"The relationship would have to come out of the official box and become more people centric by enlarging stakeholders, be it youth, women, businessmen, academicians and widen the area of knowledge by bridging the information deficit that exists," said Ambassador (retired) Paramjit Singh Sahai, now principal advisor to the Chandigarh-based Centre for Caucasian and Central Asian Study.
Delivering his speech at the First Forum on Security and Cooperation in Central Asia and Caspian Region, which is a joint initiative of the Kazakh Foreign Ministry and the Institute for World Economy and Politics (IWEP), here, Sahai said the framework of engagement first established in February-March 1992, has made tremendous strides since, but cautioned that there is still a lot more to do.
Emphasizing that the India-Central Asian engagement firmly rested on strong and time-tested civilisational, cultural and trade links, as symbolized through the ancient Silk Route, Sahai said this relationship had been nurtured "through the personal engagement of leaderships as evidenced through the regular bilateral exchanges and interactions."
"The primary objective of such visits has been to transform these traditional and friendly ties into a new relationship" representing pluralistic and present day realities while promoting peace and prosperity among the people of Central Asia and India... The guiding philosophy and goal, therefore, is to build a multi-faceted relationship, which helps broaden India's engagement with the (Central Asian) region, making it more meaningful, purposeful, productive and mutually beneficial," he added.
He said this regional engagement has been moving forward slowly and steadily, given the identity of views on a number of international issues. There was visible cooperation in fighting the menace of terrorism, support for India's bid to be included as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, establishment of bilateral working groups on anti-terrorism with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, besides institutionalized engagement in forums like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO - observer status) and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA).
Given these substantial achievements and strengths, Sahai, however, suggests that there are inherent weaknesses in this engagement that need to be tackled. For instance, he said India-Central Asian economic and commercial links have not picked up as was expected over the last 16 years (bilateral trade hovers around 200 million US dollars). Difficulties in using the land route is a factor worth addressing, he said. Oil and gas cooperation while welcome, required the involved partners to stay engaged, but also to look beyond to other sectors, he added.
A positive from the engagement, he said was human resource development, thanks to India's Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) Programme, which promoted both self-reliance and project development through full or partial assistance. Another strength was Indian information technology, a contribution widely acknowledged by all countries, besides technical defence cooperation and food security, he added.
Sahai said that cultural engagement too has played a significant role in cementing trans-national relationships, but warned that by far the weakest link in the India-Central Asian relationship is "that it is still government driven". There is a need to have the private sector onboard and a need for the media to be more proactive.
Central Asia is of strategic importance to India, and therefore, the need of the hour was for New Delhi to be more diplomatically and economically proactive, contributing effectively to all collaborative efforts. India, he said has to also not only remain integral to Eurasia energy politics, but evolve a strategy that would be advantageous to it in an atmosphere where "gas and pipelines replace caravan convoys". Sahai also suggested that an India-Russia cooperation could ensure Central Asian stability in different spheres.
Future engagement, therefore, required both a bilateral and regional approach and some concrete suggestions from an Indian perspective included the following: (a) To move beyond political goodwill and stepping up economic and commercial links (b) Promote greater synergy at the level of the business community and respective chambers of commerce and industry (c) Undertake a social audit of the efficacy of the ITEC programme and consider giving it greater punch as far as its project assistance is concerned (d) Consider setting up a Central Asian Development Fund of about 500 million dollars (e) Consider a new Silk Route initiative based on friendship between India and Central Asia (f) Consider hosting a Working Group meeting in the field of energy security and cooperation and finally (g) A bolder approach to reconstructing war-ravaged Afghanistan.
Over 80 experts from Central Asia, South Asia, Europe and state government officials attended the forum.