Development Bank, sometime ago. Is there any progress on that or what are we looking at? We just had a BRICS Bank and other forms of multilateral banks, how feasible is this idea?

Official Spokesperson: First of all, I think I need to correct you. You have got your facts wrong. Prime Minister never proposed such a bank. Let’s be very clear. This thought did emerge during the meeting of SAARC Commerce Ministers. Now, the understanding or the rationale behind this thought is that infrastructure development as well as commercial interactions could be enhanced with greater support through, perhaps, a banking mechanism. That said, there are also other issues in this. For example, while South Asia does need injection of capital for infrastructure and greater interaction among the South Asian states- is the Bank the best possible way of going about or are there other alternatives? For example, a Special Purpose Vehicle, a window of an existing bank. You are also aware; there is a SAARC Development Fund which is already operational. I think all these factors have to be taken into account before this moves ahead. At this stage, my understanding is that this is a work in progress where competitive ideas are being exchanged and discussed and that is the normal process to do it. So, let me make it very clear that a) the PM never suggested this, so please do not attribute this to him, b) there is still some distance to go because a understanding of the implications of this is still some way that we have to traverse before we reach there. If I were you, I would not speculate that as an outcome during this Summit. I hope I’ve clarified that to you.

Question: Jo SAARC ke issues hain, besides the issues of SAARC, does it include terrorism also? Becasue aapne nahin bataya, usme commerce aur aur baatein aapne kahin , kya terrorism issues pe bhi SAARC mein discussion hoga?

Official Spokesperson: There is a retreat where leaders are free to discuss all issues. As I said, SAARC is a process where you have policy announcements and you have agreements. There are, as of now, no agreements slated on the area that you focussed on. However, SAARC already has a legal platform on this. That said, it should not stop any leader to raise any issues, either as a policy statement or during the retreat; and what comes out of the retreat we will share with you, once it is done.

Question: Sir, PM had planned to visit three other places in Nepal- Lumbini, Janakpur and Muktinath. Why were these plans put off?

Official Spokesperson: Madam, you are aware that Prime Minister is a great votary of multi-layered diplomacy which means interaction at the multilateral level, interaction bilaterally as well as interaction with the public. This he has repeatedly said both for his outgoing visits as well as for his incoming visits. So make no mistake that Prime Minister is wedded to the concept of multi-layered approach to diplomacy. You are also right that Prime Minister, when he visited Nepal last, did express his desire to visit Janakpur, Lumbini and Muktinath. This was because of the strong civilizational links and unparalleled people-to-people contacts between Nepal and India. However, due to unavoidable reasons of domestic commitments and pre-scheduled travel within India, he is unable to visit places outside Kathmandu during this visit. That said, PM remains committed to visiting these other places at the earliest opportunity.

Question: China is interested in joining SAARC, though it is not geographically a South Asian country. Would SAARC deliberate and resolve for the centrality of South Asia to be maintained as ASEAN does?

Official Spokesperson: I don’t know whether China has made that request that you are saying. This is the first time I have heard it. What I understand is that the issue is whether observers should play a larger role. China is already an observer. What you have said is neither suggested by anybody nor is on the SAARC agenda. So, I think , this is a non-issue of what you are saying. This is only, perhaps, something that is germinating in your mind.

Question:
Bharat or Nepal ke beech transport badhaane ki jo baat chal rahi hai, kya koi Bus service bhi shuru hone waali hai aur iska udghaatan kab hoga?

Official Spokesperson: Main aisa karta hoon ki main mere colleague Mr. Abhay Thakur ko kehta hoon ki wo aap ko bataayein ki hamare rishte kaise hain, lekin agar aap outcomes ke baare mein keh rahe hain to aap jaante hain ki hum outcomes tabhi bata sakte hain jab woh sign kiyee jaate hain. But in general, I think, this is a nice opportunity for my colleague Mr. Abhay Thakur to tell you about the areas of interaction between India and Nepal on various issues.

Shri Abhay Thakur, JS (North):Thank you, while we cannot comment on specific outcomes, yes of course, connectivity is a huge area of focus, we have been discussing, among our developmental assistance projects rail links, integrated Check posts and Tarai roads. So, these are on the connectivity side. Of course, there is an open border where there is absolutely free movement and which needs to be monitored and facilitated in a way that does not hinder the movement of people. So, I think these are very important areas. Discussions have been going on increasing both rail and road connectivity and I am sure we will come to very successful conclusions of some of these areas of engagement in the new atmosphere that has been created after PM’s visit.

Question: I would like to focus on Prime Minister Modi’s visit. Excellency Ambassador Ranjit Rae also re-confirmed yesterday that Prime Minister Modi is visiting Lumbini and Janakpur as well. So, no cancellation or something like that. I would just like to know that is it a rescheduled visit or miscommunication in diplomatic procedure because there is a kind of confusion in media and everywhere?

Official Spokesperson: I understand the rationale for your question and let me explain. The Prime Minister’s program was only finalised last evening. Taking into account all requests that we had received. This morning Ambassador Ranjit Rae did meet the Prime Minister of Nepal and communicated to him the Prime Minister’s program. We do understand that this may have led to some dismay among certain sections of population and any inconvenience that has been caused, we understand this. That said, as I said, India and Nepal are bound by geography, neither is that relationship going to change nor is Prime Minister’s commitment to multi-layered diplomacy including his intention to visit other places in Nepal because of the civilizational contacts that we have, that is not going to change. So, be rest assured that these were domestic requirements of travel; compulsions which could not be overcome but that does not change either the intent of the Prime Minister or his desire to visit these places at the earliest opportunity. Let me repeat, neither India & Nepal are going anywhere, they are bound together, nor is PM’s desire to visit there changing. So, please be patient.

Question:
Sir, aapne bataya ki Pradhanmantri Lumbini aur Janakpur nahi jaa paayenge. Lekin sir un dono jagahon ke liye Bharat ne rail chalane ko lekar project ki baat kahi thi. To un projects ki abhi kya sthiti hai aur kab tak poora hone ki ummeed hai?

Joint Secretary (North): Do rail links par kaam abhi jor-shor se chal raha hai. Ek hai Jainagar-Bardibus aur ek doosri jo Biratnagar jaati hai. Iske alawa do aur rail links abhi program mein hain lekin ispe kaam shuru hone mein thoda waqt lagega. To do rail links par abhi kaam chal raha hai. Lumbini humne jo apne Department of Tourism se bhi baat kee thi, ek tarah se wo hamare Buddhist circuit mein already integrated hai, lekin usko aur bhi behtar tareeke se connect kiya jaa sakta hai. In do rail links pe kaam hote hi, Lumbini per bhi kaam shuru kiya jaayega.

Question:
Sir, you said that the meetings program is still a work in progress. What are the meetings that have been finalised as of now, the bilaterals?

Official Spokesperson: Brick by brick we are working on it. Once they are ready, we will let you know. Let me assure you, there will be plenty of meetings, there will be substantive meetings and we will let you know once the entire architecture is ready. It’s only a matter of few days.

Question: Sir, on the tourism angle, is there any proposal to link Muktinath and Pashupatinath with Somnath and other Hindu Shivlings?

Joint Secretary (North): Yes, Prime Minister, when he travelled last, did talk about integrating Nepal and Bhutan with the North Eastern as well as other tourist links. So, the Buddhist link is one of circuits in place but it will be developed even further. We are developing the concepts we had a tour operators meeting with the North Eastern tourism Mart. So, these are the things which are works in progress and will be developed further. We are working on it intensively, including the pilgrimage sites and the archaeological sites.

Question: Has Pakistan asked for a bilateral meeting on the side lines of the SAARC Summit?

Official Spokesperson: Not to my knowledge.

Question: One of the possible bilaterals, which I presume, will be with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Parliament starts tomorrow; can you confirm that the Land Boundary Agreement is actually on Parliament’s agenda?

Official Spokesperson: Parliament’s agenda is determined by Parliament. You are aware that the discussion on the Land Boundary Agreement, as far as the Executive is concerned, was last related to the Standing Committee of the External Affairs Minister. Our officials did go there and responded to every question that they were asked. The ball is now, so to say, is in the court of the Standing Committee. What it decides on; what its recommendations are; when it would like to move this to the next level; it’s not for the Executive to do that because Parliament is sovereign.

Question: There are speculations in Indian media that up to end of November there will be e-visa system for some of the countries. Can you confirm any movement in this area by some date and if Russia is in the list of the first countries?

Official Spokesperson: Visa policies are determined by our Ministry of Home Affairs. They are in the process of finalizing a visa policy where there will be an electronic visa mechanism in place whereby you apply on line and get a visa on arrival for nationals of some countries initially. My understanding is that they are still to finalize fully the names of all the countries. This is a work in progress so I cannot say thisand besides it is best to approach the Ministry of Home Affairs which has jurisdiction over this.

Question:
Sir President of USA Mr Obama is coming,Kya last time jab Modi ji Amreica gaye the, to unhone particularly keha tha ki aap 26 January ko guest ban kar aayiye?

Official Spokesperson: Iska jawab maine pehle de diya hai. Maine bataya hai kiafter coming back from his visit to the United States, in a diplomatic conversation Prime Minister did, as a personal initiative, raise this matter with President Obama. So the answer to that is available in the public domain for some time that this was raised after his return to India, in a diplomatic conversation between Prime Minister and President Obama.

Question: Sir would you have any reaction to Prime Minister Sharif’s suggestions to President Obama that he must raise the Kashmir issue with India. The two countries have got their stated positions but since the suggestion has come from no less than the Prime Minister of Pakistan to the President of United States, Does the Indian Government has a reaction to this?

Official Spokesperson: I think it is not appropriate for me to say anything when two leaders of countries other than India are involved in a diplomatic conversation. But that said, as far as India is concerned; let me reiterate that we are for cooperative and peaceful ties with Pakistan. The framework for achieving those cooperative and peaceful ties is already specified and agreed to between our two countries as part of the Shimla Agreement and reiterated much later during the Lahore Declaration between Prime Minister Vajpayee and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. So our view is very simple, there is a simple two way street to promote peaceful, cooperative ties between India and Pakistan and that is through meaningful bilateral dialogue. Any deviation from this path is not going to lead us to a common destination.

Thank you very much, with that we end this interaction.

(Concluded)

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