Ravi Shankar, the Indian High Commissioner to Uganda says Indians are already recognised in Kenya. However, whether they are entitled to be a tribe is something which has to be addressed and examined by the government of Uganda. He spoke to The Independent’s Ronald Musoke about this and more.
India has maintained diplomatic presence in Uganda since 1965. What has been the focus of these relations?
Our relations cover political exchanges, commercial ties and investment, human resource development, education, health care, agriculture, manufacturing, industry and the services sector.
Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, visited Uganda in July 2018. What are some of the gains from such visits for both countries?
These high-level visits and exchanges have been an integral part of our relations over the years. We had the visit of H.E President Museveni in 2015 for the India-Africa Forum Summit and subsequently we have had the visit from the Ugandan side by the current Prime Minister, Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, who attended the CII-Exim Bank conclave in 2017. In 2018, we saw the visit of the Honourable Prime Minister, Narendra Modi to Uganda. This visit was a historic one because it was the first bilateral visit to Uganda by an Indian Prime Minister in more than 20 years. One of the landmarks of this visit was the historic address that the prime minister delivered in the Uganda Parliament. During that address, the honourable prime minister enunciated his vision of India’s engagement with Africa; in the present and future. These visits have guided us in the right direction and have laid the path for a more sustained and meaningful cooperation.
What about trade relations between Uganda and India?
India is perhaps the second or third largest trading partner of Uganda. Our bilateral trade is in the range of about US$ 650 million and this is something that has grown over time. I think there are opportunities for both countries to take this figure to higher levels and I will not be surprised if in the coming years, the volume of trade between Uganda and India touches nearly a billion dollars.
Recent Bank of Uganda figures, however, show that Uganda gets about US$41.23 million in exports to India. What explains this huge trade imbalance?
I don’t know if I can answer this question to your satisfaction because this is a question you should be addressing with the Ugandan side. But just to put this in perspective, India is a vast market. We are a population of nearly 1.4 billion people; we have a big economy and we import a lot of products and services. So there is a huge market for the entire world to export to India. What are those commodities which can be exported to India? That is something which the Ugandan exporting community and the Ugandan government has to focus on. There are no restrictions to export to India; the Ugandan exporters and manufacturers are free to export to India. Let me also add that since Uganda is a least developing country in Africa, we have extended what we call preferential tariffs on a wide range of products that Uganda can export to India under zero duty or very little duty.
In the medical field, we see many ailing Ugandans referred to India for medical treatment. What explains India’s ever growing reputation as a medical tourism destination?
First, we have a large pool of well-trained doctors. Secondly, there are new hospitals which are always coming up even though we have a system of government-run hospitals. So, we now have huge capacity in terms of the total number of hospital beds but also the ability to service these kinds of patients. This is one of the reasons why India is able to offer very high quality and affordable health care not just to Indians but also to people from all over the world.
People of Indian origin continue to play a leading role in the Ugandan economy; especially in manufacturing, commerce, agro-processing, banking, real estate, hospitality and IT and they are believed to have made a combined investment of over US$1billion just over the last 20 years. What’s it about the Indian entrepreneurial spirit that helps them thrive?
Indians as a business community have done very well wherever they have gone; not just in Uganda or in Africa. If you go back to history, Indians have always been very good at trading. Here in Uganda, the first wave of Indians came towards the beginning of the 20th century and since then, a lot of them have come here to set up businesses in manufacturing, industry and agriculture. There is a certain spirit of entrepreneurship as well as risk taking which has always been associated with people of Indian origin. In fact, statistics from the Uganda Revenue Authority show that the Indian community which is about 25,000 contributes nearly two-thirds of the direct tax revenue to the Ugandan treasury. But let me just add that the fact that the Indians are doing very well would not have been possible without the support of the Ugandan leadership in particular H.E President Museveni who was personally instrumental in getting them back after they were expelled by President Idi Amin in 1972.
What could the typical Ugandan entrepreneur learn from the typical Indian entrepreneur?
I think Ugandan entrepreneurs have been very quick at learning and making their presence in Uganda felt. What I gather when I speak to people here is that there were very few Ugandan entrepreneurs who were active in the country about 20 years ago. But that has changed now and there is a very sizable new breed of Ugandan entrepreneurs who are practically in every part of the Ugandan economy and they are doing very well. So I don’t think that the Ugandan entrepreneurs lack anything as such. They have become savvier and are fully aware of the opportunities that the Ugandan economy offers to them.
How do you think people of Indian origin should be supported by the Ugandan government to grow the economy even stronger?
I think the government of Uganda has been extremely supportive and sympathetic towards the Indian Diaspora. From the feedback that I get from the Indian Diaspora, they are happy with the current policies that President Museveni has put in place. Certainly, there are issues which are faced not mainly by the Indian Diaspora but by all the business community across various sectors in the country and, these are issues pertaining to good governance, streamlining the decision making process and greater transparency.
What is your view on the current debate about the proposal to have people of Indian origin recognised by the Constitution as one of Uganda’s distinct tribes or ethnic groups?
I am aware that the Indian Diaspora here has made a presentation to the Ugandan leadership that they should be considered as a tribe or as an ethnic group. I am told that in Kenya the Indian Diaspora has already been awarded such distinction. So to that extent, this demand has a reason and there are grounds why the Indian community here has made this request to the Ugandan leadership. I am not aware of how this procedure works in Uganda but I hope that the Ugandan government looks at this request in a positive light and I will be happy if they can actually accede to their request.
Some Ugandans are against this move. They say most of the Indians living here carry British, Indian or Canadian passports while others just arrived recently and want to use this as a scheme to exploit benefits that accrue to indigenous Ugandans?
There can be different views on this subject. Whether the Indian Diaspora is entitled to be a tribe is something which has to be addressed and examined by the concerned ministry and departments of the government of Uganda. I will not really be able to comment on something that is essentially between the Indian community and the government of Uganda.
You also happen to serve as the Indian ambassador to Burundi. What have you made of recent political developments there, particularly the fact that President Pierre Nkurunziza will step down this year having served three consecutive terms?
For India, it is important that the situation in Burundi continues to remain peaceful and stable. You know we have very close relations with Burundi as well. We are assisting Burundi in many areas including offering them soft loans for infrastructure development. We are happy that the government leadership has taken the decision to nominate the CNDD-FDD party Secretary General (Gen. Evariste Ndayishimiye) as the next candidate for the upcoming presidential elections. I am confident that under the new Burundian leadership, our relationship will be even stronger.
Finally, at a more personal level, what have been some of your impressions since you arrived in Uganda?
I have spent a little over three years in Uganda; I am coming to the end of my tenure and will shortly depart for Delhi. It has been a satisfying period for me both professionally and personally. Uganda is a young country with probably half of the population being less than 20-25 years. Just like India, I see that there is a desire among Ugandans especially the younger adults to improve their condition. They want to do well in life, they want to be well educated, they want to get good quality jobs and be able to contribute back to society. I think those are some of the positives that I see here. But this also poses a challenge for Uganda; especially the Ugandan government that has to ensure that as the youth grow up, they will have to have the right education levels in order to help them contribute to the country.