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India has a vibrant civil society: US Ambassador to India

May 21, 2015

In an interview to CNN-IBN, an English news channel, US Ambassador Richard Verma called for a dialogue with the Narendra Modi government on the recent crackdown on foreign NGOs like Greenpeace and donors like Ford Foundation.

Ambassador Verma said, “I think we should (have a dialogue). It is for Indian officials to raise their concerns and I certainly am raising my concerns with them.”

The Ambassador also added that the US side was willing to work with the Indian government if there were regulatory or taxation lapses on the part of the targeted NGOs. “If there is TAX, legal issues to be resolved vis a vis any of the NGOs, we should resolved those. We are fully supportive.”

Excerpts from the interview:

CNN-IBN: PM Modi is about to complete one year in office. When you speak to American businesses, companies, what’s changed in the last year? Has anything got better?

Richard Verma: I do think there is a renewed sense of optimism and excitement about the US-Indian relationship. I fell not only with US businesses but I feel it as I travel around India as well. I think we are in a very strong position and we are benefitted by the fact that we had two summits in the a five-month period which is a very unusual thing. And so, last September the PM had a bit of ground-breaking visit to Washington, was able to unstick some issues that had frankly stalled the relationship and then the President came in January. So we have had a handshake, we have an agreement between the 2 heads of state to chart a very aggressive path forward over the coming year and whether it is in defense or clean energy or economics and trade, we have a lot of exciting pathways in front of us.

CNN-IBN: The big announcement was on the civil nuclear front. Three months down, we haven’t heard anything from Westin House, GE or even NPCIL. And folks are like, so where is the breakthrough?

Richard Verma: One should take a look into how long it actually takes to build a nuclear powerplant whether it’s in India or any other country. And clearly, we were stuck on the issue of tapping of nuclear materials and on liability. Again, I go back to the PM’s visit last September and the value and dialogue and what can happen when two teams talk to each other. Our teams  talked to each other for three months in three different cities to solve the breakthrough. Now the issue is getting the companies and show that the understanding of liability is moralized on the contract and moving forward. I actually see the US companies here on a regular basis.

CNN-IBN: How close are we to an actual deal?

Richard Verma: I think we have moved a significant way forward and now it really is to the companies to sit down with NPCIL without the elements of the govt. and to push this forward. The contract crew will continue to meet that was formed after the PM’s visit and we will continue to push this. We think it is hugely important.

CNN-IBN: But can you put a timeline to it?

Richard Verma: I don’t think you can put a timeline against such a complex issue. We would like to continue seeing progress, we have seen progress and this is one of the top priorities because if you remember this is about helping provide non-carbon based source of power to 300 million people that can provide access to electricity. So we are going to keep working on it.

CNN-IBN: How much do reform legislations matter to foreign investors?

Richard Verma: I think they matter a lot and I think we are actually seeing good progress. We have seen sectors reopen whether in insurance or defense. We have seen certain reforms being taken with regards to tax, with regard to legal reform. We can do more. As I travel around the country I have taken 13 trips around the country already in the first 4 months, I also see another positive development which is states very aggressively going out and calling investors, American investors, American companies talking about the ease of doing business in their particular states and that’s a good development. We can do more. We have a very robust dialogue going on. We continue to have dialogues on tax, land, on improving the business climate which is something I think the PM shares with us. But the investment flows are up and the two-way trade numbers are up which is a positive thing.

CNN-IBN: You said recently that you are concerned about the recent crackdown of NGOs and you said it could have potentially chilling effects. Can you explain?

Richard Verma: If you look at the whole speech, it was really a speech about what underpins us to the partnership. And its our shared values and belied in democracy. The fact that we came about our democracy in very similar ways based on similar principles- fair and free elections, vibrant civil society. The commonalities between out leaders and our concepts. So I offered my comments in a spirit of partnership, friendship because India has a vibrant civil society. US has a vibrant civil society and its important that we support that civil society. Some of the regulatory action could interrupt with them that the message of the NGOs is something that the regulations disagreed with. If there are attacks, if there are legal issues to be resolved, we should resolve those. We are fully supportive of efforts to ensure that NGOs were in focus.

CNN-IBN: I know you have seen the MHA saying that you are over-reacting.

Ambassador Verma: I would just go back to the importance of dialogue and our relationship is so strong at this point. And we have had discussions on areas that really bogged us down- civil nuclear, defense co-production, intellectual property and Food security. We were stuck because we weren’t talking.

CNN-IBN: You want to have a conversation on NGOs?

Richard Verma: It is the job of Indian officials to raise their concerns with us and certainly I am raising concern. Its dialogue which will help bring us forward and that’s exactly what closest friends and partners do.

CNN-IBN: They have expressed some concerns about sentiments of minority, Ghar Wapsi as we call it here in India. As an ambassador, as a practicing Christian, does that worry you?

Ambassador Verma: I would just say, as an ambassador we have traditions from this country, my family came from this country and a belief in religious diversity and religious tolerance which is exactly what the PM has talked about and what the President has talked about. I think these are values that we share.

CNN-IBN: What about you practicing Christian?

Ambassador Verma: My family is Hindu and so we have a diversity of religion in our family as well. That’s the beauty of America that we can have different religions not only in our country but also in our family.

CNN-IBN: The release of Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi. Teroor is a huge issue that concerns India as much as it concerns the United States. For a layman in India, it is hard to believe that this guy cannot walk out of jail.

Richard Verma: We have shared our concern about this issue. We have raised it with the Pakistani govt. and we have been very clear that the perpetrators of those in the attacks of Mumbai have to be brought to justice. The release of Lakhvi is a mistake and the President and PM very clearly and strongly articulated a commitment to stand up against terrorism in any form wherever it occurs and we have a very strong partnership in that regard.

CNN-IBN: Is there any concrete action that you can take? You have cleared to sell a billion dollar of weapons to Pakistan less than a month ago.

Ambassador Verma: What we are facing in Pakistan is a very serious threat. Terrorism of Pakistan faces as a challenge to all of us. And so our aid that goes to Pakistan supports democratic reforms and civic society, infrastructure. It also provides them the tools to combat this dangerous insurgency. But we also have to communicate our differences when we have them cracked down on safe havens. President has been very impelling on that and to crack down on the perpetrators and to hold them accountable will continue to erase them.

CNN-IBN: What would you say to people who say that US is forcing India to look at the Indo-US and Indo-China triangle?

Ambassador Verma: I think the relationship between the US and India stands on its own, not directed at any 3rd country. But I would also say that our relationship with China, India’s relationship with China has some similarities, elements of competition, cooperation when we have security concerns we raise them and having a robust dialogue wityh Chinbese and this is a very good thing. But the US-India partnership is very strong and based on a simple promise that when the two largest democracies act together a really poewerful and wonderful thing can happen.

The interview has been shared by CNN-IBN.

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