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New facts in a historic relationship

DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Shambhu S.Kumaran (The Philippine Star) - November 5, 2020 - 12:00am

The relationship between India and the Philippines is an ancient one. Well over a thousand years ago, thanks to our shared geography, Indians and Filipinos were trading goods, spirituality and ideas. More importantly, this history was not of conquest or violence, but one of mutually enriching engagement.

The colonial period tore apart these links, among much else. We found common cause again in our struggle against imperialism, seeking inspiration in our respective successes. Our two countries gained independence from foreign rule at almost the same time, India in 1947, the Philippines a year earlier.

Since then, we have gradually worked to restore our ties and nourish them in various areas. Today, the Philippines is a key partner in India’s Act East policy and renewed strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific. Over the past three years, we have had more high-level interactions than in the past two decades. Our trade and investment links are beginning to flourish. And the small but dynamic and entrepreneurial Indian community in the Philippines is now a vibrant bridge linking our countries.

Despite this, most Filipinos have only a passing understanding of the India-Philippines relationship. However, this is changing rapidly. New facts are altering significantly local perceptions of our partnership. I want to highlight just three of them:

1. Indian companies are the largest foreign employer in the Philippines. Yes, you read that right. India’s world-renowned IT services companies today employ more than 110,000 Filipinos across various cities of the Philippines. In the Visayas, the Indian company Wipro with over 9,000 workers, is the single biggest private employer, outranking even Filipino firms. That means around half a million Filipino families have a direct working relationship with India. And the wonderful news? These companies are, without exception, emerging stronger from the pandemic due to increased demand for their digital services. It is estimated that they will create an additional 12,000 new jobs by early next year. Most importantly, the Philippine ventures of Indian companies are almost fully staffed by Filipinos, at nearly 98 percent. This is an India-Philippines success story we can be genuinely proud of. It is also one that has catapulted the IT-BPO sector as the top performer in the services and external sector for the Philippine economy in just two decades.

2. At least one in three pharmaceutical pills consumed in the Philippines is made in India. India’s top class generic companies are now the single biggest source of medicines for the Philippines. Especially those needing prolonged treatment for chronic illnesses such as HIV and TB have benefitted from the combination of quality and affordability offered by Indian pharma. Dramatically lower costs of healthcare have helped the most vulnerable Filipinos. For COVID-19, many therapies being explored, including remdesivir, are supplied from India. India produces nearly 60 percent of all vaccines worldwide. The much awaited COVID vaccines will thus definitely involve India. As responsible players, Indian companies will engage only when a candidate fully meets parameters of safety and efficacy. At the government level, India is committed to meeting requirements of its friends, including the Philippines. Such an approach is in line with Prime Minister Modi’s assertion at the United Nations that an Indian vaccine will be a ‘global good’ in keeping with India’s reputation as ‘pharmacy of the world.’

3. Indian students are the largest community of foreign students in the Philippines. Indian parents, like Filipinos, care deeply about academic advancement of their children. This means highly competitive admissions to professional courses in India. Often even outstanding students do not make it to a course of their choice. Several of them thus look abroad for options. The Philippines has emerged as an important destination for Indian medical students, with an estimated 15,000 of them currently. Though the pandemic has thrown their academic plans into disarray, we are hopeful a way forward can be found by the universities here. These students are enrolled in private medical colleges and thus do not affect study opportunities for Filipino medical students. In fact, Indian students contribute several billion pesos in tuition fees alone each year, funds that help local colleges build better facilities for their Filipino students.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Duterte have a shared vision for a strong and forward-looking bilateral partnership. Working together, the dynamism and creativity of our people is transforming this vision into reality, and infusing new energy into a historic partnership. It is thus for me a great honor and privilege to assume office as India’s new Ambassador to the Philippines. Namaste and Mabuhay!

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Shambhu S. Kumaran is the Ambassador of India to the Philippines.

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