Hong Kong: On a recent visit to Hong Kong, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor told the Foreign Correspondents Club, “While we have excessive regulation in India, we have excellent regulators and bureaucrats as evident from the caliber of our consul general here in Hong Kong. One of the youngest and sharpest men in diplomacy, he is the symbol of new India."

Prashant Agrawal, consul-general of India to Hong Kong and Macau, takes this compliment in his stride. Agrawal understands the importance of pruning regulations with some speed to attract foreign investment into India’s manufacturing sector. Since taking on his current assignment in January 2014, he has been striving successfully to prune excessive regulations and open India for business from the East.

Agrawal has made promoting trade, commerce and investment flows a centrepiece of his term. India-Hong Kong trade is currently worth $23 billion, approximately. In the last 11 months, bilateral trade between the two grew at an impressive 13%, compared with Hong Kong’s global trade growth rate of 3.8%.

Agrawal has also made promoting two-way tourism a key focus to strengthen relations between India and Hong Kong.

He is excited about India’s new visa policy and is actively working to promote it. An e-tourist visa (eTV) facility is now available for holders of Chinese, Hong Kong and Macau passports.

“This simple online process could be game changing in the future," says Agrawal, who hopes it will help facilitate mainland and Hong Kong visitors to travel in greater numbers, and more frequently, to India for both business and tourism.

The number of Indian travellers to Hong Kong is also growing. Currently, over half-a-million Indian tourists and businesspersons visit Hong Kong every year.

“We are working now to ensure that Hong Kong becomes the ‘super-connector’ and a gateway to India for mainland companies. I think this is the future of Hong Kong-India relations," Agrawal says.

Agrawal has the trademark poise and confidence of a diplomat. He comes across as a man of substance without the swagger. The 42-year-old Agrawal studied mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, before joining the foreign service in 1998. His previous diplomatic assignments include postings in Paris and Port Louis.

Before taking up his current position, he was also the deputy chief of mission and deputy permanent representative of India to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, embassy of India, Bangkok.

When asked about the lure of the foreign service, he says, “The biggest incentive was the unparalleled opportunity for public service, in addition to the global exposure we get."

The sheer diversity of the work, he says, is mind-boggling and exciting. “Everything ranging from climate change issues, community issues, political and economic issues are your day’s work."

A genteel and understated man with a sharp intellect, Agrawal grew up in Jaipur. His parents were doctors with the government and “public service" was the ethos of the family.

Agrawal is optimistic about the expanding and deepening relations between Hong Kong and India.

“Be it the high-level visits of politicians and business leaders, or the growing volume of trade, enhanced tourism flows, cultural and people-to-people contact, Hong Kong-India relations are on a growth trajectory," he says.

The conclusion of a double taxation avoidance agreement that is under discussion will give a boost to the process, he says.

In addition to trade and investment, Agrawal is passionate about the power of India’s soft culture.

He takes some pride in the fact that he was one of the key diplomats instrumental in bringing Indian films to Cannes Film Festival a decade ago.

He is now actively working to promote India’s soft power in multiple ways in Hong Kong.

As part of promoting people-to-people contact, he has led the effort to organize several high-profile cultural events in Hong Kong such as an exhibition on shared Buddhist heritage, international yoga day and a festival of Indian films.

“Hong Kong is also keen to partner with the film industry in India. There are many synergies to be tapped," Agrawal says.

Films from Hong Kong are popular in India. And vice versa. Acclaimed Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wei was honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the recently held International Film Festival of India. Agrawal is keen to see the collaboration grow in films, literature, music, policy and business.

“I try to immerse myself fully in every country and understand it deeply through the eyes of its people and the world. And then try and influence it in some modest way," he says.

Select excerpts from an interview:

Can you highlight the impact of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government on India-Hong Kong relations?

This is a moment of enormous import for India, globally characterized by hope, optimism and positive energy under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi. In addition to the structural reforms being undertaken, the new government has also taken path-breaking new initiatives on external front, including with China, where the visit of President Xi (Jinping) to India in September last year, have led to intensified engagement, especially on infrastructure development and investment fronts. Indeed, taking advantage of Hong Kong as a “super-connector", we want it to develop as a gateway to India for mainland companies.

A growing number of Indian companies and professionals now call Hong Kong home, adding to its competitiveness as a world city.

We have also been working closely with a number of blue-chip Hong Kong companies for expanding their presence in India, or opening up new sectors for them, and we are very hopeful that more companies in Hong Kong will take full advantage of this enormous opportunity. As the saying goes, we have the right ingredients of “democracy, demography and demand" for long-term sustained growth.

How do India’s relations with mainland China affect India-Hong Kong relations?

In May this year, Prime Minister Modi paid a landmark visit to China that saw our bilateral relations expand and strengthen in key dimensions. In addition to the 24 agreements signed for cooperation in areas ranging from deep space to deep sea, 26 agreements were also signed regarding trade, commerce and investment projects worth $22 billion. It has been our endeavour to ensure that Hong Kong is an integral part of this growing engagement between India and China... Major companies in Hong Kong which helped drive industrialization in the Pearl River Delta are now also working to be a part of the “Make in India" and “Smart Cities" initiatives.

As a diplomat, you have spoken much about India’s pluralist ethos as one of its greatest strength, and its imprint on South-East Asia. Could you elaborate?

We recently observed the Constitution Day, and that was an occasion to tell people in Hong Kong about how our constitution is a celebration of our plural ethos, shaped by our freedom struggle as well as our unique civilizational heritage. For a place like Hong Kong that prides itself as a cosmopolitan, “world" city, that plurality of ours is widely respected and deeply admired.

Pluralism in India stems from our history since the Indus valley civilization began over 5,000 years back.

After the advent of the Aryans, waves of Greeks, Kushans, Sakas, Huns, Arabs, Persians, Turks and the Mongols swept into India. Each of these groups and communities brought their own traditions and cultural norms from their native lands. Over time, they lost contact with their places of origin and underwent an extensive process of indigenization. This process of adaptation and interaction among various groups brought about, on the one hand, India’s characteristic diversity and, on the other, a composite cultural tradition.

India has been, therefore, a “crossroads culture" as it has been the intersection point of both major land and sea routes. As a result, throughout history, India has influenced—and, in turn, been influenced—by other cultures.

How are your promoting the Make in India policy of the Indian government in Hong Kong?

The secretary of the department of industrial policy and promotion...visited Hong Kong and noted that it has a unique advantage to position itself as Gateway to India for mainland Chinese and Hong Kong companies, under the ‘Make in India’ initiative launched by India. Companies here can use their core strengths and expertise, gained from being Gateway to China, to capitalize upon exciting new opportunities in India.

This message of Amitabh Kant, secretary, Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP), was conveyed during the Make in India roadshow organized in Hong Kong on 1 April 2015 by our office, with the DIPP, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci).

As a result, several major Hong Kong companies are in the process of expanding their operations/investments in India and Make-in-India initiative is providing them due facilitation.

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