India & Central Asia : News & Discussion

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China, Russia jittery as India intensifies Central Asia outreach​

India’s “formidable and massive” outreach to the resource-rich and strategically crucial Central Asian nations has driven Russia and China jittery, with both the countries activating their diplomatic channels in a big way to expand footprints in the Central Asian region. The importance of the region has been accentuated more after unpleasant developments in Afghanistan. Top diplomatic sources posted in South Block told The Sunday Guardian that the Chinese and Russian diplomats were seen vying with one another to establish contacts with the officials of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan when foreign ministers of these central Asian countries were in Delhi for the third round of India-Central Asia Dialogue hosted by foreign minister Subramanyam Jaishankar 18-20 December. Carrying the message and orders from their respective leaderships in Moscow and Beijing, these diplomats were actually working on the agenda of expanding the footprints of their countries in the Central Asian region. Highly-placed sources told The Sunday Guardian that “Russian President Vladimir Putin chose to call Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the day the India-Central Asia Dialogue concluded (20 December) and made it a point to reassure the Indian leadership to step up Delhi-Moscow cooperation in the Central Asian region in view of the security threat from Afghanistan.” Sources said that “Putin was earlier supposed to call the PM on some other date around Christmas, but it was advanced coinciding with the India-Central Asia dialogue”. According to sources, a couple of senior Russian diplomats also met with their counterparts from some of these five countries.

Similarly, China is learnt to have chalked out a detailed plan for its foreign minister’s visit to the Central Asian countries sometime next month, sources said. Chinese diplomats are said to have spoken to officials of the five countries regarding the plan in what is being seen as a panic reaction to India’s outreach to the region. While Russia is keen to expand its influence and presence in the Central Asian region so as to secure its backyard in view of the imminent threat of terrorism from Afghanistan, China is trying to fortify its engagement more for its geopolitical and geo-economic objectives. There is no denying that Beijing is also keeping in mind its rivalry with India in the central Asian region as well. In the last few months, India has stepped up its engagement with the region. Apart from holding talks with these countries at different levels, India has also invited the presidents of all the five nations as chief guests for the Republic Day Celebrations next month. This is not going down well with China, and the leadership of the country is said to be panicky over this. Sources say that Beijing is pressurizing its diplomats to intensify efforts to score over India in the Central Asian region. The US is also trying to get back in the region which has assumed major significance since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Moreover, the region is becoming the center of a new great power rivalry due to its huge mineral reserves.

Undoubtedly, Russia is an important player in the region. China is also firmly entrenched with its Road and Belt Initiative. Pakistan is also not any less active in the central Asian region, with India keeping a close eye on its activities as well. With all this in view, India has stepped up its outreach to the region which is considered by Delhi as an extended neighborhood. The concern about ISIS, Al Qaeda and other terror groups taking root and spreading extremist ideology and terrorism is a major issue for Afghan region. “Since India’s experience in tackling terrorism is well-known, these republics want its cooperation in the region to deal with any such security threat,” a diplomat says. “That New Delhi is going all out to woo Central Asian rulers is giving many players sleepless nights,” he added. But India is determined to increase its outreach to Central Asia with greater vigour. Delhi has decided to hold more bilateral meets in days to come, say diplomats. India has offered to increase the slots for Central Asia in its Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme (ITEC), which has been New Delhi’s hugely successful outreach to developing nations. “No doubt, connectivity to the region is a major issue. But despite that India had been buying uranium for its nuclear power plants from Kazakhstan,” an official said. Referring to the connectivity issue, PM Modi once said, “The land-locked Central Asian countries can benefit immensely by connecting with India’s vast market. Unfortunately, many connectivity options are not open to them today due to lack of mutual trust. Our investment in Iran’s Chabahar port and our efforts towards the International North-South (Transit) Corridor (INSTC) are driven by this reality.” PM Modi also visited all five central Asian countries in July 2015 in what underlined India’s emphasis on strengthening ties with the Central asian nations. This was followed in January of 2019 by the first India-Central Asia dialogue in Samarkand in Uzbekistan. The second India-Central Asia Dialogue was held virtually on 28 October 2020.


India’s “formidable and massive” outreach to the resource-rich and strategically crucial Central Asian nations has driven Russia and China jittery, with both the countries activating their diplomatic channels in a big way to expand footprints in the Central Asian region. The importance of the region has been accentuated more after unpleasant developments in Afghanistan.

Top diplomatic sources posted in South Block told The Sunday Guardian that the Chinese and Russian diplomats were seen vying with one another to establish contacts with the officials of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan when foreign ministers of these central Asian countries were in Delhi for the third round of India-Central Asia Dialogue hosted by foreign minister Subramanyam Jaishankar 18-20 December. Carrying the message and orders from their respective leaderships in Moscow and Beijing, these diplomats were actually working on the agenda of expanding the footprints of their countries in the Central Asian region. Highly-placed sources told The Sunday Guardian that “Russian President Vladimir Putin chose to call Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the day the India-Central Asia Dialogue concluded (20 December) and made it a point to reassure the Indian leadership to step up Delhi-Moscow cooperation in the Central Asian region in view of the security threat from Afghanistan.” Sources said that “Putin was earlier supposed to call the PM on some other date around Christmas, but it was advanced coinciding with the India-Central Asia dialogue”. According to sources, a couple of senior Russian diplomats also met with their counterparts from some of these five countries. Similarly, China is learnt to have chalked out a detailed plan for its foreign minister’s visit to the Central Asian countries sometime next month, sources said. Chinese diplomats are said to have spoken to officials of the five countries regarding the plan in what is being seen as a panic reaction to India’s outreach to the region.

While Russia is keen to expand its influence and presence in the Central Asian region so as to secure its backyard in view of the imminent threat of terrorism from Afghanistan, China is trying to fortify its engagement more for its geopolitical and geo-economic objectives. There is no denying that Beijing is also keeping in mind its rivalry with India in the central Asian region as well. In the last few months, India has stepped up its engagement with the region. Apart from holding talks with these countries at different levels, India has also invited the presidents of all the five nations as chief guests for the Republic Day Celebrations next month. This is not going down well with China, and the leadership of the country is said to be panicky over this. Sources say that Beijing is pressurizing its diplomats to intensify efforts to score over India in the Central Asian region. The US is also trying to get back in the region which has assumed major significance since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

Moreover, the region is becoming the center of a new great power rivalry due to its huge mineral reserves. Undoubtedly, Russia is an important player in the region. China is also firmly entrenched with its Road and Belt Initiative. Pakistan is also not any less active in the central Asian region, with India keeping a close eye on its activities as well. With all this in view, India has stepped up its outreach to the region which is considered by Delhi as an extended neighborhood. The concern about ISIS, Al Qaeda and other terror groups taking root and spreading extremist ideology and terrorism is a major issue for Afghan region. “Since India’s experience in tackling terrorism is well-known, these republics want its cooperation in the region to deal with any such security threat,” a diplomat says. “That New Delhi is going all out to woo Central Asian rulers is giving many players sleepless nights,” he added.

But India is determined to increase its outreach to Central Asia with greater vigour. Delhi has decided to hold more bilateral meets in days to come, say diplomats. India has offered to increase the slots for Central Asia in its Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme (ITEC), which has been New Delhi’s hugely successful outreach to developing nations. “No doubt, connectivity to the region is a major issue. But despite that India had been buying uranium for its nuclear power plants from Kazakhstan,” an official said. Referring to the connectivity issue, PM Modi once said, “The land-locked Central Asian countries can benefit immensely by connecting with India’s vast market. Unfortunately, many connectivity options are not open to them today due to lack of mutual trust. Our investment in Iran’s Chabahar port and our efforts towards the International North-South (Transit) Corridor (INSTC) are driven by this reality.” PM Modi also visited all five central Asian countries in July 2015 in what underlined India’s emphasis on strengthening ties with the Central asian nations. This was followed in January of 2019 by the first India-Central Asia dialogue in Samarkand in Uzbekistan. The second India-Central Asia Dialogue was held virtually on 28 October 2020.
 
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India, Central Asia to form working group on Afghanistan, TAPI pipeline talks back on table​

New Delhi: In their first-ever summit meeting held Thursday, India and the five Central Asian countries of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyz Republic have decided to form a joint working group on Afghanistan, while agreeing to a “common approach” when dealing with the Taliban regime there.

The summit took place virtually between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, President of Kyrgyz Republic Sadyr Japarov, President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon, President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov and President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

While Modi was the first prime minister of India to visit all five Central Asian countries in 2015 in an effort to bolster trade, connectivity and energy ties with them as part of India’s “extended neighbourhood”, the region came much closer strategically for New Delhi after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021.

“We all are concerned about the Afghan situation and this makes cooperation between India and Central Asia all the more important for regional stability and security,” Prime Minister Modi said in his remarks at the summit Thursday.

According to the joint statement — Delhi Declaration of the 1st India-Central Asia Summit — it was decided during the meeting that a joint working group particularly focussed on Afghanistan and the evolving situation there will be established at the level of senior officials.

It was also decided at the meeting to focus on connectivity and trade amongst the nations and to resume talks for the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project.

‘Consensus on inclusive govt in Afghanistan’

“The Leaders discussed the current situation in Afghanistan and its impact on the security and stability of the region. They reiterated strong support for a peaceful, secure and stable Afghanistan, while emphasising the respect for sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity and non-interference in its internal affairs,” the joint statement said.

It also said that India and the Central Asian countries “noted that there is a broad ‘regional consensus’ on the issues related to Afghanistan, which includes formation of a truly representative and inclusive government, combating terrorism and drug trafficking, central role of the UN, providing immediate humanitarian assistance for the people of Afghanistan and preserving the rights of women, children and other national ethnic groups and minorities.”

At the meeting Uzbekistan said it will be holding a high-level International Conference on Afghanistan under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement (SCO) in July this year in Tashkent.

Focus on connectivity, trade

India and the Central Asian member countries of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) as well as the Ashgabat Agreement on International Transport and Transit Corridor called upon the other Central Asian countries to consider joining the connectivity initiatives for boosting trade and economic cooperation, according to the joint statement.

This, the leaders decided, would be done keeping the ongoing Chabahar port in Iran at the main transit hub. They also decided to include Turkmenistan’s Turkmenbashi port on the Caspian Sea within the framework of the INSTC.

“The Indian side welcomed the interest of Central Asian countries to utilise the services of Shahid Beheshti Terminal at Chabahar port for facilitating their trade with India and other external markets,” the statement said.

It added, “The sides agreed to continue engagement for further developing the transit and transport potential of their countries, improving the logistics network of the region and promoting joint initiatives to create regional and international transport corridors. The Central Asian countries welcomed the proposal of India to establish a joint working group on Chabahar port to address issues of free movements of goods and services between India and Central Asian countries.”

Importance of TAPI pipeline

According to Reenat Sandhu, secretary (west), Ministry of External Affairs, the president of Uzbekistan proposed the resumption of talks for the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project, underlining its importance.

“It is understood that discussions are ongoing at the level of consortium partners with respect to the business principles of this project,” she told the media at a special briefing on the summit.

Earlier this month, Turkmenistan announced that it will give a renewed push to the long-pending TAPI project in March and has been also discussing its prospects with the Taliban regime in Kabul.

The Taliban government has also said it will deploy 30,000 troops to carry out the work on laying the TAPI gas pipeline.

Conceived in the 1990s, the TAPI project entails setting up of a 1,814-km long trans-country pipeline. Through it, it is projected that India will be receiving 33 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkmenistan.

The leaders also decided that the summit will now be held every two years. The next India-Central Asia Summit is scheduled to be held in 2024, said Sandhu.
 
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India, Turkmenistan sign 4 MoUs for cooperation, agree to expand bilateral trade​

India and Turkmenistan signed four agreements, including in financial intelligence and disaster management, as President Ram Nath Kovind met his Turkmen counterpart Serdar Berdimuhamedov here on Saturday and agreed to expand bilateral trade and energy cooperation to further strengthen the multifaceted partnership.

This is the first-ever visit of the President of India to independent Turkmenistan and comes just after the inauguration of new Turkmen President Berdimuhamedov.

During his meeting today with the President of Turkmenistan Berdimuhamedov, President Kovind held a detailed discussion on the state and prospects of bilateral relations and also exchanged views on various regional and international issues of importance.

“We have agreed to intensify efforts to further strengthen our multifaceted partnership. Economic relations strengthen bilateral ties. We agreed to do more to expand bilateral trade which has remained modest. Our business communities must deepen their engagement, understand each other’s regulations and identify new areas of trade and investment,” the president said in a statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs.

The two leaders highlighted the significance of the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and the Ashgabat Agreement on International Transport and Transit Corridor.

President Kovind pointed out that the Chabahar port built by India in Iran could be used to improve trade between India and Central Asia.

“Cooperation in energy was one of the key areas of our discussions today. On the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, I suggested that issues related to the security of the pipeline and key business principles may be addressed in Technical and Expert level meetings,” the president said.

Asked if the issue of the TAPI pipeline could come up during talks, Sanjay Verma, Secretary West in the MEA, told reporters in New Delhi on Wednesday that “it is a difficult neighbourhood if you look at the geography. So, in that sense, this itself was a task in negotiating the pipeline.”

“Thereafter it is on record that India has some concerns about the commercial and business aspect of the TAPI pipeline and that is being discussed,” he said, adding that the president’s visit will be another opportunity to “revisit where we stand” on this issue.

During the talks between President Kovind and his Turkmenistan counterpart, the two countries also identified new areas of cooperation such as disaster management. Kovind expressed India’s readiness to partner with Turkmenistan in its drive towards digitalisation and noted that Space can be another area of mutually beneficial cooperation.

“Our countries share centuries-old civilisational and cultural linkages. During the talks, I underlined the importance of holding regular cultural events in each other’s territory. We emphasised on the need for both countries to cooperate closely on the effective management of the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected our population,” the president said.

Turkmenistan is an important partner for India in the India-Central Asia Summit framework, the first of which India hosted virtually in January this year.

“We agreed to further enhance cooperation under the framework flowing from the India-Central Asia Summit,” he said.

President Kovind also thanked Turkmenistan for its support to India’s permanent membership in a reformed and expanded UN Security
Council as well as for India’s initiatives as a non-permanent member of UNSC for the period of 2021-22.

Earlier, the Ministry of External Affairs said India attached importance to its relations with Turkmenistan.

“The state visit of the president will reaffirm the importance we attach to Turkmenistan, not only bilaterally but also in terms of our extended neighbourhood concept and role in India-Central Asia partnership,” Verma told reporters in New Delhi on Wednesday.

Turkmenistan possesses very large reserves of natural gas.

“Turkmenistan is also strategically placed in Central Asia and connectivity is something on which we feel a partnership with Turkmenistan will pay dividends. We have offered a line of credit worth USD 1 billion to Central Asian countries, including

President Kovind’s trip to Turkmenistan will be followed by a state visit to the Netherlands from April 4-7 at the invitation of King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima.
 

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India’s engagement with Taliban should redefine Tajikistan relationship​

The Narendra Modi government must recalibrate its relationship with Dushanbe with Tajikistan clearly under Chinese debt trap and forced to make security compromises in favor of Beijing and its client state Pakistan.

The Narendra Modi government’s swift move to offer humanitarian assistance and development cooperation to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan by sending an official delegation to Kabul clearly has sent shock waves in the neighbourhood of the Islamic Emirate.

While the delegation led by India’s Afghan expert J P Singh is slated to return from Kabul today, it is quite evident that the Indian official quietly met the top Taliban leadership in the Afghan capital and discussed the next steps in taking the bilateral cooperation forward. Fact is that both sides were looking forward to the meeting which apparently caught both Pakistan and China unawares.
The Indian pragmatic engagement of the Taliban is expected to trigger a fresh approach of New Delhi towards Afghanistan’s neighbour Tajikistan as it has a deeply adversarial relationship with the Sunni Pashtun force across the Amu Darya in Kabul. After the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Tajikistan under its authoritarian ruler Emomali Rahmon conducted military drills near its over 1300 km border with Afghanistan, alongside troops from members of the Russia-led Collective Security Organization.

Although India built a civilian hospital in Farkhor in southwestern Tajikistan and virtually across the border with Afghanistan way back in the 1990s to not only help the local population but also treat the Northern Alliance members injured in Afghan civil strife, New Delhi should have a recalibration of its relationship with Tajikistan as the latter has moved very close to Beijing in the past decade. China today is Tajikistan’s biggest debt holder and its biggest investor. Since Tajikistan is largely a remittance-based economy, it is clearly under the Chinese debt trap and hence has compromised with the Xi Jinping regime to the extent of allowing Beijing to use its military base on its border with the restive Xinjiang region. Fact is that Dushanbe is a supporter of Chinese repressive policies against Sunni Muslim Uighur community in the Xinjiang region and has allowed Chinese companies to mine gold, silver and other mineral ores in Upper Kumarg goldfield in the Sughd province. China is also building an airbase in Tashkurgan, which will clearly help the PLA to monitor any Uighur secessionist activity in the Wakhan Corridor on the China-Afghanistan-Tajikistan border in the name of counter-terror cooperation.

It is perhaps due to the growing Chinese presence in Tajikistan and its service provider-client relationship with Pakistan that India really had a joint military air base just in name across the Afghan border with Dushanbe succumbing to pressures from China and Russia. China made it known to Tajikistan that it was apprehensive of Indian actions in Afghanistan and in Central Asia. This is despite India giving grants in aid, food, medicine, vaccine and humanitarian assistance to Tajikistan in the past decades.

With the Northern Alliance passing into Afghan history and the Chinese presence rising in Tajikistan through the Belt-Road-Initiative debt trap, India needs to redefine its foreign policy objectives in Dushanbe. Perhaps, the Indian engagement with the Taliban is the first step in this direction.
 

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Issues like water resources research especially Glacier monitoring, Non-conventional Energy, Peaceful Use of Space Technology and Disaster Management discussed between India and Tajikistan
Union Minister Dr Jitendra Singh holds a bilateral meeting with the Minister for Energy and Water resources of Republic of Tajikistan Mr Daler Juma Shofaqir on the side-lines of the UN Ocean Conference Lisbon, Portugal​

India’s Minister for Science and Technology and Earth Sciences Dr Jitendra Singh held a bilateral meeting with the Minister for Energy and Water resources of Republic of Tajikistan Mr Daler Juma Shofaqir on the side-lines of the UN Ocean Conference Lisbon, Portugal and discussed several issues of mutual interest.

Both the Ministers discussed water resources research, with special focus on Glacier monitoring and understanding, Non-conventional Energy, etc. Tajikistan Minister requested India to support global water action and climate resistance on Water for sustainable Development.

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Dr Jitendra Singh pointed out that Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi hosted the first meeting of the India-Central Asia Summit in January this year with the participation of the Presidents of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, in a virtual format that symbolised the importance attached by the Leaders of India and the Central Asian countries to a comprehensive and enduring India-Central Asia partnership.

Dr Jitendra Singh also referred to 11th meeting of the Intergovernmental Commission of Tajikistan and India on trade-economic, scientific and technical cooperation in 2020, where cooperation in the areas of economy, trade, finance, investment, the private sector, industry and new technologies, transport, agriculture, energy, education, culture and tourism were discussed.

Dr Jitendra Singh told his Tajik counterpart Daler Juma Shofaqir that during Indian President Shri Ram Nath Kovind’s State Visit to Tajikistan in 2018, Eight MoUs/agreements were signed in the areas of Peaceful Use of Space Technology, Disaster Management, Renewable Energy, and Agricultural Research and Education to name important ones.

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The two Ministers appreciated the ongoing close cooperation between the two countries and hoped that the partnership grows from strength to strength in future.

Pertinent to mention that India and Tajikistan have shared a traditional warm relationship and are engaged in more than one sectors including pharma, healthcare, chemicals etc. Incidentally, under PM Modi, all these sectors have received a special impetus, particularly after the Covid pandemic
 

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Ayni in Tajikistan: India completes another capacity-building programme​

India and Tajikistan have enjoyed good diplomatic relations ever since diplomatic relations were established in 1992.


India’s relations with Central Asian countries have acquired a new salience with the institutionalisation of the ‘India-Central Asia Summit’ mechanism in January this year. India and Central Asian countries, except Turkmenistan, are important constituents of the SCO mechanism.

Most of the cooperation with Central Asian countries have a development aspect, which is increasingly becoming an important facet of India’s relations with these land-locked countries.

Since Tajikistan’s independence in 1991, India has played the role of a development and aid partner to it. In 1995, India extended a credit line to set up a pharmaceutical plant (Ajanta Pharma). In January 2005, a fruit processing plant was established in Dushanbe by HMT. An information and technology centre (Bedil Centre) was commissioned in 2006. The project ran for full hardware cycle of six years and trained almost all the first generation IT experts in the country's government sector.


In June 2011, India set up a modern engineering workshop. It also undertook rehabilitation and modernisation of a 1936 vintage Varzob-1 Hydro Power Station through Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL) and National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC).

After renovation, the installed capacity was enhanced from 2x3.67 MW to 2x4.75 MW. The rehabilitated Power Station was inaugurated on 28 December 2012 and is running successfully. A project for setting up of computer labs in 37 schools in Tajikistan (announced during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit in July 2015) was completed and delivered in August 2016.

However, lack of overland connectivity with Central Asia has negatively impacted trade and commerce between India and the Central Asian region. Therefore, there has been an increased focus to bolster connectivity with the Central Asian region, including through joining of connectivity corridors like International North-South Transport corridor and the Ashgabat agreement. As part of these efforts, India rehabilitated, renovated and developed the Ayni airport near Dushanbe.


To make the Ayni airport fully operational, the existing runway was upgraded to ‘PCN 40’ classification and many construction works were carried out. This includes construction of new ATC tower, runway lighting, emergency landing strip, perimeter road, guard posts, apron including its lighting, 14.5-km perimeter wall and 7.183km of road from Dushanbe to Ayni as well as repair of hangers and parking surfaces. An instrument landing system (ILS) was installed in 2015.

India has regularly upgraded its technical infrastructure and equipment to ensure full operational readiness over the years.

Apart from infrastructure and technical upgradation of the Ayni airport as a key asset, India has also refurbished and widened the Gai-Ayni road that leads from Dushanbe to the airport. Another ongoing six-eight lane road project being done by India under grant assistance further connects the Ayni-Gai road to Chortut highway which would help in de-congestion of Dushanbe traffic. This project is expected to be complete by end of this year.


Following the full realisation of the existing mandate in respect of Ayni airport, India believes that Tajikistan is ready to fully maintain and operate the airport.

Last month, India also handed over the India-Tajikistan Friendship Hospital in the Bokhtar region that was developed and refurbished into a fully functional 50-bedded hospital.

This is yet another example of India’s development partnership model wherein the facility is handed over to the host side after upgradation and training. This is also why the Indian Line of Credit, grant projects and training programmes under ITEC has so many takers across the world.