Island in the sun

Mauritius can be a springboard for India into Africa. New Delhi can't afford to throw away the advantage it enjoys in the region, writes Lalita Panicker.

india Updated: Aug 01, 2012 00:00 IST
Lalita Panicker
Lalita Panicker
Hindustan Times
Lalita Panicker,Port Louis,Mauritius

Towering over the little yachts fluttering like white butterflies in the harbour at Port Louis, Mauritius, at almost all times of the year are gigantic Indian naval vessels. India may not have had huge foreign policy successes in its own backyard, but far away in this most beautiful of islands in the Indian Ocean, it has by design or by chance actually not done too badly for itself. Of course, now and again, there is the odd kerfuffle.

As when the suave, baritoned Mauritian foreign minister Arvin Boolell visited India recently. Being quoted as wanting to trade two small islands in return for India to drop its objections to the controversial double taxation treaty, he had to ferociously deny that he had made any such offer. And he turned out to be right in the end. Speaking to HT in Port Louis, Boolell was at pains to dispel India's reservations about the treaty. "All measures have been taken to prevent money which passes through the low tax jurisdiction of Mauritius from re-entering India, a practice called round tripping. We are party to all agreements to ensure that no financial offence is committed which could be against India's interests," he said.

In fact, he is vehement that the island nation has gone the extra mile to be of mutual assistance to India in criminal matters and exchange of information, in fact says that his country volunteers information which is something it does not do with any other country, helps in asset recovery and freezing ill-gotten gains.

For India, the potential in this relationship goes way beyond the double taxation treaty. That is if New Delhi were to be perceptive enough to look at it that way. We are in competition, if it can be called that, with China in the race for Africa. China has left us in the dust as of now. But India has traditional ties with the continent. Mauritius could be, and officials in the country seem keen on this, a springboard into Africa for India. It is in all senses the gateway between Asia and Africa. It could actually be a haven for onward Indian investment in Africa given that it has excellent arbitration laws, security for companies and broadband networking.

Now many countries are coming around to the view that Africa can become the breadbasket of the region. The Saudi Arabians, of all the people, have invested in food production in Africa. The Chinese are, as is their wont, everywhere in the continent.

The Mauritius experiment is a remarkable one. It has few natural resources but has managed to pull itself up by its bootstraps and become a first world country in less than 40 years. It has also become a tremendous investment destination for India. Already, several Indian companies have gone in there like Cipla as have some super-speciality hospitals and educational institutions. What we may lose on the roundabout in our own region, thanks to traditional hostilities, we could make up on the swings if we were to use the opportunities Mauritius offers wisely. The country depends on India for all its fuel requirements, a touching act of faith if there ever was one. It has allowed India to set up a satellite tracking system on its soil and its national security adviser is an Indian officer.

It really does help that there is so much interest in India, thanks to the fact that the majority community are people of India origin. Their voyage is so evocatively described in Amitava Ghosh's magnificent novel Sea of Poppies, but what is remarkable is what people who came in as indentured labour have been able to achieve in this island.

Nimble-footed seems quite a favourite word with Boolell. Even as the world spiraled into an economic downturn, this ability on the part of Mauritius saw to it that it did not go down with the ship. Many in the country attribute it to a rare political advantage it has. It has bitterly warring political parties. But when it comes to socio-economic policies, they seem to be on the same page, perhaps because of an astute prime minister. There are constant political re-alignments but continuity and stability, something investors look for, has seen it keep its head above the water.

The Indian IT sector could exploit the thirst for this new field to tremendous advantage. After the financial sector, young people are looking for job opportunities here. But as usual, India seems slow on the uptake in a field which should be walkover for us.

But in many ways, despite all its first world achievements, time has stood still here. You often hear people speaking in obscure caste terms, something you would have expected they would have left behind. It is a highly family oriented society and rushing home after work to spend time with one's parents or children is the norm. With its paradisical beaches, unlike in say Thailand, there is little by way of nightlife, little for young people to do. It is a deeply conservative society, something that is at odds with other island nations like say in the Caribbean. The odd mall is the only outlet for young people to stay out a bit at night.

The rich and famous have their holiday homes here including many from India. Yet, land prices are modest compared to say Delhi or Mumbai. India cannot afford to throw away the mover advantage it has in this region as the virgin markets of Africa open up. It has done so in places like Nepal, a mistake which should be an eye-opener. A strategically located friendly nation is a not a luxury we have often had.

First Published: Jul 31, 2012 23:57 IST