India the world’s biggest democracy Interview with His Excellency Mr. Indra Mani PANDEY
Q: Your Excellency, could you tell us a little about yourself and how
your career evolved so that you ended up in Geneva?
I joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1990. After my training, my first posting abroad was in Cairo in January 1992, where my primary task was to study Arabic. In my diplomatic service of over 30 years, I have served at Indian–– Missions in Damascus, Islamabad and Kabul. Later, I served as Consul General in Guangzhou (China), as Deputy Ambassador in Paris and as Ambassador in Muscat, the beautiful capital of the Sultanate of Oman. This is my second assignment in Geneva; I was posted in Geneva earlier from September 2003 to December 2006 as Counsellor (Disarmament) and served as India’s delegate to the Conference on Disarmament.
Q: You have a long and impressive career. Is there any particular
place you served that is close to your heart?
Thanks! It certainly has been a long career. All the places that I have been posted to presented unique challenges and opportunities and were great learning and enriching experiences. However, I always remember very fondly my assignment in Kabul. Though it presented very unique challenges, including the perception of threat to personal security, I feel happy that I was able to contribute, in my own small way, in the reconstruction and rebuilding of Afghanistan, which made a direct and tangible contribution to the well-being of the Afghan people.
Q: India has commenced 75 weeks long celebration of the 75th anniversary of its independence, which will culminate in a grand celebration on 15 August 2022. What is the significance of this celebration and how do you assess the achievements of India since its independence?
Yes, we have commenced, since 12 March 2021, 75-weeks long celebration of the 75th Anniversary of India’s independence. It will be our endeavour to highlight key facets of India@75, including various aspects of Indian civilization, our diverse society and unique cultural traditions, our democratic polity and the strides that we have made in development, including in science and technology.
In the past seven decades, India has emerged as the world’s largest democracy; we have nurtured political inclusion and empowerment through our vibrant and participative democracy. We have succeeded in building institutions, which have sustained our democratic polity. We have taken democracy to the grassroots through our local self-governance institutions at the village, block and district levels.
India has also been successful in achieving inclusive and sustainable development. We have emerged as the third largest economy of the world on purchasing power parity basis. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic we set the goal of building a self-reliant India, a country that will be engaged with the world more than ever through trade and investments and will contribute to global growth and development.
India’s achievements should be assessed in the light of the challenges, which we faced at the time of our independence due to two centuries of subjugation and colonial exploitation, and the challenges that we have been facing since due to our geo-strategic environment, the Cold War and contemporary global challenges, such as climate change and terrorism.
Q. The Indian Constitution has enshrined basic human rights as fundamental rights, including the right to religious freedom and education. Would you say that India was ahead of its time?
The makers of India’s Constitution were visionaries who were influenced by the ideals that inspired India’s struggle for freedom from colonial rule. They were also aware of the principal elements of human rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights were enshrined in our Constitution. There are several identical features between the fundamental rights enshrined in India’s Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For instance, key human rights, such as equality before law, non-discrimination on grounds of religion, race and sex, freedom of speech and expression, right to life and liberty and judicial remedy against violation of rights have all been provided for in the Indian Constitution.
Q: How has the Indian Constitution borne the test of time,
particularly in its guarantee of religious freedom?
As you are aware, India is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multilingual and multicultural country. It is home to almost all religions of the world, and secularism has been a fundamental tenet of India’s Constitution and its democratic polity. Equal respect for all religions has been an article of faith for Indian civilization and society. The people of India are entitled to freedom of conscience and enjoy the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion, subject only to public order, morality, health and other such provisions as laid down in the Constitution. They have the right to conserve their distinct language, script or culture. The fact that the number of the followers of various religions in India has continued to grow since independence is, in itself, a testimony that the people of India have been enjoying the freedom of religion or belief guaranteed under the Indian constitution. Our Constitution has served us well, as reflected in the success of our democratic and inclusive polity.
Q: India is currently a member of the United Nations Security Council. However, India, has also been seeking a permanent seat at the Council. How does India’s current (short-term) membership affect this effort, and why is it so important for India to be a permanent member?
The UN has been in existence for over 75 years now. However, the structure of the UN Security Council is a classic example of the reluctance to reform the architecture of a UN body that is reflective of an outdated geopolitical, post-war construct of the 1940s. When the Security Council first met in January 1946, only 51 States were Members of the UN. Today, there are 193. The world has changed significantly in the last 75 years. The UN, unfortunately, is still stuck in 1945. The leaders of the world came together in 2005 and called for early reform of the Security Council. Fifteen years have since passed, but there has been no progress.
If we look at the performance of the UN in the last 75 years, we find that while it has indeed prevented the outbreak of another World War, it has failed to adapt itself to new challenges and to a changing world order. An expansion of the Security Council, in both the Permanent and non-Permanent categories, is indispensable to making this body more representative, legitimate and effective. The sad reality is that while the overwhelming majority of UN Member States firmly supports the comprehensive reform of the Security Council, a handful of status-quoists have consistently opposed any change. An immediate and time-bound text-based negotiation is critical. That’s what we have called for and will continue to pursue. We will be working with like-minded partners and look at options to overcome the obstacles in our pursuit of this goal. India is not just a member of the G4, it is also a core member of the L69, a group of developing countries from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.
India represents the voice of one-sixth of humanity and has always championed the cause of the developing world. As a country that has always believed in dialogue, committed to rule of law and championed a fair and equitable world order, India can offer an alternative voice and vision to global peace and security. Within the Council, India will not only be a bridge-builder, but our presence will also bring much-needed credibility and transparency to Council deliberations.
Q: India is the world’s biggest democracy and your country is an
active member of the Human Right’s Council. What are your priorities in this field, generally, and for this year, in particular?
While India remains committed to upholding basic human rights and their global promotion and protection, we have been of the view that the human rights agenda must be pursued in a fair manner with objectivity, respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-interference in internal affairs of States, non-selectivity and transparency.
Our emphasis remains on both promotion, that entails support for capacity building and protection of human rights, which is to be pursued through dialogue, consultation and consensus-building. We also emphasize the primacy of national responsibility and efforts in realization of human rights. We support the view that the Human Right’s Council should adhere to its mandate, established rules of procedure and standard practices. We have highlighted the importance of cooperation with Member States, upon request, through capacity building, technical cooperation and financial assistance.
We advocate a holistic and integrated approach that emphasizes the interdependence, interrelatedness, indivisibility and universality of human rights. In order to restore the balance between political and civil rights vis-à-vis economic, social and cultural rights, India has been emphasizing the full and effective enjoyment of economic and social rights and the Right to Development.
India has affirmed the interrelationship between development, human rights, democracy, and international cooperation. As a member of the Human Rights Council, we aim to bring in a pluralistic, moderate and balanced perspective to straddle various divides or differences that exist in the Council. Our democratic credentials, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multilingual and multicultural nature makes us an ideal country to adopt this approach.
The human rights agenda continues to face severe challenges, most of all from terrorism. The ongoing pandemic has aggravated the challenges faced by the countries in implementing their human rights obligations. At the same time, the Council, like other multilateral institutions and mechanisms, needs to be reformed to be able to deal with the contemporary challenges effectively.
Q: We are living in quite usual times, when a virus causing Covid-19 is changing our lives. How is the situation today in your country in
these pandemic times?
The pandemic has caused unforeseen disruptions and has posed enormous and unprecedented socio-economic challenges. No country has remained untouched. India is passing through a severe second wave of infection. As of 3 May 2021, India had 3.41 million active cases, which has strained the country’s health infrastructure and services. While 16.29 million had recovered, 219,000 people had died. By this date, 157 million doses of vaccines had been administered.
India’s Covid-19 strategy has been based on the mantra of ‘Jaan bhi, Jahan bhi’ – saving lives as well as livelihoods. Continuing on the path to ramping up our capacities, securing the needs of poorest citizens and future proofing our society, India was among the first few countries in enforcing a responsive system of lockdowns and in launching public awareness campaigns about social distancing and the use of face masks. We have been able to upscale our health infrastructure, including Covid hospitals, ICU capacities and testing facilities. Further, fulfilling the basic needs and welfare of the most vulnerable sections of our society has been our top priority.
India has always been in the forefront when it comes to global cooperation, and as always, India played a pivotal role through supply of essential medicines, test kits and protection gear to over 150 countries, mostly as grants. We have supplied around 66 million doses of vaccines to around 80 countries.
Q: We have heard about the farmers’ strike in India. Could you tell us about it and what the situation is now?
The Government of India has set the goal of doubling the income of farmers by 2022 and the reforms carried out through three Farm Acts, passed by the Indian Parliament in 2020. There has been debate within India on the need for carrying out reforms in the mechanisms and institutions for the marketing of agro-produce since the beginning of economic reforms in India in the 1990s.
The three Farm Acts were passed by the Parliament of India, after protracted debates both inside and outside Parliament, with the sole purpose of creating a conducive environment for farmers to realize better prices for their produce and, thereby, enhance their income and lead a better life.
In line with India’s well entrenched democratic traditions, including resolution of differences through dialogue and discussion, the Government has shown utmost respect for protest by some farmers, which is limited to a few States in India. The Government has remained engaged in dialogue with the organizations representing protesting farmers in order to find a mutually acceptable solution. It has offered clause-by clause discussion over the three Farm Acts.
The Supreme Court of India has been seized with the issue and has ordered that the implementation of the three Farm Acts be kept in abeyance, which has been accepted by the Government. The Supreme Court has constituted a Committee to look into the grievances of farmers. The Government has repeatedly assured farmers that the existing system of public procurement at minimum support price and operation of government-regulated agricultural markets will continue.
The Government has reiterated its commitment to engage the organizations, representing farmers in dialogue and suspend the implementation of the three Farm Acts following the orders of the Supreme Court. The two Houses of Parliament have been seized of the matter and have been engaged in debate over the issues raised by the farmers.
Q: Beyond the Human Rights Council, what are the priorities for India in the international organizations in Geneva?
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the global unpreparedness to handle pandemics of this scale and nature. Health Diplomacy has come to occupy an important role in multilateral diplomacy. We believe that the World Health Organization (WHO), which has been making significant contribution in international cooperation in the health sector, including technical assistance and capacity building, must be reformed, strengthened and better equipped and financed to assist Member States in dealing with health emergencies like pandemics. India has been actively engaged with the WHO as well as other health-related organizations in Geneva, like GAVI.
As the Chair of the Executive Board of WHO, we have ensured that the necessary guidance is provided to the WHO. We continue to engage with all the stakeholders in the ongoing process of strengthening and reforming WHO. We have presented a detailed memoir to the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response and shared our experiences with them.
India has a permanent seat at the Governing Board of ILO and our priority has been to make the ILO Supervisory structures and processes more transparent, fair and democratic. India is also the current Chair of the Governing Body of ILO, which has placed us in a position to steer the ongoing process to achieve these objectives in coordination with other stakeholders. We believe that ILO should play an important role in providing technical guidance and necessary support during the post-pandemic phase of socio-economic recovery and rebuilding.
India and ITU maintain excellent bilateral multilateral cooperation. India has been a member of ITU since its inception and is currently serving as an elected member of ITU’s Governing Council during the 2019-2022 term. As a specialized agency of the UN, ITU sets the regulatory framework for telecom and other relevant technologies. India has been actively participating in the discussions in expert groups to frame global standards for application of various technologies. Our "Digital India Programme" closely aligns with ITU’s objectives and policies. It seeks to transform India into a digitally empowered society by ensuring robust ICT infrastructure and Internet connectivity. India’s indigenous 5G mobile technology has been accepted by ITU as a part of the International Mobile Telecommunication (IMT 2020) global standards. It significantly brings down the cost of 5G mobile services, making it suitable for use in rural areas where around 60 per cent of India’s population resides. It will help in bridging the digital divide and promote digital inclusion.
India will be hosting the “World Telecommunication standardization Assembly” (WTSA-2022) at Hyderabad from 28 February to 11 March 2022. The WTSA is held every four years and sets international standards for information and communication technologies.
India has endeavoured to emerge as the global hub for innovation and, as a part of its goal of creating an appropriate ecosystem for innovation, India has focused on improving the structures and processes for implementation of its intellectual property obligations. In realizing this goal, India has been working closely with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and will strengthen its engagement with WIPO in the future.
India will also continue to engage intensively with UNCTAD with a view to maximizing the economic opportunities and benefits for developing countries and ensuring the success of the 15th Ministerial Conference of UNCTAD later this year in Barbados.
Q: Can you tell us how your country reconciles tradition and
modernization with the development of technology?
India is an example of continuity with change. The ancient Indian civilizational traditions, ethos and values continue to co-exist alongside modern values and traditions. Historically, India has been exposed to external religious, cultural and other influences and has shown its unique capacity to assimilate and integrate them, while maintaining its own traditions and values. Since independence, Indian society has become more inclusive, integrated and progressive. It has adapted to modern values and ethos while continuing with its several millennia old religious and cultural traditions. Indians have adjusted to new ways of living their lives, using modern technologies without upending the traditional ways of living. A digital transformation of Indian society is underway.
Q: Finally, your Excellency, is there any one UN organization in Geneva that you have a special interest in, personally?
India, which is the world’s second most populated country, has the second largest workforce of the world. Over 15 million Indians also live and work in various countries. I have been closely interacting with the International Labour Organization (ILO) with a view to promoting the welfare of India’s large workforce.