He joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1995 and started his diplomatic career at the Indian Mission in Jakarta in 1997. Among other posts, he was the Political Counsellor responsible for bilateral political relationships and engagements with UK Parliament in London, and then Deputy Chief of Mission to Jakarta from September 2010 to August 2013, followed by his posting as Consul General of India in Frankfurt from August 2013 to July 2017.
Helsinki Times sat down with Ambassador Kumar to discuss a variety of topics related to the present situation of India and his tasks in Finland.
HT: You have recently been appointed as the Indian Ambassador to Finland, and have had a very active few months with lots of meetings. How would you summaries your impression from these encounters and Finland in general?
Amb. Kumar: In two words – Very positive! My family and I are delighted to be in this beautiful country. We feel welcomed in Finland. In the last four months, I have had very satisfying and encouraging interactions with people from different walks of life – political personalities, officials in different Ministries, businesses, media, students and members of the Indian community. But what I have enjoyed the most is the affability of the common people; people you meet in parks and shopping centres and on the street. They want to make you feel comfortable. I can sense warmth for India and Indians. I am looking forward to my tenure here.
HT: You started an “open house” reception time for Indian Citizens residing in Finland. How has it been welcomed by Indians, and have you been getting the result you wished for?
Amb. Kumar: As a public office, we are expected to invest in building relationships in a transparent manner. That was the concept behind the Open House when anyone can meet me or other officers at the Embassy without an appointment on 2nd and 4th Thursday of every month. I invite those interested in having a coffee with me to visit us during the Open House. It has helped us to bring down walls and made us approachable. It has been a humbling experience. I have connected with people who are otherwise hesitant to visit us. So, yes, through this medium, it has been a good learning curve for me, just listening to them.
HT: India’s economy was one of the worst-hit during the COVID- 19 crisis, with its GDP growth expected to be near zero or even negative this fiscal year. What steps is the government taking to boost the economy?
Amb. Kumar: If you have been following the latest figures from India, you would know that we are already on the way to recovery, much earlier than many expected. And there are several indicators to reflect that the worst is over.
- Exports in September posted 5% YOY growth, while imports regained 80% of normal volumes.
- Economic activity was pegged at 93% of pre-pandemic levels while the business activity index also accelerated during the month.
- Manufacturing activity was a bright spot, with the purchasing managers index rising to 56.8 — the highest reading since January 2012 — on the back of a sharp expansion in new work orders.
- The automobile and two-wheeler segments also registered a healthy performance during the month. For September 2020, total domestic tractor sales were 108,649 units, a growth of 28.4 percent compared to the same period last year. signaling strong demand from the rural economy.
- The petrochemicals and financial services industries have also witnessed an upturn.
- Activity in the dominant services sector continued to recover, with the main index rising to 49.8 in September from 41.8 in August – a marked improvement from April’s record low of 5.4.
- Several other high-frequency indicators like PMI data, GST mop-up, toll collections, e-way bills, and power consumption have shown an uptick in September.
- A gradual resurgence is evident across most sectors. We are looking at a sharp V-shaped recovery next year.
- Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has been stellar, even in these times of economic stress. Between April to August, India attracted almost $36 billion, 13% higher than the same period last year. This is coming on the base of an already very good previous year when India attracted close to $74 billion, its highest ever.
- The stock market has been performing spectacularly and in October, India was among the top three stock markets among emerging economies with average market capitalisation increasing by 7.8% to $2.1 trillion.
HT: Can you briefly describe India’s bilateral relationship with Finland? What are the focus areas?
Amb. Kumar: Our relationship is warm but we are yet to unlock the full potential. We consider Finland as an important partner for India. We share common concerns in global and international organisations. Both countries are committed to multilateralism. Our relations have diversified in recent years. There are new and emerging areas of possible cooperation which both countries are looking at, especially in the fields of innovation and research. There are opportunities, among others, in 5G/6G, AI, Quantum Computing, Cyber Security, IOT, Clean Energy, Bio-Technology, Startup, Circular economy, education, health, and defence. We also need to build the people-to-people relationships and promote tourism. The vibrant Indian community in Finland can be a useful bridge for cementing our ties. Given our focus on rapid and inclusive socio-economic development and Finland’s strengths as a knowledge and innovation-driven economy, our cooperation can be mutually beneficial.
HT: India has been accused of human rights violations, particularly against minorities, from organisations such as Amnesty International. What action, if any, is the current administration taking to combat discrimination against minorities? What of the ongoing situation in Jammu and Kashmir? Can you also clarify why Amnesty International was made to halt operations in the country when their accounts were frozen as they have claimed?
Amb. Kumar: There are three different parts to the question but the common thread is respect for human rights. Let me address your first part. Perhaps, it is important for me to reiterate that India is a secular country, a feature which is enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution of our country. People from different faiths have occupied the highest office in the country. Everybody is free to practice their religion. Enjoy their festivals, follow their tradition and customs. There is, therefore, no question of discrimination on the basis of religion.
On your second part of the question regarding Jammu and Kashmir. Jammu and Kashmir have been, is, and shall remain an integral part of India as a result of its fully legal, complete, and irrevocable accession to India in 1947. With the constitutional changes relating to temporary provisions in J & K, the progressive legislations applicable to the rest of India is now also extended to J & K. The situation in the State has gradually returned to normal. All communication links have been restored. Satellite channels and cable tv networks are fully functional. The government has ensured that the essential services have continued uninterrupted. Based on the improvement in the security situation, paramilitary troops have been withdrawn. Media has been functioning independently without any restrictions other than logistical constraints. We of course have to be alert against designs by Pakistan to disrupt peace and perpetrate violence in J&K.
On the third part of your question, don’t you think that entities operating out of a country should respect the laws of that country? Amnesty International had received permission under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) only once and that too twenty years ago (19.12.2000). This is an Act that regulates the movement of foreign currency into India. Since then Amnesty International, despite its repeated applications, has been denied FCRA approval by successive governments since as per law it is not eligible to get such approval. However, in order to circumvent the FCRA regulations, Amnesty UK remitted large amounts of money to four entities registered in India, by classifying it as Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). A significant amount of foreign money was also remitted to Amnesty (India) without any approval under FCRA. This mala fide rerouting of money was in contravention of extant legal provisions.
Amnesty is free to continue humanitarian work in India, as is being done by many other organisations. However, India, by settled law, does not allow interference in domestic political debates by entities funded by foreign donations. This law applies equally to all and it shall apply to Amnesty International as well.
HT: India currently has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world. What steps is the government taking to curb the spread of the virus?
It is important to look at the numbers in the context of the size and the population of the country. India has around 32 cases per million population, which is lower than most of the countries in the EU. We have one of the highest recovery rates of around 85% and a fatality rate of 1.5 percent which is much below the world average. We are testing more than a million people daily. We are now witnessing a gradual decline in the number of daily active cases. From a peak of 95,000 cases every day, the number has dropped down to around 40,000. If this trend continues, we will see a flattening of the curve very soon. We however need to remain cautious as we are witnessing 2nd and 3rd wave in many countries.
India was one of the first countries to put up a concerted, comprehensive action plan to stop the spread of the virus and limit the number of COVID-19 infections. Prime Minister Modi inspired the people to take steps to prevent the spread of infection. India announced a complete Lockdown even before the number of the COVID cases in the country touched 500 giving us much needed time to put the systems in place. More than 17,000 dedicated Covid facilities were set up with 1.6 million isolation beds. 1.1 million people are being tested daily in almost 7000 centres. Digital tools are being used extensively for contact tracing. Human lives were precious and the focus of our efforts was to save each and every life.
HT: Relations between India and China were strained this year, with tensions escalating to the point that many feared a war. How is India’s relationship with China now?
Amb. Kumar: Official level discussions are going on. Both sides continue to maintain close communication at the military and diplomatic levels to achieve complete disengagement along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The two sides are guided by the leaders’ consensus to jointly safeguard peace and tranquillity in the border areas. We will continue to maintain the dialogue with the Chinese side to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution to the current situation along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh.
HT: Earlier this year, there were widespread protests by Indians, at home and abroad, against the implementation of the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and the NRC (National Register of Citizens) in the country. A number of Indian citizens residing in Finland joined these protests. What is the current status of the NRC and the CAA? Are there plans to implement them in the future?
Amb. Kumar: I think there is a lack of understanding about NRC and CAA process in certain quarters. It is important to understand that these two are two completely different processes. And it not targeted against any specific group or individuals. India, as the world’s largest democracy, has firmly enshrined ‘equal rights for all’ and ‘respect for the rule of law’ in its Constitution. An independent judiciary and fully autonomous state institutions, working for the defence of human rights, are an integral part of our political fabric and traditions. Decisions have been taken within the four corners of Indian law and consistent with India’s democratic traditions.
HT: The government has been criticised for the way it handled what came to be known as the ‘migrant crisis’ when thousands of migrant labourers were stranded following the institution of a nationwide lockdown earlier this year. What lessons has the administration learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, and are there plans in place to prevent a similar situation from recurring in the future?
Amb. Kumar: Covid-19 was unprecedented in its scale and unpredictability. Our main focus was to save lives and support the disadvantaged sections of society. Our Prime Minister led the way with vision and clarity. The Government came forward to extend support to the marginalised sections of the society, supporting small businesses and giving direct food subsidies to the most vulnerable. It provided free food grains to 800 million people and free cooking gas to around 80 million families. And for a long time despite disrupted logistics, we are able to deliver money directly into bank accounts of more than 400 million farmers, women, poor and needy people within a matter of days.
India decided to actively convert the crisis into an opportunity. Even during the pandemic, it ramped up its pharmaceutical production – especially of hydroxychloroquine and paracetamol – to respond to growing global demands. In fact, we supplied medicines to 150 countries, more than half on a grant basis. Our medical teams were deployed in four of our neighbours who were in distress. We want to help the entire world when it comes to vaccine production for Covid-19. There are three leading vaccine candidates from India – Bharat Biotech, Zydus Cadila, and Serum Institute in collaboration with AstraZeneca in different stages of trial.
Hopefully, the worst on the corona situation in India is over. The number of daily infections has come down and is on a downward trend. We have a lower prevalence rate in a two-week period than many countries in Europe. Economic activities have been opened up with each unlock phase and so has the easing of restrictions on the movement of people and transport.
HT: Is there any possibility of India permitting dual citizenship in the future? If so, would Finland be on the list of accepted countries?
Amb. Kumar: Under the Indian constitution, there is no provision of dual citizenship. However, people of Indian origin fulfilling certain criteria are eligible for Overseas Citizen of India card which provides them with visa-free access to India among other benefits.
HT: Around 75 percent of Finland is forest area and the country is known for prioritising sustainability and conservation. Would you say India has learnt from Finland about the importance of maintaining a balanced relationship with nature? The current administration in India has numerous industrial projects underway that environmentalists claim have the potential to threaten local ecosystems.
Amb. Kumar: Well, India has a long history and tradition of harmonious co-existence between man and nature. We have regarded fauna and flora as part of our family. This is part of our heritage and manifest in our lifestyle and traditional practices. Much before the debate on environment and climate change began, our view was anchored in the vision inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s famous exhortation; “Earth has enough resources to meet people’s needs, but will never have enough to satisfy people’s greed”.
So, we understand the seriousness of the issue and therefore several practical steps towards sustainability and conservation have been taken. We are going to increase the share of non-fossil fuel, and by 2022 we plan to increase our renewable energy capacity to much beyond 175 GW, and later till 450 GW. India is running one of the largest renewable capacity expansion programs in the world. We have made plans to make our transport sector green through e mobility. India is also working to considerably increase the proportion of the biofuel blend in petrol and diesel. We have provided clean cooking gas to 150 million families. We have launched the Jal Jeevan mission for water conservation, rainwater harvesting, and for the development of water resources. India is going to spend approximately 50 billion dollars on this in the next few years.
On the International forum, 88 countries have joined our International Solar Alliance campaign. In order to make our infrastructure disaster-resilient, India has launched a Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure. We have announced a decision to ban single-use plastic by 2022.
We are together with the International community on this topical matter. We are already working together with Finland in this area. Our companies are also coming together for meaningful cooperation
Interview and image
Alexis Kouros – HT