His Excellency Yogesh J Karan, High Commissioner of the Republic of Fiji to India, belongs to the fifth generation of Indian-origin families and home-makers who migrated to the Fiji Islands, whose forefathers went to Fiji as contract indentured labourers during British times. Fiji thus is home to a mixed culture, with people from all over India … from Bihar to Uttar Pradesh and the Nepal border to Kerala, all living together as if they are part of one extended family. The Indo-Fijian community has done extremely well for itself, integrated itself well with Fijian society, and has contributed in no small measure to the development of the nation. So much so that many of the current generation have risen to the zenith of endeavour in politics and government, industry and business, art and culture et al., like the High Commissioner himself. NRI Achievers had a brief tete-a-tete with the HC a few days ago, and we bring you some excerpts from that conversation here.
“India is an important country for us, not merely due to the fact that a large proportion of Fijians have their roots here, but as an important trade, business and economic partner. While all along bilateral relationships between Fiji and India have been excellent, the balance of trade have always so far been in India’s favour, with Fiji being a nett importer of Indian goods. We have recently taken the initiative to make this relationship more of a two way street by launching an Indo Fiji Trade Promotion Body here in India, which is like any other bilateral trade council between two countries. The membership is open to anyone, a public servant, private individuals and institutions, any well-wisher could become a member, a patron of the body.
“The council will have people from all major sectors of both sides involved, and will serve as a permanent linkage between ministries, industries, service sector and foreign trade institutions of both countries. More importantly, the business to business link will be strengthened. This has become important for us now that we have started looking beyond our traditional trade boundaries, and find a lot of potential in India’s huge market where we can be immensely competitive and gain from it. That is another reason we are welcoming the Indian private sector to participate proactively in this. We do have an active Fiji India Business Council in Fiji at Suva, so now both councils can interlink and interact fruitfully.
“To start with, we have offered to facilitate the council’s functioning, the charter and constitution is almost ready, and the council could operate from our premises in Delhi to start with, where we will offer secretarial support, etc. This will be like a hub. After Delhi, we will also have branch offices for the council in Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and also in Ahmedabad, as each of these are major centres of economic activity in India. We are aware that it is a bit late in the day for this sort of an initiative, it should have happened much earlier, but better late than never is the adage, and so when I came here and assumed charge as the Charge d’Affairs, I had this on my agenda all along. It took time, as there were a lot of legalities involved, clearances were needed from the elected governments of Fiji and India, the nomenclature and use of the names of the countries, etc., and I am happy that we are now seeing the light of day and the council will now be in place sooner than later.
“From the point of view of prospects and compulsions, Fiji is as of now very heavily dependent on imports for much of manufactured goods, and we are desirous of transitioning our economy into more of a manufacturing economy, at least in some sectors to start with. In order to facilitate this, several policy frameworks have been put in place and several measures have been taken to incentivise this. There are tax free zones in and around Suva, and zero import duty for capital goods like plant and machinery, and agricultural tech. We firmly believe that India can be a proactive partner in helping us achieve our priorities and goals, and a positive step in that direction are the several MoUs have been signed in the recent past between the two countries, worth mention here is the MoU on the avoidance of double taxation.
“While on the subject of building an industrial base and manufacturing infrastructure in the country, I often get asked how this is not in conflict of interest with Fuji’s key attraction to inbound tourists, income from whom forms a large part of the island nations revenue. So I would like to reiterate that we are very very mindful of our environment and ecology, the long and beautiful beaches, the golden sands, the crystal clear waters, pristine and unspoiled forest regions etc., there isn’t any way in which we are going to undertake activities that will be detrimental to our natural wealth. Legislatively, we do have some of the best, very good laws on environmental protection.And anyone who would like to set up and manufacture goods in Fiji will perforce need to abide by these laws, which are very effective indeed. I am not saying that this is a hindrance, but there are well defined avenues for dialogue between investors and the Fijian government, that could address these nitty-gritty and arrive at a solution.
“Inbound tourism is one of the mainstays of our economy, and the sector contributes to making up a considerable percentage of our national income. And most of the tourists who come to Fiji, which is in the 700,000 region, are what I would say high-end travellers. India for us is a huge market from the tourism perspective, especially due to the fact that Indians are some of the highest spenders in the world when they travel. So even if we get a fraction of the business from India, it would mean a quantum leap for our tourism sector.
“While we do have a tourism office in Mumbai, I would say that Fiji as a destination has not yet been promoted much or marketed well in India. India is simply so huge that we need to first build up an infrastructure to promote and market Fiji here in India. But now that we have a the beginnings of a trade promotion council here connected to the other end of the linkage at Suva, I am sure that we will see some of the potential being tapped in the near future.
“One aspect that the business community in India is interested about knowing is our attitute and perception towards China. Fiji as a nation is a friendly entity, and we have not given any special preference to any country. We largely follow our foreign policy imperatives, our geo-political posture and positioning, and have cordial good relations with all countries. China has been kind enough to offer Fiji several good package deals and has helped us when we were going through a difficult phase, but there is no special preferences, or MFN status, between Fiji and China. India though, enjoys a very special place indeed in the hearts and minds of all Fijians, for reasons that I do not have to repeat … half our population is of Indian origin. Dealing with India is easier as well, due to that bonding, that umbilical that links both countries, as well as linguistic affinities and a common heritage via the United Kingdom.
“On the matter of human capital, there are many thousands of Indian citizens who live and work out of Fiji, as expatriates in the fields of management, information technology, as consultants, and yes, as academicians. In the teaching profession, we have more Indian academics at our schools and institutions of higher learning than any other nationality. And they get pay packets, perquisites and a standard of life that is on par with the best in the world. But of late over the past two decades or so, we have seen a tapering off, maybe a trend manifested due to the sort of major strides that your Indian economy is making, which has expanded the opportunities in the home economy itself. Yet, for Indians travelling to Fiji, it would not be very difficult at all whether they come as tourists or they come for work, as we speak the languages you speak, Hindi and English being common, we eat similar food, and are a very friendly people.”