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Virtual Address by External Affairs Minister to the Indian Community in Kuwait (June 11, 2021)

June 12, 2021

Ambassador Sibi George, my fellow Indians, Friends of India in Kuwait.

I'm really very pleased to join you all this evening, as I conclude, what is my first ever visit to Kuwait. Many of you would have followed my programme, but I would like to share with you I was received very warmly. I had the privilege of calling on his Highness, The Prime Minister, I carried a letter from our Prime Minister to His Highness the Amir. I held talks with Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmed, the Commerce Minister Dr. Abdullah also joined in those talks. And normally, as the Ambassador pointed out, an Indian Foreign Minister certainly won't go to a country and that to a country like Kuwait, without meeting the Indian community there. But we all understand that the present situation doesn't allow for a physical meet. So I'm very glad, Ambassador, that you've made the arrangements for me to at least interact virtually, with the community. And I certainly leave you all with the promise of a more direct contact the next time that I'm here.

Let me actually begin by talking to you about the discussions that I had with the Government of Kuwait, because I think as the Indian community living here, you have a legitimate interest in the matter. Some of it actually concerns your welfare as well. And you all know that for many years now, Kuwait has been a very important energy partner of India, a very substantial trade partner as well. But my visit, and my talks with Foreign Minister Ahmed were actually focused on how do we find new areas of cooperation, as keeping in mind both the immediate impact of the COVID, because I think all of us have learnt many things from the COVID experience, as well as the longer term changes which are happening, the growth in India's capacities, its influence, what you might call the rebalancing, in a way of the global order. And what does that really mean in practical terms for India and Kuwait? I think some of it we are seeing, even as we speak, I would say today, in an environment which is very dominated by COVID concerns, health issues have become very important for every society. In fact, we look at health very much today as part of our national security. And we discussed really, how we could work more closely. I think, last year, many of you would remember that we had sent out military medical team to be with the Kuwait health authorities as they coped with the COVID. We also supplied some Made in India vaccines earlier this year. So it's very clear with the kind of impact that this pandemic has made, with the expectation, that this is not a one of affair, but going to be something recurring, something we need to factor in. Clearly health is a big issue. Food Security is also another issue. Again, I think COVID has heightened concerns, there were anxieties expressed in Kuwait and in other Gulf countries, because many of them source their essential supplies, especially food from India. And I think you would know that we made exceptional efforts to ensure that the supply chain, the food supply especially was kept open, kept undisrupted through last year.

We also discussed education because I think people do see India today as not just a source of skills and talents but as a country, which is being very creative about growing its educational capacities. And again, during the COVID period, we've had a lot of exposure to distance education. But most of all, I think we focused heavily on the digital aspect, because the COVID has accelerated the digitization of our daily existence. We all do more online shopping. But I think there was a lot of interest in Kuwait to understand how, for example, our contact tracing was done through an app, how our vaccine registration is done through a portal, how, in fact, whether it is payment of money into the accounts of vulnerable sections of society, or providing rations for people, again during the time of COVID, how all of this was done using digital mediums and in a very seamless manner without any leakages. So the overall sense really was that, even as we deal with COVID, as we battle challenges to our health and to our social fabric, the experience has actually brought to forefront a new agenda in a way. And we have agreed on our joint commission, which Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad and I would be heading respectively, for our governments. And we certainly hope that it will provide us a platform to reimagine our ties in a more substantive way. Now, when Foreign Ministers meet, they, of course, typically also talk about the rest of the world. And here, I would say to you all that we greatly value the role of Kuwait in contributing to the stability of the Gulf. They have been very tireless and their diplomatic efforts dealing with various frictions in this region. And that is something which we have clearly been focused on, as well. In fact, the regional issues, were important enough that I used my presence in Kuwait to actually hold a larger meeting of our ambassadors in the Gulf so we had a much more integrated discussion on how do we approach the Gulf in the new circumstances, what are the challenges here, and there are many common issues which the Indian community in the Gulf also faces and I will speak to you about that as well, briefly.

Since I was speaking about the COVID, and I mentioned to you that we had sent the medical team and also ensured the food provision. I think it would be right for me also to bring out the importance of the effort that Kuwait has made, in fact, is still making as we speak, in terms of providing medical oxygen to India. You all know that we had a very severe second wave, nationally, of COVID. The variants in question were exceptionally virulent. So even though people had debated and modeled what could be a second wave, I think the reality was far bigger. It was more than four times what the first wave of the COVID was. And one of the immediate implications of that was really a large number of people who were in hospital with respiratory issues, who required oxygen, and in fact, the demand for medical oxygen went up from more than 1000 metric tonnes which is what it was last year, to 8000, almost 9000 metric tonnes. And we of course, expanded our own capacities nationally. But it was very helpful for us to get oxygen supplies from abroad. And among the countries which actually took the lead, I would particularly single out Kuwait in this regard, they provided us more than 500 metric tonnes, and they're very prompt and very efficient in that regard. So, to me, it is actually a proof that international partnerships and cooperation, these are not just phrases, they actually make a difference when countries face challenges and what we have done for each other during the COVID period, to my mind is a very good example of the trust and confidence but also the new vistas of cooperation that today we need to address. Having said that, since I had all the Gulf ambassadors here, you know that, for us the Gulf is a very special region. It's a special region, it's our extended neighbourhood of course, it's the source of a lot of our energy supplies. But most of all, it's a special region because of the Indian diaspora, all of you make the difference. And since the Modi Sarkar came into power, a signature theme of the government has been to recognise and appreciate the contribution that the diaspora has made worldwide. And while we have a worldwide diaspora in terms of the numbers and the importance and the salience of the diaspora, I think you cannot find a better example than in the Gulf and in the Gulf, the Indian community in Kuwait, all of you, you are among the oldest, the most well established and as I could see, in my interactions with the Kuwaiti leadership, also I would say among the very respected diasporas.

Now, we discussed among the ambassadors, as well as my own discussions with the Kuwaiti government, what needs to be done to meet the concerns of the Indian community, the Indian community today, in the immediate aftermath of the COVID, but also the slightly longer term requirements, for example, of education. And my instructions to all the ambassadors was that they need to focus even more, and I must say, they've really done a splendid job in the last year and a half, but focus even more on the welfare of the Indian community, to ensure that the disruptions in family because in many cases, family members went back to India, they've not been able to come back, that to facilitate the early reunion, to ensure that those who temporarily or otherwise did not retain their jobs out here, how can they come back or how do we create conditions and facilitate their return. And to do all that, of course, we need to have flights coming in from India. These as in many cases have been temporarily suspended because of COVID. So as the numbers go down, I obviously would like very much to see a resumption of flights. And definitely, I think this situation has also opened up opportunities for our businesses, for more exports to this region, and for a role for the Indian community, in enhancing the economic contacts between us.

I was particularly pleased to that matter which has been long pending, which is an MOU, relating to our domestic workers here. That was finalised and signed by the ambassador and the Kuwaiti official, which in many ways streamlines and strengthens the position of our workers in Kuwait. I think that's a very important step, which would certainly encourage a greater Indian presence in Kuwait. So, as you can see, though I've been here really, two days, it's been busy, it has been very productive. Again as I said, I wished I had the opportunity to spend time physically with all of you. But before I actually conclude my remarks, and listen to all of your concerns and issues, let me very briefly touch upon what is happening at home, because I think you would all be naturally concerned at the news you get, often this is put across in a way in which those who are not in India may worry about the direction of events out there. I think it's clear by now that the second wave of the COVID has started to definitely deceit, the numbers, the daily numbers, you can see of people who are newly infected is now one quarter, 25% maybe even less than what it was in the peak in early May, the positivity rate has also come down very dramatically in most population centres. And a large part of that has been made possible by a very, very vigorous government response to the second wave. I can tell you that as someone who's been in government for many decades now, the kind of effort and energy that I saw, the long hours that people put in, people really moved mountains to respond to what was an unprecedented situation. We were talking about oxygen, we ran really hundreds of oxygen trains to ferry oxygen from the production centres to the major cities, all our planes were mobilised including the Air Force planes for the oxygen cylinder tanks to be moved, both within the country and from abroad to India. We procured medicines which were essential for COVID treatment, many of them from abroad. We also ensured that the domestic production of medicines was enhanced. And, of course, where the vulnerable sections were concerned, many of you would know that we've actually ensured that as many as 800 million people get rations from the government and 400 million people have actually got funds put into their account in terms of support. Vaccination is of course, a big issue. Again, it has picked up, we are currently vaccinating more than 3 million a day. Our expectation is that this will go up as the vaccine production increases. We have cumulatively vaccinated about 245-246 million so far. And the confidence is there, that as more vaccine comes into production, as the production of even the existing vaccine scales up, that as the year progresses, we will actually be able to vaccinate all our people. Along with the health situation of course, there is a natural worry, what is the state of the economy and there I want to share with you that the picture has been quite confident in some ways, we saw a strong recovery in the early months before the second wave. But during the second wave actually, the lockdowns have been local, interstate traffic, interstate movement has not been disrupted at all, I think a lot of the logistics has kept going. So, there is a sense that the economic impact of the second wave would be far less than what happened last year. So, the belief we have that India will pick up, that India will recover rapidly, that what we have seen in the last few years as the steady rise of India and its economy and its influence in the world, that would continue. So as I conclude, I want to come back to all of you because while I have appreciated what the Government of Kuwait did, I particularly want to emphasise that we very much recognise what the Indian community in Kuwait did. I know that many of you have helped to acquire oxygen cylinders; it is both the practical relevance of what you did as well as the feeling for your motherland, which this expresses, that is deeply appreciated by us. So, I thank you here.

And I want to finish by highlighting that the Indian community in many ways defines India abroad, the contribution you make, the respect you earn, the support that you provide, the bridge, in a sense that you constitute, I think this is really what makes India's interaction with the world rather unique. And as I said, it is something which the Prime Minister and all of us who are part of his government, definitely recognise and appreciate deeply. I'm confident that you will continue to be that effective bridge even as our relationship with Kuwait expands. And that you will keep the Indian flag flying high here. And as we have seen, whether it is tough times or good times, you will always be there for us. So once again, I thank you for listening to me. And I'd be delighted to get your sense of the relationship and your sense of what the concerns of the community are, and you can be assured that we will always keep it very close to our heart.

Thank you very much.

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