By Devirupa Mitra
New Delhi, March 7 (IANS) When Indian President Pratibha Patil gave her speech in parliament on Feb 22, one among the millions watching her speak in Hindi on television was Zambian Ambassador S.K. Walubita.
Towards the end of the speech, he heard the magic word. “For the first time, I heard the word Africa mentioned in the president’s speech,” Walubita said.
“Not just that, Zambia also got a mention. I floated up to the ceiling”.
President Patil was recounting Vice President Hamid Ansari’s visit to Zambia, Malawi and Botswana in January this year which carried forward India’s deepening engagement with the African continent.
Walubita, who has been in Delhi since 2004, has been witness to the intensification of India’s spotlight on Africa. “In 2004, we used to get only 10 visitors per month. Now, there are over 200-300 Indians going to Zambia every months, including some who go for tourism,” Walubita told IANS in an interview.
Zambia’s current president, Rupiah Banda, had also attended the 2008 India Africa Forum Summit as the then vice-president.
Zambia had been a close friend of India since the colonial struggles of both countries as well as the heydays of the non-aligned movement. There had been a dip in engagement in the nineties, but there seems to be now a new renaissance in ties.
There has also been a surge in bilateral trade to $207 million in 2007-8. While India exports pharmaceuticals and machinery, the main imports from Zambia were of minerals and raw cotton.
“We want a strong partnership with India in economic diplomacy,” he said, pointing out that there was much scope for opening doors for the Indian private sector and bringing new technology to Zambia.
India is already the largest investor in Zambia, with Vedanta Resources having invested so far $1.5 billion in Konkola Copper Mines (KCM). Today the copper belt is ripe with activity, whereas earlier it was area of gloom and no hope, he said.
According to Walubita, it was necessary to start work on a bilateral agreement for protection of investment. This is very, very critical, as it will help to give assurance to investors in both countries.
Zambia, that incidentally has a large economically active Indian diaspora, has been a regular participant in the annual India Africa conclave, and will again send a delegation this month under its commerce minister, Felix Mutati.
But, its not just investment that Zambia is looking at India for, but also for capacity building and human resources development.
For example, KCM sponsors over a score Zambian engineers to come to India to work in Vedanta projects every year and vice-versa, which exposed each other to their work habits.
Walubita described how the Zambian engineers who came to India came to admire the hard working nature of Indians and also the pride that an Indian takes in his country. Also, they were exposed to the fact that the Indian economy was totally diversified.
“I appeal to Vedanta and KCM to continue with this programme”, the ambassador said.
The Indian government has already trained 2300 Zambians under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme which sponsors foreign nationals to study at short term courses at various institutions in India.
Then, there is a $5 million grant that India extended during the Vice President Ansari’s visit, for which Zambia has to give proposals on how to utilise the offer in the social sector, like education and health.
“India has been very generous in leaving the projects to us. Now, it is a challenge for us to come up with projects to utilise it,” said Walubita.