With Samarkand all set to host the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit later this week, Indian Ambassador to Uzbekistan Manish Prabhat said that “India accords a lot of importance to the SCO” and the fact Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself is travelling to take part in the Summit “is the testimony to the fact that India is attaching importance to the SCO.” Samarkand hosts the summit on the 15th & 16th of September. Speaking exclusively to Zee Media’s diplomatic correspondent Sidhant Sibal in Tashkent, Ambassador Prabhat talked about close India-Uzbekistan ties with connectivity, trade and people to people relationships being the key focus.
Manish Prabhat said, “Uzbekistan is very supportive of the Chabahar initiative and we know that it was Uzbekistan’s initiative when we discussed Chabahar Port with them that they brought together India, Iran, Uzbekistan to have a trilateral dialogue about Chabahar”.
Q: What will be the key focus of PM Modi’s visit to Uzbekistan in terms of his participation in the SCO Summit and how important is this Summit for India?
A: As you know India is among the newest members of the SCO but in this short time, India has contributed very constructively to the agenda of the SCO, we are talking of many issues – Economic Cooperation, Diplomacy related to Covid, how to meet common challenges, Terrorism etc but has given importance to this SCO summit which is happening in Samarkand what would be the agenda and what leaders would talk about themselves. Of course, it is their prerogative and will have to wait for the Summit outcome as to what going to happen. India accords a lot of importance to the SCO and as you know that India is also the incoming chair of SCO so obviously, the summit is very important for us and PM Modi coming himself for the summit on 15th and 16th September is the testimony to the fact that India is attaching importance to the SCO.
Q: Importance to the SCO but also important to Uzbekistan because this is not the first time that PM Modi is visiting Uzbekistan so how important is this bilateral relationship between the two countries?
A: India and Uzbekistan have their historical relations going back to many centuries even more than 2000 years ago, but of course in modern times, our relationship has really flourished, know Uzbekistan and India both are strategic partners and you know within this framework of strategic partnership we would like to expand and strengthen our relationship in various fields – political consultations, economy, trade and investment, defence, security similarly culture, education, all are very important. And if you remember that PM Narendra Modi visited all five Central Asian countries in the year 2015, that itself was a sign that India was giving a big push to this relationship and giving a high priority to its relationship with Central Asia. Since then, this relationship has really flourished you know. The fact that we had foreign ministerial dialogue instituted in Samarkand, the first one happened in January 2019, India-Central Asia Dialogue and then the India-Central Asia Summit, which happened this year in January, shows that how close India and Central Asian countries are taking steps together.
Q: Once to keep the focus area between the relationships has been connectivity, Uzbekistan is a doubly landlocked country and very keen to use connectivity projects including Chabahar so how there has been a focus on connectivity between the two countries?
A: For the landlocked Central Asia of course the connectivity is a big challenge and of course, since there is no direct connectivity, or surface connectivity, India and Central Asia which is very active these days, India has come up with a solution in the form of the Chabahar Port and as you know a part of the Chabahar Port is operated by an Indian Company and India has really pitched to all our Central Asian partners that Chabahar Port can be the key and the focus which would really establish the connectivity between India and Central Asia. And of course, this makes sense because the root is if all infrastructure is developed it really would cut down on time and other kinds of cost, it would be economical and Central Asia, the countries would also like connectivity to the outside world. So, all the countries have agreed that we should work together for connectivity and in fact, Uzbekistan is very supportive of the Chabahar initiative and we know that it was Uzbekistan’s initiative when we discussed Chabahar Port with them that they brought together India, Iran, Uzbekistan to sit together that have a trilateral dialogue about Chabahar. So, this initiative would go further, and this dialogue will expand. Similarly, India is a member of the International North-South Transport Corridor and we have also requested Uzbekistan to become a member of the INSTC, Uzbeks are very positive about it. So, we hope that in the coming future connectivity initiative would develop to the mutual benefit of India and the central Asian countries.
Q: So, my last question to you is the trade, trade relationship, how it can be taken forward and the benefits trade will lead to a people-to-people relationship between the two countries, India and Uzbekistan. If you can talk about that?
A: The people-to-people relationship has always been strong between India and Central Asia and India and Uzbekistan. That goodwill is there based on which more trade can happen. As you know that Indian Pharmaceutical exports to CIS send in this part of the world have traditionally been strong, of course, there is scope for much more. During the covid 19 pandemic, the growth of pharma exports from India also happened. But we need to identify new commodities of trade between India and Central Asia. Similarly, Uzbekistan is a big exporter of fruits and vegetables, and you know in the agriculture sector also India and Uzbekistan have identified agricultural products which can be exported and imported. Uzbekistan is also a great country rich in mineral resources. So, we identify those minerals which can come to India. Possibilities are endless. We need to develop trade connectivity, the surface connectivity, we can discuss how to put in place mechanisms which would promote trade. And we already have mechanisms like the inter-governmental commission meetings and other kinds of joint working groups. So, efforts are happening in this direction, and I think that we have set a target for our two countries to reach a trade turnover of 1 billion dollars of bilateral trade every year. We are not yet there but work is going in this direction. The trade connectivity and the strength of investments etc would draw people you know, we become more connected to each other.
Q: But if you can shed some light on the people-to-people relationship given India sees Central Asia and especially Uzbekistan as part of its extended neighbourhood and we know that many monuments have resemblance between the two countries.
A: Of course, there is a rich past about that, so much has taken place in history. In contemporary relationships look what is India’s image in Central Asia and Uzbekistan. India is a big economy, it has a large population, it has managed things with its youth very well, we have created a big IT ecosystem, and start-ups are doing very well. India is a role model to learn how to digitise various services in the country, and how to learn in IT and communication services. And so, Uzbekistan and the Central Asian countries would like to really learn from India more. You know today Uzbekistan has invited Indian Universities to come and open campuses in Uzbekistan. Already 3 Indian Universities are working in Uzbekistan and students are attending their classes. More university-to-university cooperation is going to happen.
The Indian cultural centre, which is in Uzbekistan and the Indian Embassy, has opened 13 Indian study centres in the universities of Uzbekistan, so there are 13 universities already connected through Indian study centres. Similarly in the field of cultural outreach, our Lal Bahadur Shastri Centre for Indian Culture is really doing good work. Yoga is really becoming very popular in Uzbekistan. 2 trained expert Indian teachers of Yoga have been sent from the Indian council for cultural relations to work in Uzbekistan. This year the international day of yoga was celebrated on a very large scale in many cities of Uzbekistan. So, these you know canvas of cultural cooperation is really expanding. As I said the people of Uzbekistan really look forward to, they really love Indian films. Tashkent International Film festival has been revived. Indian stars are coming, and Indian movies are being shot here. So, a lot of things are happening. Also, India is also a great destination for medical tourism, and we see a lot of Uzbek medical patients. They come to Indian doctors, and hospitals for the quality of care we can provide to them and for the affordability of that. So, you know a lot of potential exists in these directions, in services and both India and Uzbekistan are working to realize that potential.
Q: If I am correct India is also helping in IT capacity building of Uzbekistan, we have some projects, India has strongly supported. I remember the visits of ministers inaugurating various IT parks here.
Manish Prabhat: You would be happy to know that the first IT Park in Uzbekistan was first inaugurated in 2019 with the help of technical guidance of an Indian expert who was sent from the software technology parks in India. Since then that resident expert has gone on and you know he has developed more IT Parks in Uzbekistan. We have very close cooperation in the field of IT, we are training Uzbek candidates in the field of IT. Similarly, we also operate an entrepreneurship development centre in Uzbekistan which is opened by MEA, and we have a resident director and Entrepreneurship Development Institute of Ahmedabad is providing that technical consultancy to develop entrepreneurship. So, you can see that our outreach is not only IT per se but also entrepreneurship how do you mix the two and how do you engage with the youth of Uzbekistan, you know how India has done a lot in the field of start-ups in the framework of SCO and bilaterally also. So, we have come up with comprehensive planning that how to engage with the youth of Uzbekistan, train them in new kinds of skills and grow the relationship between India and Uzbekistan.