I was quite delighted when I read in the news last week that the Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago, the Hon Kamla Persad-Bissessar, is currently on a ten day official mission to India at the invitation of Indian Prime Minister, the Hon Manmohan Singh. Though I am not Trinibagonian or Indian for that matter, the news piqued my interest, particularly because I am a firm believer in south-south trade and development. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the prospects of enhancing Brazil-CARICOM trade. This week, the state visit by Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar serves as a good backdrop against which to consider the prospects for enhanced Trinidad & Tobago-India trade.
India-Trinidad & Tobago connection
Trinidad & Tobago proudly calls itself the land of steelpan, calypso and chutney. Successive waves of European colonialism, indenture-ship and later waves of migration have made the twin island republic one of the most multicultural societies in the Commonwealth Caribbean.
Trinidad & Tobago and India share more than just a deep passion for cricket. Though separated by many thousands of kilometers of land and sea, they are united by deep historic and cultural bonds rooted in the colonial experience. Indo-Trinibagonians are estimated to comprise 42% of that country’s population. Take a walk down the streets of Port of Spain on an average day and you can see restaurants and street vendors selling Indian-inspired local delicacies like roti and buss-up-shut. The uptempo rhythm of Chutney music shares the airwaves with soca and calypso and national holidays like Indian Arrival Day, Diwali and Eid-ul-Fitr are celebrated with reverence.
Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, whose ancestral village is in Bihar in India, is the first woman and the second person of Indian descent to ascend to the reins of Government in Trinidad & Tobago. She is also the first woman of the wider Indian diaspora to become a Head of Government. Accompanied on the mission by a high-level ministerial and business delegation which also includes cricketing legend, Brian Lara, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar is the chief guest at the 10th Pravasi Bhartiya Divas (PBD) ‘Global India-Inclusive Growth’ in Jaipur and will be conferred the coveted Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award. The PBD is a prestigious annual event which unites distinguished persons of Indian origin across the world. The event is part of India’s wider efforts to court and harness the potential of its vast diaspora for socio-economic development in the homeland and Trinidad & Tobago has seized the opportunity with open arms.
Trinidad & Tobago-India Bilateral Trade
Trinidad & Tobago and India have long shared strong diplomatic ties, which have been cemented through formal and informal cultural exchanges over the years, including the establishment of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Cultural Cooperation in Port of Spain and the provision of Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme scholarships to Trinibagonian students each year.
Trinidad & Tobago and India already do a fair and growing amount of bilateral trade. According to a recent study published by the Export-Import Bank of India, Trinidad & Tobago is the leading country for Indian imports from the region, accounting for 79% in 2009-10 and is the second largest importer of Indian goods from the region (after the Bahamas). The report reveals that manufactures of metals account for nearly half of Trinidad & Tobago’s imports from India followed by petroleum products, primary & semi-finished iron & steel, pharmaceutical products and plastic & linoleum products. Trinidad & Tobago is also the largest destination for Indian investment in the region, receiving 67.5% of these flows. The main sectors for Indian investment in Trinidad & Tobago include finance, iron and steel and metal and food processing. Several major Indian multinational firms like Arcelor Mittal and the New India Assurance Co already have a presence in that country. India and Trinidad & Tobago also have a double taxation treaty.
Embracing ‘Mother India’
The move by Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar to capitalize on India’s overtures towards engaging its diaspora for homeland development is a smart and strategic one. Despite its current economic woes, India remains one of the most robust and dynamic economies in the world. Currently the world’s tenth largest economy, India is predicted by the economic think tank the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) to become the world’s fifth largest economy by 2020. Besides the gains which Trinidad & Tobago-India trade present for south-south trade, Indian expertise and investment could help in Trinidad & Tobago’s export diversification, while greater trade links with India could help reduce the vulnerability associated with an over-reliance on too few export markets.
Moreover, the move to embrace ‘Mother India’ is one which has global precedent. The Pacific island nation of Mauritius, which bears several similarities with Trinidad & Tobago including a large Indian diaspora, has strategically deepened its economic and cultural links with the sub-continent. Mauritius is not only among the top direct investors in India, but the island is currently one of the preferred destinations for Indian outward FDI and serves a gateway for Indian investment in Africa.
Though Indian investment in foreign countries has slowed, closer economic ties between India and Trinidad & Tobago could make it easier for Indian businesses to invest in and do business in Trinidad & Tobago and vice-versa. The Export-Import Bank of India study cited several areas of potential sectors of Indian investment in Trinidad & Tobago, chiefly energy, fish processing, film and ICTs. Besides its low energy costs, well-skilled workforce and favourable investment climate and incentives package, the twin island republic’s geographic location has also been touted by its Prime Minister as the perfect base for Indian investment in the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region and for Ayurveda and wellness centres specialising in traditional Indian medicine and healing.
In terms of Trinidad & Tobago-India services trade, there is much potential as well given the skills and know-how which Indian professionals could continue to bring to Trinidad & Tobago, particularly in the areas of engineering, traditional Indian medicine and information technology. This expertise sharing will not be one-way. As Prime Minister Persad- Bissessar acknowledged, Trinidad & Tobago can provide to India over a hundred years of technical expertise in oil and natural gas production. Indeed, Trinidad & Tobago is already sharing this expertise with other developing countries, including Ghana.
There is also much scope for expanded cultural industries trade and tourism given the strong cultural affinity many in the Indo-Trinibagonian community feel with ‘Mother India’ and the popularity of Bollywood music and films in Trinidad & Tobago. Trinidad & Tobago has also signaled an intention to promote steelpan music in India. Despite the long distance and prohibitive costs of air travel, Indo-Trinidadians seeking to trace their Indian roots and to learn about their ancestral home could be a good target market for Indian tourism officials. In regards to Indian tourism in Trinidad & Tobago, the Trinidad & Tobago government has already waived visa restrictions on Indians visiting that country for tourism and business purposes within a 90 year period.
Indeed, the prospects for deepening Trinidad & Tobago and Indian trade are bright and exciting. According to the joint statement released by India and Trinidad & Tobago, bilateral agreements have already been signed on cooperation in the areas of air services, culture, technical education and traditional Indian medicine. Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar has also offered Trinidad & Tobago as a venue for hosting PBDs in the Caribbean. I think it would be useful for Trinidad & Tobago and India to encourage cooperation between their respective investment promotion agencies in order to better inform potential investors of investment opportunities in their respective countries and to facilitate the flow of investments between the two countries. Just two more days are left in the official visit. I look forward to what other prospects they bring.