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Q&A: Hemant Krishan Singh

'Standards in Japan are among the world's best'

Aditi Phadnis  |  New Delhi 

Hemant Krishan Singh

Japan will bounce back from this temporary setback, Hemant Krishan Singh, till recently India’s ambassador to Japan, tells Aditi Phadnis...

You were India’s ambassador to Japan for a long time. You’ve just returned from Tokyo. How do you think Japan is going to cope with this natural disaster?
Given their historic experience in dealing with natural disasters, the Japanese are well prepared to cope. Japan’s disaster prevention, mitigation and management capacities are the most advanced in the world. These capacities were further strengthened after the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Japan has the highest regulatory standards for buildings, particularly schools, hospitals and public service institutions, partly because these buildings also serve as secure shelters. This preparedness extends from self-defence forces to civil-defence bodies, all the way down to prefectures, cities, communities and ordinary citizens.

But the current disaster’s sheer magnitude is simply unprecedented. As if a quake numbering nine on the Richter scale was not enough, it unleashed a tsunami of unimaginable proportions stretching over hundreds of kilometres, with waves as high as 30 feet at some places… The earthquake took a few lives, but it was the tsunami that caused the maximum destruction and loss of lives.

Even in the midst of this tragedy, the Japanese have maintained their unmatched capacity for stoic dignity, civic responsibility and communal discipline.

The Japanese economy was not doing that well even earlier. What is your prognosis for the future?
After growing at roughly two per cent between 2003 and 2007, the economy suffered a setback in 2008, along with the rest of the world, following the sub-prime crisis in the US.

Recovery in 2009-10 has been feeble. Deflationary trends are prevalent in the economy. The silver lining was that in the first two months of this year, there was new momentum towards positive recovery. Obviously, the natural disaster will be a setback. The three most affected prefectures contribute 3.6 per cent to Japan’s GDP, but of course, the impact will be felt in the wider economy. It is still early to assess the extent of the damage, but some estimates put it at around $200 billion.

However, as a result of the recovery efforts to be launched by the government, the Japanese economy could see a fresh impetus in the second half of the year, possibly adding half-a-per cent to the GDP growth. But, these are still early days.

India has been the second-largest recipient of Japanese Overseas Development Assistance (ODA). Do you think this will be impacted?

In fact, India has been the largest recipient of Japanese ODA for the past six years. In terms of the economic relations between India and Japan, there are three elements: ODA-led infrastructure assistance, investment and trade. ODA has remained steady at around $2.4 billion a year for the last three years. I do not forsee that there will be any adverse impact on committed projects. There could be some delays, perhaps, but for the long-term projects such as the Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) West, the pledges will be fulfilled.

In terms of the trading relationship which is growing but still modest, there may be an inevitable short-term impact. But, I do not envisage any significant downturn.

On investments, which have grown at a healthy pace in the last four years to exceed $10 billion again, I don’t see more than a short-term impact. There are good economic reasons for that. For continued growth, Japanese industrialists are focused on a strategy of tapping Asia’s emerging markets on the one hand and helping these markets to expand further by boosting regional infrastructure on the other. The pull factor of India’s dynamic economy and growing market remains unchanged.

Of course, we will have to watch the impact of this unfolding disaster on Japan’s own economy and the global economy as well. Already, there have been cutbacks in both the automotive and electronics industries that will have a bearing on the international supply chains.

To those who say, “nuclear power is not safe; look at Japan, even there it isn’t safe”, what should we say?
Despite the sensitivity of the Japanese on this issue, one-third of Japan’s power needs are met by nuclear power. There are plans to increase this to 40 per cent, through better capacity utilisation and building of new plants.

Japanese standards of safety are among the highest in the world. When it comes to the Fukushima-Daiichi plant, my understanding is that it withstood the earthquake impact quite well, but it was the tsunami that greatly damaged its emergency response mechanisms. Once matters are brought back under control, we will get a clearer picture of how safety standards will be reassessed and enhanced. As a leader in nuclear energy technology, Japan will be able to benchmark even better and higher safety standards.

As far as India is concerned, 40 per cent of our people are still without the benefit of electricity. Nuclear power has a role to play in bridging India’s energy deficit, and appropriate lessons on safety issues will have to be factored in.

Much diplomacy goes into rehabilitation, following natural disasters. We saw that when the tsunami struck India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Japan is one of India’s closest friends in east Asia — possibly the only real friend. And yet, China sends manpower as part of the rehabilitation and we send just blankets…
India’s assistance has been calibrated to reach victims quickly and provide an effective remedy as half-a-million Japanese remain in temporary shelters facing a severe winter. We are also sending drinking water. A rescue and relief team is on standby. We are in constant touch on what more can be done. However well-intentioned, volunteers and bulky supplies can sometimes hamper rescue operations by overloading logistical infrastructure.

The Japanese people have always been a leading example of human resolve, resilience and cohesive effort. As they have many times before, I am sure they will overcome this monumental tragedy and rebuild the areas devastated by the disaster. They know that anything India can provide them is theirs for the asking.

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First Published: Sun, March 20 2011. 00:43 IST