India should not have a "one size fits all policy" towards Africa and there is need to increase interaction and trade with Western Africa, especially with Niger having large uranium reserves and willing to export to energy-hungry India, said a group of experts who visited West Africa as part of an advisory group on the continent.
At the first meeting of the Reconstituted Advisory Group on Africa, a Track II dialogue on Africa which gives its inputs to the government on policy, experts pointed out that one major lacuna was a "lack of knowledge" about the vast 54-nation continent and the "realities of Africa in India". "There is need for sustained dialogue at all levels," said leader of the delegation, former ambassador Niranjan Desai, at the meeting at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA).
Africa, with a growth rate of over 5 percent, is emerging as "a continent of hope". India, the fourth largest trade partner of Africa, has been focussing on east and southern Africa largely and ignoring West Africa, which has much to offer. India's trade with West Africa now stands at 40 percent of trade with Africa.
To increase interaction with the western region, it is very important for India to build institutional linkages with the academia, think tanks and build partnerships, said Shamma Jain, joint secretary ICWA at the De-briefing session on West Africa Conference by the ICWA team.
Despite the presence of China, which has deep pockets, in Africa in a big way and its involvement in developmental projects in the continent, India is considered a "benign partner" in its efforts at ]capacity building through its many development partnerships, including through the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme (ITEC), the experts said
Ruchita Beri of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) said that peace and security had emerged as areas of concern during the delegation's conferences in Accra (Ghana) and in Dakar (Senegal). "India could help in tackling piracy, in joint maritime surveillance," she said referring to the piracy problem in the Gulf of Guinea of the West African coast.
"India should not have a one size fits all policy in Africa.. it should enhance relations with countries that matter bilaterally," she said.
In Senegal, which is Francophone or French speaking, there is a language difference but it is not a barrier. "Niger is rich in uranium and it has said it has no barriers in supplying uranium to India," she said.
There is in force the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty - Pelindaba Treaty - in 13 states. They would observe proper safeguards for allowing uranium exports. "There are no barriers on Niger or other countries on supplying uranium to India through bilateral arrangements," said Beri.
Another participant, Mohammad Gulrez of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), said while the government of India through EXIM bank is involved in a lot of capacity building projects in Africa, it is not advertised enough. "We need to propagate the work we do in larger numbers," he said, adding that the Indian film industry could help the Ghana film industry with its expertise.
The Ministry of External Affairs officials who participated indicated that India is in diplomatic talks with Nigeria on consular issues involving prisoners serving sentence, following the recent death of a Nigerian national in Goa and the resultant violence. Nigeria is India's second largest trading partner in the continent after South Africa, as well as a major source of hydrocarbon imports.
Agriculture, joint research collaboration in herbal drugs, promoting African studies in India and vice versa, research collaborations, increased high level engagement by the government of India through visits were among the other issues raised by participants.
"India's policy is one of engagement with Africa, that is now become one of enhanced engagement, " Rajiv Bhatia, director general ICWA said summing up the proceedings.
"India's Africa policy exists, because India needs an Africa policy. If India wants to be a global power it cannot do so without engaging Africa," he added.