Photo : Paras Ramoutar

In the hustle and bustle of British imperialism and colonialism through the East India Company which ended in 1858 after 231 years of trade with Asia, neither the Caribbean, and more specifically Trinidad and Tobago, was anywhere on the agenda for any kind of relationships with that ill-fated entity.

Some 13 years earlier, 1845, the British looked to India for human resources to assist the then colony of Trinidad and Tobago to give the latter human capacity support in order to rebuild the colony’s depreciating agricultural economy following the abolition of African slavery by an Act of the British Parliament in 1838.

India stood out firmly to supply labour to several countries, and Trinidad and Tobago was the recipient of just about 148,000 East Indians who were sourced from that country between 1845 and 1917. The saga of Indian indentureship is fully documented, and daily we hear of new issues and challenges which faced the indentured labourers. We are now observing the centenary of the abolition of indentureship 1917-2017.

Today, 2018, this article takes an analytical look at where trade, commercial relations between India and Trinidad and Tobago stands. This year is also the 68th anniversary of India as a Republic, and the 173rd Indian Arrival Day, May 30, 2018. And as momentum picks up, there must be no turning back by the both geographical entities.

With world globalization, countries now have to take the quantum leap to forge new trade alliances and trade blocs in order to survive in a ferocious world economy. And it seems that both India and Trinidad and Tobago seem poised for an increased outlook in bilateral relations, and this augurs well for a positive  outcome. Figures issued by the Indian High Commission Trade Unit show that that India exported US $ 81.52 and Trinidad and Tobago imported US$8.9 million in 2012-13. In 2016-2017, India imported US$173.54 million and Trinidad and Tobago exported US$84.53 million. And the potential remains secured, that with this trend, trade between these two countries could reach the ballpark figure of $500 million in the ensuing years.

Remember that India with its vast human resources and creative skills in IT in all its forms, and in other forms of human endeavor, this major partner in BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China), could never end the charge to produce and sell its goods and services to any part of the globe, inclusive of Trinidad and Tobago. It must be noted that exports to India, however, have shown a decline principally because of a short fall in LNG exports and the economy having been severely impacted by the global downturn which has led to a negative rate of growth. TT exports should increase with the Government’s intervention in encouraging exports beyond CARICOM and the Latin and South American markets.

The Trade Agreement signed between India and TT in January 1997 accords Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to each other. Additionally, there is also a Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement. Though it has been static around US$100 for years, bilateral trade increased to US $258.07 million today.

Based on its economically influential role in the region and supported by regional and bilateral preferential trade agreements, T&T provides excellent opportunities to exporters from India to access the Caribbean region and beyond. An enhanced potential for growth of bilateral trades in textile, garments, pharmaceuticals, energy, machinery, petro-chemicals, agriculture, IT, arts and handicrafts, tourism, film and music industry.

There have been several reciprocal visits by senior government officials from both side of the aisle, starting with the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in October 1968 when she held high level discussions with our own Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams, including the establishment of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Cultural Co-operation, and still there is no permanent architecture for this ideal to come into fruition. Dr Williams visited India in 1961 and held discussions with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on a series of topics, including the return of the US base in Chaguaramas to this country.

Later on Indian Prime Ministers Rao, Vypayee and Dr Manmohan Singh and TT’s Prime Ministers George Chambers, Basdeo Panday and Kamla Persad-Bissessar reciprocated, and as well, vice-presidents came here. On all these visits, high profiled Government Ministers joined the delegations.

A strong initiative was undertaken by then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar who led a high level delegation which included seven Cabinet Ministers and 160-member strong business representatives. In her honour, Persad-Bissessar was conferred with the prestigious Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award in recognition of her contribution to the socio-economic and cultural development of relationship between both countries. During her visit, some five MOUs and Agreements were signed which included air, technical co-operation, cultural exchanges and traditional medicine.

The ground work has been laid over the years, even starting from 1845, yet these talks usually remain dry on the lips of the negotiators.

Just as Rabindranath Tagore, the philosopher, who laid the foundation for values that would carve a path towards Indian Independence; Mahatma Gandhi was the political strategic who charted the political strategy for the road forward; and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru became the practitioner of that Independence. In this fashion, leaders in Trinidad and Tobago, and India must start the revolutionary initiative to really embark on a programme for sustainable and enhanced trade, commercial relations.

Trinidad and Tobago, and India must graduate from the traditional religious and cultural courtships over the 173 years, and ignite deep trade and economic postures not only for this generation, but one that would remain monumental in trade, commerce, banking, tourism and the like. There is an urgent need to revisit those MOUs and other Agreements which are now covered with dust and insects in cupboards in both capitals.

Trade is not a one-time challenge. It must be an on-going journey, never to be ignored despite whatever issues confront our both countries. The on-going trade shows with second class items, which continue to ornament our landscape at Indian Arrival Day, Divali, India’s Independence Day, among others are not serious matters which we can call sustainable trade enhancement. The organizers of these shows continuously fool the population with their closing dates and locations, ending up with the same personnel and items at different locations.

India must take a serious look at these trade shows, if only for its image, with the recipient countries.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi should take it upon himself to host a trade, commerce, banking, investment conference with leaders of the Caribbean, Latin and South America and Dutch countries washed by the Caribbean Sea whereby he would be able to put and enlarge his, “India Made” stamp. Similarly, these leaders could firmly expand, enlarge and solidify agreements. This could be wrapped up as “India -Caribbean Convergence”. With, England busy with Brexit and the European Union, and the USA with President Donald Trump and North Korea, India could seize the opportunity to take a leadership role on this side of the Atlantic. in a noble partnership.

Former Minister of Finance, and later Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Dookeran, in his meditative and elucidatory book, “Crisis and Promise in the Caribbean- Politics and Convergence”, called for the need for “Caribbean Convergence”. This  is a manifesto or model which could be applied for a  Caribbean-India Convergence Assembly which should include in its agenda: the Central Banks, new thoughts on monetary policy, investor confidence, the International Monetary Fund(IMF), liberalization of the financial services, technology, exchange rates, spawning the new economy, the urgent need for drivers of economic growth and revisiting the several integration movements, while at the same time, harnessing the benefits from a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies, promoting consensus, democracy and diplomacy, continue reforms and promote national security against non-military threats, and the safe guards from external financial and economic shocks.

This could well be a novel and starting amalgam.

Indian Missions and T&T Missions should boldly focus on trade. The continuous talk of air contacts between Air India and Caribbean Airlines must be given credence. So too, expanding the film industry here. The establishment of a High Powered Consultative Committee comprising of government, commentators, community officials to advise Government Ministers and officials to crank up the agreements. Air transport must be linked with Caribbean Airlines and Air India. Culture and religion must not be relegated by the wayside.

There should be serious co-operation and consultations with the Chambers of Commerce and Trading Organizations in both countries to initiate trade matters. Legitimate trade shows must be fully nourished.

There is no trade war between Trinidad and Tobago and India. And there will never be one, unlike with some of the metropolitan countries. And it is time to correct the trade imbalances generated between both countries. Certainly imbalances exist. Both countries have much to redeem history. The time is now. Do it, or face the peril of the future.

Former Indian High Commissioner, Malay Mishra writing in, “Yatra” May June 2009, pointed out. “We wish to overcome the dilemma lurking behind Trini-Indian consciousness and bring them on a platform where they can match their ideals with India’s visibility and feel proud of their heritage. We wish to showcase India by its civilizational presence would like to share it achievements with a pluralistic humanity nourishing on this soil.”  Nobel laureate, Trinidad-born V.S. Naipaul writes in his, “An Area of Darkness”—“India is for me a different country. It is not my home, and yet I cannot reject it or be indifferent to it; I cannot travel only for the sites. I am at once too close and too far…”