Ambassador: Azerbaijan is an important country and partner for India - INTERVIEW

We always supported the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan

Baku. 26 January. REPORT.AZ/ Interview of Report news agency with Ambassador of India to Azerbaijan Sanjay Rana.

- How do you assess bilateral ties between our two countries? In which areas do you see perspectives to deepen our cooperation?

- Azerbaijan is an important country and partner for India. The people of India and Azerbaijan are close to each other historically and culturally. They have shared traditions of multi-culturalism and tolerance. As you know, there is a historical place near Baku called "Ateshgah" with a Hindu temple where Indian traders used to stay when they were travelling to the Caspian region or Europe. After India's independence, many new cultural and economic linkages were formed. Our famous personalities like President Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and film star Raj Kapoor had visited Baku. Famous Azeri artist Rashid Behbudov had visited India and together with Raj Kapoor worked some interesting projects bringing Indian and Azeri music together. Similarly, famous singer Elmira Rahimova studied Indian music and dance in India.

In 1991, India was among the first countries to recognize the independence of Azerbaijan and established diplomatic ties. Our focus for present time is to bring the people of two countries closer together in all fields including economic, commercial and culture and make new generations aware of each other. For this purpose, we are promoting bilateral trade and investment, cooperation in agriculture, transportation and healthcare etc. as well as implementing student exchange and training programs. At the inter-governmental level, we have regular political consultations as well as Inter-Governmental Commission (IGC) For Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technological Cooperation. It has been agreed to hold the 4th meeting of IGC in Baku in the first half of April, 2016. We will be discussing bilateral cooperation in a wide range of fields, including trade and investment, transportation energy, chemicals and fertilizer, agriculture, financial sector, science & technology, ICT, health care and pharmaceuticals, education, culture, youth and sports, visa free travel, transfer of sentenced persons and tourism. Both India and Azerbaijan are keen to form a reliable, strong, vibrant and mutually beneficial partnership with each-other.

- What can you say about economic relations between India and Azerbaijan? What was the amount of turnover in 2015?

- Trade and investment between India and Azerbaijan have emerged as an important aspect of our bilateral relations and cooperation. As you know, oil and gas sector in Azerbaijan is very strong. Our main upstream oil company, ONGC-Videsh has invested US $ 1 billion in Azerbaijan and holds 2.72% share in the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli oil field and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and has an office in Baku. The Gas Authority of India limited (GAIL) has signed a MoU with the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan, SOCAR to jointly pursue opportunities in LNG procurement and promotion. Indian companies are happy to work in partnership with Azerbaijani companies and they are looking for more investment opportunities in the energy sector here. Indian companies’ regularly buy oil from Azerbaijan and our oil imports form the bulk of the bilateral trade. From India, we also export many goods including pharmaceuticals products, engineering goods, automobiles and spares, agricultural and meat products and IT services. Indian tea and Basmati rice are very popular in Azerbaijan. Speaking about trade turnover, we had a high level of bilateral trade in the recent years but this year it is only US $ 250 million because of low oil prices.

Indian businessmen have been regularly participating in major business events in Azerbaijan, such as ‘Baku Build' and Azerbaijan International Travel and Tourism Fair (AITF). At governmental level, India and Azerbaijan are discussing a number of agreements including the Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (BIPPA) and Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement (DTAA) to facilitate the ease of doing business for the entrepreneurs of the two countries.

India's pharmaceutical products are well-known for their high quality and reasonable prices. Azerbaijan market is relatively small but an important one and we would like more of our pharmaceutical goods to be exported to Azerbaijan. There are, however, some issues regarding the registration of pharmaceutical products that need to be addressed. We will be working with the concerned authorities in Azerbaijan so good quality and reasonably priced Indian Pharmaceutical products could be made available here.

- Azerbaijan and India don't have direct flights, however big interest from both countries. Are there any discussions on the launching of direct flights?

- It is true that there are no direct flights, but there are a lot of good connections through Qatar or Dubai, which are very popular among Indians and Azerbaijani travelers. Of course, if we have direct flights, it will boost the number of tourists and businessmen travelling between India and Azerbaijan. Last year, around 2000 tourists from Azerbaijan travelled to India and this number would increase if there are direct flights. We have an intergovernmental agreement between India and Azerbaijan and we hope that the carriers of the two countries would use it to start direct flights between two countries.

- Indian embassy organizes many cultural events on Indian culture. Can we expect any new cultural projects?

- The Indian Embassy in collaboration with the Indian Association in Azerbaijan has been actively organizing cultural events here. We have organized Indian festivals like Diwali and important events like Indian Constitution Day. We celebrated the World Hindi Day and the International Day of Indians Abroad on 9 January 2016 in collaboration with the Azerbaijan University of Languages which hosts a Hindi center. Our calendar for the rest of year 2016 is also very busy. For instance, on 26 January, we have our Republic Day celebrations. We are going to have flag raising ceremony in the morning and a reception in the evening with cultural program. On 12 February, we are going to organize an event called "Make in India" in association with local business chambers where we will talk with businessmen about possibilities to do business in India and set up manufacturing base there. There are many other events lined for the coming months.

- Do Indian companies plan to use International North-South Transport Corridor to ship their goods to Europe?

- At the moment, there is no direct freight connection to India, and shipping cargo from Mumbai to Baku by sea takes 40 days as it has to go through Suez channel, Black Sea and Georgia. Present day Azerbaijan enjoys a key location on the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) which is being developed jointly by Azerbaijan, India, Iran and Russia along with others. This would connect Mumbai in India with Azerbaijan and Russia via Iranian ports. The proposed INSTC route from Mumbai to Moscow through Bandar Abbas or Chabahar ports in Iran and Baku would be 30 percent cheaper and 40 percent shorter than the current sea route via St. Petersburg. As a part of this project, Azerbaijan is working on laying a railway line of around 8 kilometers connecting Astara on Azerbaijani side with Astara in Iran. Once these links are ready, the trade exchanges between India and Azerbaijan and other markets will get a good boost.

- As we know, four countries launched TAPI project to deliver gas from Turkmenistan to India. Will India be interested in transporting gas from Azerbaijan to India via this project?

- TAPI is very important project for the region and we in India are very optimistic about it. Of course, there are many challenges but these are being addressed jointly by the concerned countries. I am not sure how Azerbaijan would be linking to TAPI project. However, as I mentioned earlier, Indian oil and gas companies are interested in partnerships in the energy sector of Azerbaijan and they are looking for more investment opportunities in oil and gas and petro-chemical industry here.

- What about security issues? How can Azerbaijan and India work together to combat terrorism?

- India has suffered from the problem of international terrorism for several decades. We have condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, including terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and so-called "Islamic State". Terrorism is a scourge for the whole humanity and it is a problem which all countries have to face jointly. India has supported all international counter-terrorism initiatives under the aegis of the United Nations. We work in close cooperation with friendly countries like Azerbaijan to jointly combat terrorism.

- What is position of India regarding Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

- Our position on this issue is clear and consistent. We always supported the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan. Based on these principles, India has supported resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through peaceful negotiations between the two countries. We have also supported the OSCE-Minsk Group actively making efforts to resolve this conflict for the sake of regional security and stability.

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