When India beckons…

My last trip to India was in December 2015, when I travelled with family to attend two marriages, thus completing half a century of going back and forth between Mauritius, where my heart lies, and Mother India, where my soul ever is. From the time in 1960 when Prof Ram Prakash – who in the 1950s was delegated from India to promote Indian language studies in Mauritius -, introduced us to Indian culture and philosophy through a weekly class period that lasted till my last school year (1964) at the Royal College Curepipe, my organic connect with the land of our ancestors has never ceased to deepen.

Along with the weekly class, we also had weekly meetings of the Indian Cultural Society which was set up and presided by Prof Ram Prakash at the RCC, one of the several such societies that the newly arrived Rector Herbert Bullen encouraged the formation of. Soon we became familiar not only with the names but some of the essential thoughts and dreams of the great men and women of India, such as Dr Radhakrishnan, Rabindranath Tagore, Allama Iqbal, Swami Vivekananda, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Azad, Sarojini Naidu, and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur among others.

One way or the other, it seemed, India was beckoning. For me the actual physical journey began in 1965, upon being awarded a scholarship by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations to study medicine. The first briefing I had at the Indian High Commission, then situated next to the Arya Sabha building opposite Champ de Mars, was by Mr Mani the then High Commissioner, before the departure of the scholarship winners for India. Since then, for me at least, India has become home in every sense of the word.

And so every opportunity to go back is not to be missed. One came unexpectedly – but this time it was to engage with ‘official’ India and in a different capacity and role. Thus it was that, representing the Mauritius Times, I was part of a press delegation sponsored by the Government of India for a familiarization visit to India, the objective being to allow the Mauritian press to get a better perspective and appreciation of the new India that is coming up. The visit was scheduled for 22-30 April. A preliminary briefing hosted by the High Commissioner of India, Shri Abhay Thakur, was held prior to the departure of the delegation on Friday April 21 to New Delhi via Mumbai, reaching there the next morning, Saturday 22, and being put up at the 5-star Shangri-La hotel situated at Ashoka Road.

The progamme began on Saturday 22 afternoon itself with a meeting at the office of Larsen & Toubro in Nehru Place, followed by a day-long trip to Agra on Sunday 23. So far the visits covered meetings at the Ministry of External Affairs with the Foreign Secretary, Jaishankar Menon and two Joint Secretaries (JS); visit to Pravasi Bharatiya Kendra in Chanakyapuri and to the Confederation of Indian Industries, visit to Parliament, the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, the Election Commission of India, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation; meeting with Arvind Panagariya, Vice-Chairman Niti Ayog, and a visit to Afcons. The next leg of the trip was in Mumbai from Thursday 2 April, starting with the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI).

The highlights of the visit are as follows:

DTAA, Chagos and Agalega

At the MEA, there was a reiteration of the strong and deep cultural and historical ties that exist between Mauritius and India and that there was a need to continually nurture this bond through interaction and gaining clear understanding on several matters. But also, there were hard decisions to be made by each country as individual sovereign states, about which information should be shared mutually. Allusion was made to the DTAA issue, and that because there was an ‘aberration’ it needed to be corrected. However, India was aware of the problems for Mauritius, such as consequential unemployment, and would allay apprehension by means of a win-win outcome. That is how, during official discussions, the grant of 353 M USD was made to Mauritius, over and above the line of credit of 500 M USD that the Government of India had already put at the disposal of Mauritius. There was a reminder of Prime Minister Modi’s commitment for the development of Mauritius.

As regards Chagos and the right of return of the Chagossians to their island, India had consistently supported the Mauritian stand. That has not changed and India would continue to back whatever position the Mauritian Government took on the matter. In response to the question of whether that stand might change given the new engagement that was developing between India and the US, the answer was that these two issues were not linked.

Where Agalega was concerned, the proposal to build a runway and a world class jetty was in the context of ensuring maritime security in the Indian Ocean region, given that that there were different types of offenders present in the region: piracy, poaching and illegal fishing, drug trafficking. There was a need therefore for fueling of surveillance ships, but also ships that India sent regularly for conducting hydrographic surveys that were of benefit to both countries. The runway was for giving proper access to Agalega, which does not exist at present. A Detailed Project Report was under preparation, and it would include measures for the development of the community in Agalega.

Albion and Metro Express

It was made absolutely clear that, contrary to the general perception, there was no question of setting up a refinery at Albion, because it simply did not make economic sense. The project was about making Albion a petroleum bunkering hub. For one, this would relieve the congestion at Port Louis harbour. Further, since the petroleum needs of Mauritius are actually being met by India through its Mangalore refinery, the excess available capacity would allow the possibility of exporting to the region. Besides, instead of using smaller vessels for the transport of petroleum, larger vessels of the ‘Suez max’ type could be utilized, and this would be more economical, with fallout effects on freight costs among others.

Visits to the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation and a travel by metro, and interaction with the L&T and Afcons, two companies which have among their activities the construction of metros, gave an insight into the capacities of these two companies and the functioning of the metro in New Delhi. The Delhi metro had an existing network of 213 km with 160 stations.

Presentations were made by both companies, which have experience of metro constructions in several cities in India and in several countries. It was evident that they both have all the engineering and other capacities and resources required in that field. In fact, they both had taken part in the construction of the Delhi metro, and had delivered on time and before time wherever they had been contracted.

As far as the Metro Express in Mauritius is concerned, at the Ministry of External Affairs we expressed the concern about the issues that had cropped up with the revised project, which was now to cost less. Moreover, there was no clarity about the modifications that had been brought to the revised proposed track as regards the mix of ground level tracks and elevated tracks. How would this impact the traffic flow, especially at the critical St Jean roundabout at peak hours traffic time, and would the project really bring about decongestion, which was the main objective?

The companies’ position was that they only executed projects according to the requirements of the clients. So as we understood it, it is up to the Government to ensure that the design is such that the Metro Express it is proposing is appropriate in every respect to meet the objective sought, and the that national interest and safety of travellers is not sacrificed in any way given the modification that has been brought about.

Other meetings and visits

There were excellent interactions at the Election Commission of India and the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology. These and the Mumbai leg will be the subject of another article.

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