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Foreign Secretary’s address at Ananta Aspen Centre on ‘What Next for Neighbourhood First’

March 15, 2021

I would like to begin by thanking the Ananta Aspen Centre for inviting me to speak today on India’s Neighbourhood First policy. The Ananta Aspen Centre has established itself in the policy and international affairs space because of the quality of its output, and it is a pleasure to avail of the opportunity of this dialogue.

2. I would like to thank Mr Jamshyd Godrej for presiding over today’s talk. I would also like to thank the indefatigable and very able Kiran Pasricha, who is well known to all of us, for initiating this discussion.

3. It has often been said that geography is destiny. India’s destiny is inextricably linked with its neighbourhood. The countries in our neighbourhood are of unique and special strategic significance to India, both because they are deeply interconnected with us through ties of geography, culture and history, and also because the internal and external dimensions of our policy – and theirs – intersect and overlap with each other. Relations with them also impact our own states that border these neighbours.

4. Accordingly, the neighbourhood remains our primary diplomatic arena. It is first and foremost amongst our foreign policy priorities. The primacy given to the neighbourhood in our diplomatic efforts is reflected in our Neighbourhood First policy which has become a central pillar of India’s foreign and security policies since 2014.

5. The notice circulated by Ananta Aspen Centre for today's event mentions two data points. The first is the unprecedented invitation issued to our neighbouring heads of state and government in 2014 to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first government. The second refers to our neighbours being first in the recipient list of Vaccine Maitri.

6. Much water has flown under the bridge since 2014. And, much has changed. The Prime Minister’s vision of "Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishvas” has encompassed our immediate neighbourhood. Sometimes, very tangibly. Sometimes, less so. India interacts with its neighbours more frequently, at more levels, including the highest, and does so with in a constructive and open spirit. We are better connected. We are buying and selling energy from each other. We visit each other in larger numbers using the better physical connections that have been created.

7. We have much stronger development relationships. India’s Lines of Credit to its neighbours have jumped from USD 3.27 billion in 2014 to USD 14.7 billion in 2020. In addition, we undertake a large number of quick gestation and high impact projects aimed at benefitting communities directly. We trade more. We invest morein each other. Total trade with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka has increased from USD 19.44 billion to USD 26.455 billion in the last six years. These increases have both contributed to and have benefitted from significantly enhanced connectivity and improved border infrastructure. I will be happy to elaborate on this in the discussions that will follow.

8. 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 in action.

9. We launched our national vaccine roll out on 16 January. On 20 January, the first tranche of Indian vaccines landed in Bhutan and Maldives. On 21 January in Bangladesh and Nepal. And on 22 January in Myanmar and the Seychelles.

10. The Prime Minister held two important meetings involving neighbouring countries to facilitate collaboration on Covid-19. The first was as early as on 15 March 2020 when he initiated a virtual conference of SAARC leaders aimed at evolving a coordinated regional response to the pandemic. Last month, the Prime Minister addressed the Health Secretaries and technical experts of 10 neighbouring countries where he suggested several initiatives to facilitate regional cooperation in the area of healthcare. We have also organized a number of online training programmes for health professionals from the neighbouring countries.

11. The subject for today’s discussion is "What next for Neighbourhood First?”. To begin with, I will paraphrase what the Prime Minister said, in continuation of what I have just said about vaccines and other COVID related cooperation, that India will be a force for good in the neighbourhood. It is committed to improving the well-being of the region.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

12. The stability, growth and prosperity of those nearest to us will help India and is in India’s interest. The neighbourhood has therefore received the greatest attention and emphasis in our diplomatic efforts and will continue to do so. It also receives the greatest priority in allocation of funds and resources and will also continue to do so.

13. In 2018, the Asian Development Bank, quoting the World Economic Forum, described the South Asian region as the world’s fastest growing region. Our Neighbourhood First policy accordingly has a strong economic dimension. Greater economic integration within regions has been known to produce a whole that is larger than the sum of parts. Our policies in the region therefore lay the greatest emphasis on augmenting connectivity - physical, economic, energy, digital or even cultural. We believe that this will amongst other things induce a virtuous cycle in which connectivity and growth feed each other.

14. We work to enhance people to people contacts.

15. We work on shared security challenges and on facing disasters together.

16. Our work has moved onto newer domains – the digital and cyber world, space and civil nuclear cooperation.

17. We work with our neighbours not just bilaterally, but also in plurilateral and regional constructs.

18. Last but not least, we have worked within the Government of India to bring a whole of government focus to policies and projects that relate to our neighbourhood.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

19. The question of whether economics drives politics - or the converse - is frequently discussed. The Neighbourhood First policy emphasizes both. The invitation of all South Asian leaders to the 2014 swearing in ceremony has been followed by sustained political contact. For example, 13 bilateral visits at the level of Heads of State and Government have been exchanged with Bhutan since 2014 and 15 with Nepal. This level of intensity has been maintained through the lockdowns and travel disruptions of the pandemic. The Prime Minister has held virtual summits with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The President of Myanmar visited India in February 2020. Prime Minister convened a meeting of South Asian leaders on the pandemic in March last year. External Affairs Minister has visited Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh this year. My first visit after the pandemic was to Bangladesh. I have since visited Myanmar, Nepal and Maldives.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

20. This is not to say that the political situation in the neighbourhood does not have its challenges.

21. India desires good neighbourly relations with Pakistan and is committed to addressing issues, if any, bilaterally and peacefully. However, any meaningful dialogue can only be held in a conducive atmosphere and the onus is on Pakistan to create such an atmosphere.

22. We continue to follow the developments relating to the Afghan peace process. External Affairs Minister participated virtually at the opening of the Intra-Afghan negotiations in September 2020 in Doha.

23. The recent developments in Myanmar are a matter of deep concern. We remain concerned that the gains made by Myanmar over the last decades on the path towards democracy, should not be undermined. We have always been steadfast in our support to the process of democratic transition in Myanmar for it to emerge as a stable democratic federal union. Our developmental and humanitarian efforts in Myanmar have been aimed at the socio-economic development of the country. We need to continue with these efforts in the interest of the people of Myanmar. We feel that people on the ground should not suffer. India will continue to closely monitor the situation and remain engaged with like-minded countries to meet the hopes and aspirations of the people of the country. The international community must work together and lend its meaningful support at this critical juncture, so that the people of Myanmar do not suffer. We are working in the UNSecurity Council in a constructive manner to facilitate balanced outcomes that could assist in resolving the situation.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

24. Challenges notwithstanding, through these and other meetings, and through a growing network of institutional dialogue mechanisms spanning many sectors, the contours of a more interlinked and integrated South Asia are emerging. Progress on enhancing connectivity with our neighbouring countries has been quite remarkable.

25. I am happy to inform you that sound foundations exist to work in these directions. The Asian Development Bank attributes the high growth rates in South Asia partly to upgraded infrastructure especially in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The massive investments in infrastructure have steadily led to improving physical connectivity. It has improved by road, by water, by railway and by air and often by a combination of them.

26. Chabahar port, and the ZaranjDelaram highway improve connectivity to landlocked Afghanistan and link South Asia to Central Asia. Landlocked Bhutan has access through Indian inland waterways and improved road networks to Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal. India and Bangladesh are linked by rivers and share a coastline. Goods now reach Tripura from West Bengal through waterways via Ashuganj in Bangladesh or on coastal shipping via Chittagong port. A direct cargo ferry between India and Maldives moves containers between the two countries.

27. Another line of communication to North East India, and therefore between South and South East Asia is being created through the Kaladan multi-modal transport project which pivots on Sittwe port in Myanmar.

28. The Trilateral Highway project will provide land connectivity between South Asia and South-East Asia.

29. Railways between countries are causing a "rapid shrinking of South Asia’s geography”. We have made a sustained effort with Bangladesh to leverage historical railway connections into a contemporary network. 5 of 6 rail links that linked Bangladesh and India, and were interrupted by the vagaries of history have been reactivated. Another rail link is being restored and a new rail link the Akhaura-Agartala railway, is being built.

30. Indian is now connected to Nepal through the Jayanagar- Kurtha railway line. A Raxaul Kathmandu railway is on the anvil.

31. Railways have a lower carbon footprint than roadways and are usually more economical in moving large volumes of freight. The emerging railway networks are a win-win solution that can drive greater connectivity and growth in what we call BBIN - Bangladesh Bhutan India Nepal - configuration. They can, through Myanmar, provide a link to East and South East Asia.

32. Passengers wishing to travel between India and Bangladesh can use trains such as Maitree and Bandhan Express or use buses between Shillong and Dhaka, and between Dhaka and Agartala and Kolkata. Kolkata is now linked to Agartala by bus via Dhaka. Numerous bus services operate between India and Nepal. A bus service that links Mandalay with Imphal has been agreed upon.

33. Future plans to enhance connectivity include extending the Trilateral Highway to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Railways that link India and Myanmar and further to Thailand, Laos, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam and Bangladesh are all in the realm of possibility.

34. A network of land ports and integrated check posts are being built along our land borders to upgrade the cargo transhipment and passenger transit experience.

35. Air connectivity has also improved. Direct flight connections between Guwahati and Bangkok and Guwahati and Dhaka have been initiated. A Chennai Jaffna passenger air link has been launched.

36. More people are moving around the neighbourood than ever before. More than a million Bangladeshis - more than from any other country - visit India annually. Our missions in Sri Lanka and Yangon report an increasing trend of visas being issued. Travel between India and Maldives now no longer requires visas.

Ladies and Gentlemen


37. Economic growth requires energy. According to the International Energy Agency "India’s size and dynamism will keep it at the heart of the global energy system.” This also places South Asia at the center of energy markets.

38. We understand that geography and the distribution of resources can be leveraged for greater integration and we are working assiduously to promote the sub-region comprising Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and India - as well as Sri Lanka - as an energy hub.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

39. Energy, like goods, services and people needs to flow freely in the region to catalyse growth.

40. We are promoting easier movement of hydrocarbons across the region. Cross-border pipelines link India and Nepal - via Motihari land Amlekhgunj. Another is being constructed between Silguri and Jhapa. An India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline linking Siliguri to Parbatipuriis also being constructed.

41. Bulk LPG has been moving between India and Bangladesh since October 2019.A R-LNG cross-border pipeline and LNG terminal are being explored.

42. India has major investments in exploration and upstream hydrocarbon production in the region. Indian energy majors have invested US$1.2 billion in gas assets in Myanmar. Indian companies have also invested nearly US$ 24 million in oil exploration in Bangladesh.

43. Indian companies are also active in hydrocarbon midstream and downstream sectors in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

Ladies and gentlemen,

44. Let me now turn to the electricity sector.

45. Grid interconnection is the foundation of any meaningful cooperation in this sector. The Indian grid is connected to Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh through high-capacity connections. These are being augmented. An interconnection with Sri Lanka is under discussion. A small radial interconnection also exists between India and Myanmar.

46. These connections allow India to currently supply about 1160 MW of power to Bangladesh, about 700 MW to Nepal, and import 1.8 GW from Bhutan. Trans-national movement of electricity in the neighbourhood is thus a reality.

47. A transformative step in promoting regional trade of electricity was taken recently with the notification of procedures for export and import of electricity with our neighbouring countries. These will not only allow export and import of power but will also facilitate transit of power through India between two neighbouring countries. This also opens up our vast power trading market to our neighbours.

48. India has also taken the lead in creating power capacity that is available to the region. The most successful example of regional cooperation has been between India and Bhutan. India has created 2100 MW of hydropower capacity in Bhutan. More is being created.

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

50. A notable development is the increasing involvement of corporate interests. The Adani group is constructing a 1600 MW coal based plant in Jharkhand that will transmit power directly to Bangladesh. Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited is developing two major hydropower projects, Arun and Lower Arun, in Nepal. A consortium led by GMR is developing the export-oriented 900 MW Upper Karnalihydroelectric project in western Nepal which can supply power to India and Bangladesh.

51. Private sector participation in the hydropower sector holds enormous promise.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

52. The International Energy Association also says that the Indian power sector is on the "cusp of a solar powered revolution” and that this clean energy momentum will enable us to outperform our Paris commitments. Our Neighbourhood First policy is already adjusting to the climate imperative.

53. We are working on the possibility of wind energy projects with Myanmar and Sri Lanka. India has also offered a US$ 100 million Line of Credit for the development of solar power projects in Sri Lanka. India is also working on distribution of solar power in five townships of Rakhine State in Myanmar.

Ladies and Gentlemen


54. India’s development must go hand in hand with the development of our neighbours. This is not only politically sound, from the point of view of relations between states, but economically expedient. An inter-connected region with higher economic growth fosters trade and investment opportunities that offer the region a win-win situation.

55. Indian development partnership underpins its Neighbourhood First policy. Our development policies are directed at improving the lives of people. Whether it is hospitals in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal and Afghanistan or an ambulance project in Sri Lanka or institutes of higher learning in Myanmar or the construction of tens of thousands of houses after the tsunami in Sri Lanka and the earthquake in Nepal or the upgradation of skills and capacities or the construction of Salma Dam in Afghanistan, we are people-centric and human centric. We invest in the well-being of our neighbours and their capacities. We also support the creation of institutions. We have built the Parliament building in Afghanistan and the Supreme Court building in Mauritius.

56. India is the educational hub of the neighbourhood. Tens of thousands of students from the neighbourhood at any given time are enrolled in Indian institutions ranging from primary schools to super-specialised training centres. The Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation programme leverages these strengths.

57. India has also emerged as a healthcare hub for the neighbourhood.

58. A possible future direction of development partnership could be through high impact community development projects driven by local demands. More than a thousand such projects have been or are being implemented in the neigbourhood. Sometimes they have a specific sub-regional focus such as the Myanmar-India Border Area Development Programme and the Rakhine State Development Programme.

59. Technology will be increasingly leveraged to deliver development partnership products. A number of capacity building programmes were conducted virtually during the pandemic. Tele-learning and tele-medicine are a few areas in which our neighbours might seek our assistance.

Ladies and Gentlemen

60. India has developed an established record as a first and early responder in the region. We have conducted several HADR operations in our neighbourhood.

61. We have also worked to enhance security in the region. Cooperation in facing traditional and non-traditional challenges such as piracy, terrorism, human trafickking and drug trafickking is an important component of our work in the neighourhood. We work bilaterally and plurilaterally, through our participation in the creation of architectures such as BIMSTEC.

62. We have worked on enhancing maritime domain awareness and maritime surveillance with Sri Lanka and Maldives. We have agreements on maritime coordinated patrolling and coastal surveillance with Myanmar. INS Sumedha, an offshore patrol vessel, has been made available for joint surveillance of the Maldivian EEZ.

63. India has also assisted in upgrading maritime security capabilities of some of its neighbours including supplying defence equipment.

64. Lines of credit for defence procurement have been extended to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives.

65. This is only an indicative list.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

66. The pandemic has demonstrated that we live an age of the unprecedented, in a time of the unexpected, and in era of disruptions. Our policy towards the neighbourhood must be able to adjust, and if possible, leverage disruption. It can do so if we continue to build on the firm foundations of goodwill and good intentions that I underlie our policy.

67. In looking to the future, we must play to the strengths of India that have a resonance in the neighbourhood. Our resources and our capacities will be used for human development, for sustainable development and for climate goals. In doing so we must look beyond governments. We must encourage our dynamic private sector to seek opportunity and facilitate them in doing so. This will add greater economic heft and substance to equations. We must encourage cooperation between civil society.

68. Involvement of the private sector and of civil society will help us build our strengths as a source of healthcare, of education, of capacities, of content, and of ideas.

69. We have a shared cultural heritage. Preservation of this heritage and of its landmarks such as temples in Sri Lanka and Myanmar or monuments in Bangladesh and Nepal is an area where we can work together.

70. National development programmes such as the Aadhar based JAM, Ayushman Bharat, Jal Jeevan Mission, the UPI digital payment system and others that have promoted financial and digital inclusion have a wide resonance in our neighbourhood. They will acquire a higher share in our partnership profile in the neigbourhood. I would, in this context, like to draw your attention to the increasing acceptance of the RuPay card in our neighbourhood.

71. We will invest in technology as a bridge. The South Asia Satellite, a first of its kind initiative, was launched in May 2017. We are working with Russia on a unique civil nuclear cooperation programme in Bangladesh. I have already referred to cooperation in renewable energy.

72. As our demographics and economies transition, we must continue to remain forward-looking, demand-driven and flexible. Whether it is the blue economy or the digital space, whether it is maritime cooperation or the logistics sector, whether it is joint degree programs, joint research projects or joint campuses, we will remain for opportunity.

73. We must explore intersections with our Act East and Indo-Pacific facing SAGAR initiatives

74. I am certain that we will, by building on the momentum of the existing interaction and by working on new areas of cooperation, create a more integrated, better interlinked and prosperous Neigbourhood.

Thank you.

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