‘I feel very much at home in India’: Melba Pria

Hardnews Bureau

On the occasion of Mexico’s 207th National Day, ambassador Melba Pria speaks to Hardnews about the significance the day holds for the country and also delves into the scope and nature of the Latin American nation’s relations with India, especially in the backdrop of the changing geopolitics in the region. She was ambassador of Mexico to Indonesia from November 2007 to April 2015 after which she became the country’s envoy to India, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. In New Delhi, she has been in the spotlight for her deep concern for environmental pollution and for riding a chauffeur-driven autorickshaw. 

As Mexico is set to celebrate 207 years of independence, what are the challenges that lie ahead and what milestones does the nation aspire to reach?

On our 207th National Day, Mexico celebrates its liberty and independence once again, with firm attention on the challenges ahead that must be tackled without delay. With around 130 million people, Mexico is the most populated Spanish-speaking country, and in its years of existence it has become a leader of the region with a unique personality felt around the world. 

This is a good moment to reflect about the things that we have achieved as Mexicans and the challenges that we must still face as a nation: improve the environment of security, accelerate the battle against poverty, offer quality education to every young person in Mexico, eliminate the barriers of economic growth, broaden the employment and prosperity opportunities in all regions and consolidate Mexico as a country which is proud of its heritage, faithful to its values and determined to be a major player on the international stage.

A process of transformation, driven by the citizens of Mexico, has been put into motion, starting with the structural reforms undertaken during the last few years. The international context has been adverse at times, but Mexico continues to stay strong and pull through, overcoming all negative forecasts and expectations. 

What is your view of the current status of the bilateral relationship between Mexico and India? Are you satisfied with its trajectory?

The links between India and Mexico have been characterised by cordiality, fraternity and good intentions. For a long time, despite many coincidences and the potential for collaboration, the bilateral relation was centred on circumstantial interaction and interaction at international fora. However, India and Mexico have noticed the enormous possibilities that deepening the relationship throws open.

I believe that the interactions between Mexico and India, considering the sizes of both nations, are just scratching the surface of what could be done. That said, I think we are on the right trajectory, that every day more businesses and interactions among Indians and Mexicans are being born and that we are building bridges with each other, a process in which we are realising just how similar we actually are. 

What more needs to be done to take the ties between the two countries to the next level?

We are working for the bilateral relationship to be based on short, medium and long-term strategic design instead of circumstantial interaction. Our work today is to broaden and deepen the scope of our relations with the objective of consolidating a strategic partnership between Mexico and India, which is the commitment that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Enrique Peña Nieto have made. Our vision is to take the relationship into the future: we aim for a relationship of the 21st century, one from which the Indians and Mexicans who are 15 to 20 years old today will reap the benefits in the following years. Hence, the flagship areas of our relationship will be trade and investment, education, energy, technical and scientific cooperation, and space cooperation. 

High-level visits and interactions are essential for our relationship to advance. We celebrated the 7th India-Mexico Joint Commission Meeting on June 23, 2017, and we received two parliamentary delegations in the course of the year: a delegation from the Senate of the Republic, headed by the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Asia-Pacific, in March and a delegation from the Mexican Congress, headed by the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, María Guadalupe Murguía Gutiérrez, in August.

Our leaders, Prime Minister Modi and President Peña Nieto, have built a great rapport and they are like-minded reformists. They have already met on four occasions, including the visit of Prime Minister Modi to Mexico on June 8, 2016. We are very proud to announce that we expect a visit from the President of Mexico in December 2017, which would close with a golden clasp, as goes the Mexican idiom, a magnificent year for Mexico-India relations.

What is the current value of annual trade between India and Mexico?

As two major emerging economic powers, Mexico and India enjoy a privileged relationship. In the world scenario, we share important commitments with the international community, we are both members of G20, among other political mechanisms and institutions, both regional and global, and are now well on the way to doing a lot more together on the world stage. Our bilateral trade has increased substantially from $1.8 billion in 2006 to $6.5 billion in 2016, a figure that will continue to increase. 

Today, Mexico is also a privileged destination of Indian investment in Latin America with more than three million dollars of investment by about 70 Indian companies settled in Mexico. Mexico is the largest Latin American investor in India with 13 Mexican companies operating here. There is more than $1 billion invested in sectors like entertainment, multiplex cinemas, auto parts, electric generators and processed food, among others. 

Both Mexico City and New Delhi are struggling to contain the rising air pollution and a slew of steps has been taken to tackle the problem. What are some of the lessons that India can learn from Mexico in this context?

My hometown, Mexico City, sits at an elevation of 2,000 metres. Its high altitude tends to trap pollution and makes it a victim of poor ventilation. There was a time when Mexico City’s pollution levels were so great that it was common to find dead birds on the asphalt and sidewalks of the city. 

Air quality readings were so alarming that schools remained closed for one entire month in 1989. By 1992, my hometown was declared the world’s most polluted city by the United Nations. 

However, by 2012, Mexico City managed to register 248 days of good air quality. And the following year, it received the C40 Climate Leadership Award in the Air Quality category for its success in tackling air pollution.

 

To achieve this, the government stepped up measures to curtail pollution to some extent. But the main effort came from collective action by citizens themselves. The government took stringent measures such as removing all factories out of city limits and had their standards reinforced. Improvements were made in quality of fuel; vehicle verification or pollution level checks became mandatory every six months. If a vehicle did not pass the standard, it could not be on the street. All vehicles in Mexico had to have catalytic converters. Better public transportation systems were brought in, with introduction of bike-sharing programmes like Ecobici and Metrobus. In a span of four years, from 2008 to 2012, the city reduced over 7.7 tonnes of emissions, beating the goal of seven tonnes. 

The most intriguing measure that the Mexican government took was the campaign of “one day without car”. Originally started as a voluntary initiative to stop using the car on one day of the week, Hoy No Circula formula was relatively successful, even lasting to this day. It has also been applied in various other cities in the world, such as Bogota, Sao Paulo, Santiago and Beijing. It made citizens realise that in order for things to change, they had to make sacrifices as well, and change their lifestyles. 

Air is one of the most democratic things in the world. It does not make any differences on the basis of gender, age, wealth or status. We all breathe in just the same. The takeaway for Delhi in this alarming situation is that it will be up to the citizens themselves, if the city is to do something about this situation. 

What is your view of the business environment in India? Do you think the ease of doing business in the country has improved in the last decade?

India has been a bright spot on a somewhat gloomy global economic stage: the only country which is growing over 7%. The Indian government’s pro-FDI stance has helped it to emerge as one of the top destinations globally for foreign direct investment, and Mexico has taken advantage of this. Mexico is the largest source of FDI for India from Latin America. As mentioned, 13 leading Mexican companies have invested more than $800 million in India till 2015. 

One of the priorities for the Government of India since the reforms of the 1990s has been to consolidate the image of the country as an economic power. Business-oriented policies have given clear messages to investors. The objective has been to consolidate confidence in the stability and growth of India as well as attract investment into crucial sectors. In this sense, the vision of the Indian government is reminiscent of the Mexican reforms that have been undertaken during this administration, and which have opened to investment the most strategic economic sectors.

We see India as promising, not only because of future growth potential but as a source of labour and current size of local market as well. India may be on the right track with its massive investment in infrastructure, simplification of administrative procedures and programmes such as Digital India and Make in India. The transformation of the tax system along with the implementation of GST is consolidating India as a conducive environment for local and international companies.

What are some of the commonalities in the cultural histories of India and Mexico? Do you think they can be used to strengthen the ties between the two nations?

As the great author, Nobel laureate and Indophile Octavio Paz famously wrote in his book, In Light of India, “I can understand what it means to be Indian, because I am Mexican.” 

Cultural diplomacy is one of the most effective tools to connect our countries. Both India and Mexico see each other with interest and curiosity. Mexicans are fascinated by monuments like the Taj Mahal, just as the Indians are attracted to our magnificent pre-Hispanic pyramids. The practices of yoga and Ayurveda are increasingly popular in Mexico and the region, and Latin American audiences appreciate the philosophy and spirituality they represent. 

Despite the apparent distance, both our cultures are quite similar in essence. During the time I have been Ambassador of Mexico to India, and even before as a tourist for many years, I have seen striking features of my own country here.

We are both peoples inheriting very rich ancient cultures, which have been impacted by various achievements as well as a colonial experience. Mexico and India are similar in that they are large countries, diverse in nature, both have vibrant and magical cultures, with many languages, ethnicities, traditions and lifestyles.

Mexicans and Indians pursue similar values: the love for our families, our faith, the common struggle for better standards of living. Even our physical appearance is similar! 

We enjoy large family gatherings, we are both warm and hospitable, our cultures are noisy, colourful and diverse. And the one aspect that stands out as most similar is our shared love of spicy food. Mexican gastronomy which is recognised as an Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, has spread around the world and India has been no exception. If Indians have curry, we have mole – dishes based on a sauce made of chillies and strong spices. Moles are usually eaten with a tortilla, which is a corn roti. We use beans just as Indians use pulses, and they are every bit as essential to our nourishment. 

I feel very much at home in India, and I am convinced that for Indians, Mexico can be a home away from home too.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2017