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Indian High Commissioner remains ‘hopeful’ pulses trade spat will be resolved before deadline

THE INTERVIEW WITH “THE HILL TIMES”

Indian High Commissioner remains ‘hopeful’ pulses trade spat will be resolved before deadline

Vikas Swarup arrived on Feb. 28 and has already met with several ministers.

Vikas Swarup is the author of the book Q&A, which was adapted into the award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire.The Hill Times photograph by Chelsea Nash

India’s new high commissioner, Vikas Swarup, says he is hopeful that India will renew its six-month relaxation period on Canada’s pulse exports.

“I can only remain hopeful” he said. “It eventually depends on what comes out of India. But the conversations I’ve had lead me to go in a positive direction.”

India is Canada’s biggest export market for peas, lentils, and other pulses, but is at risk of losing that market if the trade issue cannot be resolved.

India usually requires its importers to use a certain type of pesticide on those pulses: methyl bromide. But Canada has been trying to phase out the chemical, both because it is damaging to the ozone layer, and it doesn’t always work in colder temperatures.

Every six months, India reinstates a relaxation period for Canadian imports of pulses to its country, exempting it from the pesticide requirement. But, due to a recent problem with pests in India, there has been concern that the relaxation period would not be renewed. It expires on March 31.

Canada’s Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay visited India at the beginning of March in an effort to procure the new relaxation, but was unsuccessful. The department said at the time that discussions were still ongoing. 

The diplomat who writes

You might know Mr. Swarup’s name from somewhere else. He is the author of the book Q&A, which inspired the Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire. He has written two other books, including Six Suspects, and The Accidental Apprentice

“Some people think I’m an author masquerading as a diplomat. I always prefer to think of myself as a diplomat who writes,” Mr. Swarup told The Hill Times in an interview at his residence last week.

Mr. Swarup, who has been in the foreign service for 31 years and arrived in Ottawa on Feb. 28, says he is a “weekend writer,” and only ever writes when he is posted abroad. Q&A was written when he was posted as a diplomat in London between 2000 and 2003.

“At headquarters, you really don’t have the luxury of creating stuff and doing something with it because life is just so hectic,” he said. Most recently, Mr. Swarup was the official spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs. He said he would often still be communicating with journalists and members of the media late into the nights.

While in Canada, he hopes to have some weekends to himself to write, and to take advantage of living in Rockcliffe Park, where he feels surrounded by nature. 

Books are actually what inspired Mr. Swarup to enter the foreign service in the first place. He grew up in a small town in India called Allahabad, which now boasts a million residents.

“I grew up at a time where there was no internet, no cable television. So the only pastime for me was reading. Reading those books really created a desire in my mind to see those places. Experience what a scone is, and what is this castle, and what is this prairie, that kind of a thing.”

But the inspiration for his own writing always comes from life in India. The inspiration for Q&A for instance, a book about a poor orphan who happens to know all the answers on India’s Who Will Win a Billion? game show, but is imprisoned because he is believed to be cheating, came from “the fact that ordinary folk in India possess so much knowledge, common sense, and wisdom, which we tend to discount,” he said.

The story then goes through the different life experiences of the young man, Ram Mohammad Thomas, as he recounts to his lawyer how he came to know the answer to each question.

“What I wanted to show was the greatest teacher in the world is life itself,” Mr. Swarup said.  

Mr. Swarup likes to explore the “everyday struggles in India of ordinary folk,” and his lead motif is “ordinary people confronted with extraordinary situations.”

When Mr. Swarup’s book was transformed into the global success Slumdog Millionaire, he said he felt like he had played a part in the diplomacy of Bollywood.

“It was really quite an amazing experience,” Mr. Swarup said. “I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Oscars, and when I went there…I had a feeling that India had arrived on this global entertainment stage.”

His wife, Aparna Swarup, is also a creative mind. Ms. Swarup is a painter and photographer. While posted abroad, she likes to maintain a blog of portraits of the people she meets, called “Shot Stories.”

The couple have two sons, one of whom attended McGill University while the couple was posted to Japan. 

Two trade deals on the horizon

Canada and India are working towards two new trade deals: a Canada-India Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) and a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA).

Mr. Swarup admitted the trade negotiations aren’t moving very fast, though there have been several rounds of discussions.

He said when Canada’s Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne recently visited India (at the same time as Mr. MacAulay), he and his Indian counterpart, Nirmala Sitharaman, agreed they should put in place a deadline for negotiations, “so that becomes a goal, a target, and all the ministries work together.”

While the deadline has not yet been set, Mr. Swarup said it will coincide with a future visit of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to India, and will likely be at the end of this year, or early next year.

Another hiccup in Canada-India relations has been change to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Some Indian companies felt the program was restricting intra-company transfers, and their ability to gain the best talent from abroad.

Mr. Swarup said he has already met with Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, and Mr. Bains assured him that the Liberals’ new program, the Global Skills Strategy, “will make it very easy for Canadian businesses to hire global talent,” Mr. Swarup said. The program will be rolled out in June. “I already feel that could be a game changer,” he added. 

While diplomacy is obviously the main goal for Canadian officials and Mr. Swarup, his skills as an author are not lost on many. One of Mr. Bains’ staffers brought a copy of Q&A along with him to their meeting for Mr. Swarup to sign.

cnash@hilltimes.com

@chels_nash

 

 

 

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