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'We are here because of Modi and Obama's vision'

By Aziz Haniffa
April 26, 2016 09:54 IST
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'Big countries do not agree on every set of issues.'
'Look, one of the differences in the relationship is that when we do not agree, we are sitting down and talking to each other.'

In Part I of an exclusive interview with Aziz Haniffa/, United States Ambassador to India Richard Rahul Verma spoke about how promising the past year has been for India-US ties.

In this segment of this three-part series, Ambassador Verma talks about the progress made by New Delhi and Washington in areas like civil nuclear cooperation, intellectual property rights, ease of doing business and climate change.

Read on…

When you were here in December, during Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar's visit you had told us that you were optimistic that the seminal Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, which has been in limbo in terms of implementation, would be consummated this year, and that the contact group had hammered out all reservations and concerns over India's nuclear liability law.
What's the latest update? Will implementation happen before the end of the Obama administration's term?

We are making very good progress on the civilian nuclear cooperation. It has taken many years to get to this point. But we were able to find a way forward over the past 18 months.

The US-India Contact Group on Civil Nuclear Issues was formed after Prime Minister Modi visited Washington in September 2014 and helped the US and India reach an understanding on an administrative arrangement to implement the US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement.

During our discussions, the Indian government demonstrated a genuine commitment to alleviate concerns of US vendors regarding liability.

Based on the Indian representations, the US government believes that the Indian law can be viewed as consistent with the principles of the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage and other international liability conventions.

We welcomed India's ratification of the Convention on Supplementary Compensation on February 5. Indian membership in the CSC will further facilitate participation by companies from the US in the construction of nuclear reactors in India.

Both US and Indian industry must evaluate the risks and consider the law in the broader context -- which include India's international commitments under the CSC, the potential to purchase liability insurance, and the terms that get worked through contract negotiations.

We are hopeful we will see US companies reach deals to build reactors in India this year, which will have environmental benefits by reducing India's reliance on carbon-intensive energy sources, as well as offering India more reliable electricity and greater energy security for its large and growing economy.

On the economics and trade and investment front -- including contentious issues like intellectual property rights, taxation, local content, ease of doing business and not having to go through getting 77 to 78 permits, social security, totalisation agreement, etc -- how satisfied or not are you with the progress in the past year?

On all the economic issues mentioned there has been good progress and very positive momentum, particularly at the state level where we have seen a number of states take proactive steps to improve their business climate and attract US companies and investment.

There is so much potential to expand the economic relationship between our nations, and I am excited about the work we are doing through our various dialogues such as the strategic and commercial dialogue, the energy dialogue, transportation dialogue, trade policy forum, CEO forum, and other dialogues and working groups to better align our two economies.

On EODB under the strategic and commercial dialogue, we have a specific joint work plan with the commerce and industry ministry and are actively engaged.

We also have a robust dialogue on IPR and are working on a technical level to better understand each other's systems.

From the bottom of the ocean to outer space, US and Indian companies are working together in every facet of the economy.

IMAGE: Ambassador Rich Verma, extreme left, at a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

A bilateral investment treaty is something that has been on the anvil for years, but is yet to get to first base. Why has it been so difficult to get this done because it could be the catalyst that propels the trade and investment relationship to new heights?
What's holding it up -- Indian bureaucracy or the US bureaucracy, or both?

After several years of review and consultation, India has just finalised its draft Model Bilateral Investment Treaty text within the last few weeks and our experts are reviewing the text.

We hope that we will have the opportunity to discuss the differences between our model and the Indian model texts within the next few weeks. Then we can determine how we move forward.

A BIT would help encourage two-way trade and investment, so I hope we can get started on a negotiation soon.

You were up close and personal when Modi visited Silicon Valley. For all the hype, euphoria and high-profile meetings that took place, what specific follow-ups can you point to vis-a-vis digital economy cooperation, innovation, etc, in terms of accelerating India's development programs that are Modi's priorities?

It was a fantastic, electrifying few days in the Silicon Valley. During the prime minister's visit to California, you might have seen several new initiatives announced by Google, Microsoft and Cisco.

From software to building tomorrow's networks to Wi-Fi at rural train stations, American high-tech companies are stepping up to be a partner in the prime minister's Digital India vision.

I should add that under the Strategic and Commercial Dialogue we have an innovation and entrepreneur work stream that is working to establish an innovation forum event to be held later this year and led by the Indian and US private sectors.

This would serve as a platform to energize the already robust collaboration between Indian and US businesses.

I was also very pleased that the prime minister highlighted the critical importance of IPR for innovators during his Startup India event in January.

What is the latest on climate change cooperation, post the Paris summit and India's role in advancing the agenda?

We would not be standing where we are today without the vision and political courage of both President Obama and Prime Minister Modi.

The Paris Agreement is not perfect, but it has the mechanisms and architecture for the world to continually tackle this problem in an effective way.

The agreement establishes a long term, durable global framework to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions with more than 190 countries participating.

For the first time, all countries committed to submitting successive and ambitious, nationally determined climate targets.

The parties to the agreement also commit to reporting on the progress toward their nationally determined climate targets through a review process that is both standardised and rigorous.

India and the US also led the way in pledging to double our clean energy R&D -- this, in turn, brought additional pledges from nearly 20 other countries, as well as from the private sector.

I think clean energy R&D and supporting India’s ambitious renewable targets -- the highest such targets in the world -- is one the biggest pathways of cooperation between our countries in the years ahead.

Is the air any better in Delhi? Are you, (the ambassador's wife) Pinky and the kids getting out jogging, cycling?
When you were here early last year, you told me that the US was offering its cooperation in terms of best practices that had worked in California, to alleviate the awful smog in Delhi and other major Indian cities. Anything new to report on this front?

Air pollution is a serious problem in Delhi, and we follow closely the air quality indices provided by the US embassy and Delhi government.  

As I have said before, we want to be part of the solution in helping to solve Delhi's pollution issues, and we are doing that.

For example, we voluntarily complied with the Delhi government's odd-even scheme and promoted carpooling, even though we were officially considered exempt under the order.

Last year, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi agreed to launch cooperation between US and Indian technical agencies to exchange information to help improve air quality in urban areas, and I am committed to advancing that goal.

My staff is working to arrange a meeting between the two sides to discuss the details of the technical collaboration proposal and identify a path forward.

We have already brought several experts here from American states and from the EPA to engage with their counterparts, sharing know-how and our experiences in tackling air and water pollution.

We have also moved aggressively to ensure the latest technology is available.

Along those lines, that is why our smart cities initiative is so important -- we are committed to helping the Indian government build safer, cleaner, and more digitally connected cities.

We are all aware of President Obama's remarks at Siri Fort auditorium in Delhi before he left India and again in Washington, DC at the National Prayer Breakfast last year, where he spoke of religious intolerance in India calling it anti-Gandhian, etc.
On the continuing debate over intolerance in India with regard to minorities and allegations that Modi and his administration are not assertive enough in clamping down on the rising tide of the saffron far right, are you continuing to raise this issue with the Modi government?

Human rights -- more specifically, freedom of expression and freedom of religion -- are top priorities for our government, which we continue to raise wherever possible, throughout the world.

As President Obama noted in his speech at the Siri Fort auditorium, these values are written into the United States and India's Constitutions and embodied in the values of so many of our leaders from Benjamin Franklin and Martin Luther King to Mahatma Gandhi.

We have always welcomed a frank and open discussion on these issues. We will continue to engage with the government and civil society as committed partners with shared democratic values.

In a space of a few days we saw India's telecom regulations authority reject Facebook's Free Basics, Marc Andreessen tweet pissing off a billion people in India and you being summoned by Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar regarding the Obama administration's decision to go ahead with F-16s sales to Pakistan, which has highly disappointed India.
Don't these kinds of hiccups give pause to the euphoria over the Indo-US relationship?

Definitely not!

Let me say this. Facebook has done great things in India and will continue to do great things in India. Mark Zuckerberg is personally committed to India and increasing connectivity, and that's a goal he shares with a lot of leaders here. So, we will work through the regulatory issues.

Big countries do not agree on every set of issues and what I have been saying to people for a while is, look, one of the differences in the relationship is that when we do not agree, we are sitting down and talking to each other and we are not the same countries -- we do not aspire to be -- but we have a certain set of relationships.

We want to resolve issues and we can see a larger picture and that picture has us as best partners as the President says, or as natural allies as the prime minister says, working on the big issues of the day.

And, as other issues crop up, either on our side or their side -- issues of convergence or issues of divergence -- we are going to sit down and talk about them.

It is totally part and parcel of a big, complex, but otherwise very strong relationship.

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
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