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NEW DELHI : Investment and innovation will be key drivers of India-Switzerland ties in the years to come, says Swiss ambassador to India Ralf Heckner. A free trade pact and bilateral investment protection pact could provide the necessary regulatory framework to boost investments, he adds. Edited excerpts from an interview.

How would you evaluate the state of bilateral ties between Switzerland and India?

My assessment when it comes to working with the Indian administration, I was impressed by how many professional people I met – ministers, high ranking officials -- especially with getting things done mentality. Open doors for Swiss interests.

If you look at international relations it is a lot of shifting sands but our bilateral relations are on a very solid foundation. And I have two reasons for that – one would be that we share a lot of values, we are both democratic states and federal states. Then when it comes to the people you have a unique bond between the Indian people and the Swiss people. You had 280,000 Indian tourists and business people going to Switzerland in 2019-20; you have 50,000 Swiss people visiting India. As an ambassador you have to look at where relations are and where they are likely to go. I think our relations are today even more important than maybe 20 years ago. And the reason is because innovation is so important to our states, to our bilateral relations. So you have in India huge pockets of innovation and that is of interest to Switzerland and Switzerland on the other hand is an innovative country. We have put a lot of thought into what makes our bilateral relations and it is really the two “i’s" -- investment and innovation. Especially innovation. India has a lot to offer in innovation too. So this is a two-way street.

India has been putting a lot of stress on innovation. What can India and Switzerland do together in this area?

I think when it comes to innovation, the sky is the limit. Before, you had some countries with innovation and other countries with less. Today if I have a look at our bilateral relations, both countries offer innovation. So you have Switzerland as one of the most innovative countries and India with huge pockets of innovation. And it can be innovation in any kind of field. If the Indian government looks for a partner in innovation, that would be Switzerland. We have ranked as number one as a country in innovation for many years. But also from the Swiss side what do we see, we see India as a partner especially in digitalization. So Switzerland was able to catch all the different waves of innovation so far, the digital wave, to the chemistry and the pharma wave, international finance and now we are in the midst of this digital wave. If Switzerland wants to be capable of catching that wave, we need India and we see India as a strategic partner in digitalization. And that already gives you an indication of which fields that is – it will definitely be ICT, but it will also be pharma, that will be machine and precision tools. These are two or three of the main areas.

What can India and Switzerland do together to in the area of climate change?

One, is that the Swiss Development Agency is solely focusing on climate change in India. Climate mitigation and adaptation. Switzerland is working with the national authorities and also the states and cities. For example at the cities level we are working with Tamil Nadu with a climate mitigation plan. Also in innovation, we have together developed a cement that would need less CO (carbon monoxide) to be produced and looking at India, there is a huge need to invest in housing. So that is another pillar of our cooperation. So one pillar is through the Swiss Development Agency and the second through 316 Swiss companies in India. All Swiss companies in India are investing in innovation and sustainability. And where I see Switzerland coming into India in a big way is through a sustainable financial centre. So the vision of the (Swiss) government is that the funds that are managed in Switzerland are invested in a sustainable way. In Glasgow you heard a lot about $100 billion. Here we are talking trillions of dollars and Swiss Francs. And the vision is that the money that is managed by banks, insurances, pension funds, the National Bank could be invested in sustainable companies. And I think that could be Switzerland’s contribution to mitigating climate change, also helping us achieve the sustainable development goals.

What is the status of the India-Switzerland Free Trade Agreement?

The negotiations have been going on for a number of years. During this past year, we had two meetings of the trade ministers. In May we had a meeting of the chief (trade) negotiators and two working groups – one dealing with services and the second with goods. So things are moving ahead. I also sense that the Swiss government has an interest in free trade. And I also sense a growing interest in India. There has been more talk and I think action when it comes to the trade talks with the European Union, and the UK and Australia. This is a good indication where you would like to go. And also the policies of the prime minister (Narendra Modi) are quite clear when it comes to “Make in India." There is another reason why I am optimistic. What are the two things Switzerland can offer in its free trade agreement? Technology and innovation. We have a great innovation ecosystem and we have investment muscle. India will be able to tap more strategically into that Swiss innovation eco-system and it would also mean more investments. The Swiss businesses are reacting to the investment climate in India. Ninety percent of Swiss businesses came to India after 1991 and more than 40 companies came in after 2014. So if that is the modus operandi of Swiss businesses then just imagine what a free trade agreement with India, you would definitely have more investments.

But we don’t have a BIPA (Bilateral Investment Protection Agreement)…

The Swiss businesses are looking at two or three things – one is the framework conditions which means free trade agreements and investment protection agreements. For that reason we are working on both things. It is very clear from our side that to attract even more businesses if we can achieve framework conditions – a free trade agreement and a bilateral investment agreement that would be a game changer. I think the free trade negotiations are moving forward quicker.

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