Remarks by Ambassador Richard R. Verma at the inaugural plenary of Indo-Asia Connectivity for Shared Prosperity

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a pleasure to be here in Kolkata, the “City of Joy.” When Mark Twain visited this marvelous city in 1896, he wrote in his diary “There was plenty to see in Calcutta, but there was not plenty of time for it.” I share the feeling, which is why I’m back for the second time this month!

I first want to thank our Consul General in Kolkata, Craig Hall, and his wonderful team at the American Consulate, which as many of you know is one of the United States’ oldest consulates in the world. President Washington sent the first American consul here 224 years ago, so Craig has a long line of illustrious predecessors to live up to. Craig represents the very finest of the Foreign Service and his team here has done a wonderful job. Hosting a conference with over 200 attendees is no small feat!

I also want to welcome our outstanding Ambassadors from the region: Alaina Teplitz from Nepal, and Marcia Bernicat from Bangladesh. We’re very lucky to have such talented envoys in South Asia and we appreciate them taking time out of their busy schedules to join us today. I want to acknowledge the many senior government officials here from the United States, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. Thank you for joining us. I am also grateful to the Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS) and the East-West Center whose support made this conference possible.

This is my second time attending a conference on Indo-Pacific connectivity in Kolkata. Situated on the littoral of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, Kolkata has long been a driver of regional and international trade. It is also a city which shares a unique history with the United States. In the early 19th century, American ships carrying ice from New England were a common sight in the city ports. In fact, Henry David Thoreau once witnessed the ice being transported while at Walden Pond, and wrote “The pure Walden water will be mingled with the sacred waters of the Ganges.” In 1879, after leaving office, President Ulysses S. Grant visited this city on a tour around the world, becoming the first American president to visit India. And during World War II, thousands of young American service members deployed to northeastern India under General Joseph Stillwell and many received their first glimpse of the country here in Kolkata. I had the honor of visiting the Commonwealth Cemetery in Kohima-Nagaland earlier this month as a reminder of the enormous sacrifices made during that period. General Stillwell was something of a visionary when it comes to regional connectivity – the Stillwell Road, which ran from Assam all the way to China, was constructed under his leadership during World War II. So by virtue of history and geography, I think it’s quite fitting we’re holding a conference on regional connectivity in this wonderful city.

A Common Vision for Connectivity

Not far from Kolkata, more than two millennia ago, the seeds that would bring this region together were planted during a teaching delivered at Sarnath. Before there were trunk roads and broadband connections, this region was first connected by ideas. The teachings of Gautama Buddha united the people of Asia, from the Swat Valley in Pakistan to Japan, in debates over how to bring peace and fulfillment to all peoples, regardless of nationality, class or origin. This philosophy was revolutionary and its power transformed Asia. This millennia long tradition of intellectual and cultural connectivity, and a region that has long been accustomed to sharing and exchanging new ideas, is the most fertile ground possible on which to build a new architecture for the 21st century.

Whether it’s in trade, energy, water, or people-to-people ties, connectivity is critical to South Asia’s future development. Take trade as an example. According to the World Bank, if barriers were removed and customs procedures streamlined, intra-regional trade in South Asia could increase from the current $28 billion to over $100 billion. Unfortunately, South Asia today is one of the least economically integrated regions in the world; intra-regional trade as a percentage of total trade in the region has languished between four and five percent. Compare that to ASEAN where intra-regional trade stands at 25 percent.

We know from history this wasn’t always the case. As I noted, this region was an integrated entity, bound by a rich tradition of dialogue, trade, and cultural exchange. The famous Grand Trunk Road, stretching more than 1500 miles from Kolkata to Kabul was, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, a “river of life”. So if connectivity was a reality for this region in the past, we know it can be again in the future. What is required for it to take root once again is a common vision that takes into confidence the region’s stakeholders. The Grand Trunk Road of the 21st century is as much about ideas and shared values as it is physical infrastructure. I will return to this in a moment.

Let me say a few words about India and the unique role it’s playing in the region’s economic integration, both through traditional infrastructure development and also through its leadership as a democratic power. Under its “Neighborhood First” policy, the Government of India has initiated a series of projects related to energy, hydropower, and transportation in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan. India’s resolution of territorial disputes with Bangladesh and Burma stands as an example of its commitment to international norms and regional stability. And through the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the countries of the region have reenergized efforts to build linkages between South and Southeast Asia. I’d like to thank Mr. Sumith Nakandala, the Secretary General of BIMSTEC, and Mr. Prashant Agrawal, Joint Secretary for SAARC in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, for joining us today.

Northeast India

Nowhere are the challenges and potential for connectivity more real than in northeast India, a region that is home to some 45 million people and more than 200 tribes, and, more importantly, one of Asia’s most strategic crossroads; bordering Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, and Nepal. I had the privilege of traveling throughout northeast India earlier this month, covering the states of Tripura, Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Assam. I have visited 27 of India’s 29 states and can attest the northeast is a region unlike any other in this diverse country with its stunning beauty, industrious population, and remarkable blend of culture, language and tradition. And while the connectivity challenges are real, there are also important success stories and examples of what expanded connectivity can look like.

In Tripura, I toured a gas-fired power plant that is utilizing General Electric turbines to export 100 MW of power to neighboring Bangladesh. Another 100 MW in export capacity is expected to come on-line soon. I visited the Agartala-Akhaura border crossing, the second largest trading point between India and Bangladesh, with cross-border trade amounting to over $60 million. Meghalaya is home to some of the region’s finest educational institutions, nurturing bright minds not only from India’s northeast but from neighboring countries as well. Nagaland has embarked on a program to nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs in the region, leveraging innovation and technology to overcome developmental challenges. And Manipur and Mizoram have the potential to become gateways between India and Myanmar once local road and rail connectivity projects are completed.

I also however witnessed the daunting challenges facing this region. With its stunning mountains and jungle topography, much of the Northeast presents real challenges in the building of traditional infrastructure. Simply moving from one state to another can be a challenge. And while air connectivity has improved dramatically, many travelers must use Kolkata or Guwahati as hubs due to limited inter-state flights. With multiple states, countries and sometimes contradictory rules for the movement of goods and people, the regulatory and legal framework can also pose a burden. And ironically, some cross-border threats like disease, human trafficking and drugs, can often flow easily across states and countries, giving rise to multiple health and security challenges. The HIV prevalence rate, for instance, in parts of the northeast can be twice as high as the national average.

But despite these challenges, I came away from my visit heartened, inspired and optimistic about the region’s future. With a young and talented population, this is a region with vast potential that is already rolling out new and innovative solutions in clean energy, commerce, and education.

The United States – A Partner for Connectivity

Let me also say a few words about the role the United States is playing in spurring regional connectivity. With more than $130 billion in annual trade with South Asia, the United States has a vital interest in a region that is prosperous and interconnected. Through the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, or IPEC, we’re helping create new energy linkages, open up trade and transport corridors, and streamline customs procedures at border crossings. USAID’s work with SARI, the South Asia Regional Initiative, includes an energy integration project aimed at bolstering cross-border electricity trade and the development of a regional energy market. The United States also supported the initial feasibility study for the 500 MW energy link between India and Bangladesh, which is now operational and being expanded to 1000 MW. Through the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a prominent Indian NGO, USAID is funding exchanges between Indian and Burmese female entrepreneurs. The second exchange took place in July and brought together dozens of women entrepreneurs. USAID also recently concluded a trade facilitation workshop in Sri Lanka which brought together regional leaders to discuss streamlining customs and border procedures. The premise behind these efforts is straightforward: the economic benefits of increased connectivity can generate the prosperity and people-to-people linkages necessary for strong partnerships based on shared values. This is an objective the United States strongly supports.

There’s also a strategic element. As outlined in the January 2015 Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, expanding U.S. engagement with India in the Asia Pacific is an important element of our bilateral partnership and is a natural complement to India’s “Act East” policy. The United States believes that regional partnerships centered on strong economic ties, people-to-people linkages, and a shared commitment to democracy and human rights are a force for good, not only in this region, but around the world.

Areas of Opportunity

Before I close, I want to mention two areas of connectivity that probably don’t get enough attention. The first is virtual connectivity, by which I mean enhancing digital connections across the region. And second is strengthening the connectivity of shared values and ideas – can you have real connectivity without a common view of what is urgent, important or even objectionable?

Large-scale infrastructure projects, while important, do face many challenges, whether it is financing, land acquisition, or government red tape. Many states and citizens have been left holding the bag and the bill for large scale international projects that promised the moon, but delivered only cement. That’s why I believe building digital infrastructure cannot be ignored. We are experiencing one of the largest technology transitions in human history; the coming decades will see successive transformations in energy, bioengineering, robotics, artificial intelligence, genetics, cyber warfare – you name it. This digital transformation is expected to generate as much as $19 trillion in economic value over the next decade. To borrow a phrase, the “internet of things” will be the infrastructure of the information society and bridging the digital divide is instrumental to ensuring our citizens can take advantage of the new digital economy.

In the United States, we have invested more than $260 billion in broadband infrastructure since 2009, and the number of households with high-speed internet access has increased to over 75 percent. Here in South Asia, the right investments in digital infrastructure can allow communities to leapfrog developmental challenges and further breakdown barriers posed by distance, geography, and governments. John Chambers, the former CEO of CISCO Systems, once said, “There are two equalizers in life: the Internet and education.” I think that holds especially true in this region, where the median age is 25. A digital surge has the potential to revolutionize the way people work, travel, and communicate.

The Government of India is making important progress in expanding broadband access through its Digital India program, which is supported by many American companies. Facebook launched an innovative “Express WiFi” solution earlier this year to bring the internet to underserved, rural populations in India. Google has partnered with Indian Railways and RailTel to provide WiFi at over 100 railway stations in India, and plans are underway to connect another 400 by the end of next year. I hope one day soon internet will be available on Indian airlines as well! Google WiFi is also working in cities across Assam and West Bengal, including here in Kolkata, to bring internet access to thousands without it. The basic premise is that communities with greater connectivity, with more broadband, will have more access to information, more opportunities for trade and education, and will be better informed and have greater control over their future. This is a vision that is within our reach.

But finally, and as I’ve noted, connectivity is more than constructing bridges and ports– it’s also about building a common vision based upon shared values and norms, and an open network of exchange that fosters innovative ideas and solutions. It does not mean we need to have the same political systems or political philosophies stretching across borders. We don’t. What I am suggesting however, is that values matter – and especially those values that are universal in nature. Protecting vulnerable populations, standing up to terror and insurgency, resolving disputes under the rule of law, combatting child labor and human trafficking, ensuring women have an equal place in society, ending the scourge of drugs and corruption – a region that shares strongly values like these is one that will naturally be drawn together. And from a practical level, that region can develop the operating systems to support common values – that means greater coordination at border crossings, that means minimum labor and environmental protections in cross border transactions, that means greater protections for investments, and in the end greater health, prosperity and security for the region. Implementing this will be a challenge, but clearly strong regional organizations, inter-governmental agreements, and regional events like this one can help nurture a network where shared values and common operating platforms can become the norm, not the exception. To put it another way, having the right software for connectivity is arguably more important than the hardware of connectivity.

In this endeavor, the United States stands as your partner, from the hardware to the software, we will continue to strongly support your efforts to bring this region together. Former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once famously said he dreams of a region where one could have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore, and dinner in Kabul. We believe the same vision is within reach for Kolkata, Kathmandu, Dhaka, Yangon, and beyond. Thank you.

This news item can also be viewed at: