Norway’s new ambassador to India, Nils Ragnar Kamsvåg, 61, found time on his first day in office, 1 September 2015, to discuss plans to further strengthen “commercial, political and scientific ties” with India. Be it in polar research in climate change, women’s empowerment in gram panchayats, Norway’s “Make in India” program, and living in India’s exciting but polluted capital he was candid and optimistic.
Excerpts from the interview:
Welcome to New Delhi! Norway and India have seen much progress in their relationship in recent years. How do you plan to build on this during your tenure?
A. Let me first say thanks for the warm manner in which my wife and I were received at our new home here in Delhi. With its rich civilisation and incredible diversity, India plays an important role in global affairs. As a Norwegian, I feel privileged to note that our cooperation is already extensive, whether it is in the commercial, political or scientific domain. These are fundamental bonds that I will strive to strengthen and deepen during my tenure. And with the tremendous growth of this youthful and vibrant country, I am confident that we shall succeed together.
Norway has identified India as an important partner under its “Asia Rising” strategy. The recent sharp fall in emerging market currencies and stocks markets however has shaken some foreign investors. Do you think this might lead to a reassessment of the level of engagement with India?
“Norway has been “making in India” for many years already.”
No, I do not see any major change in Indo-Norwegian business relations due to those factors. The Indian Rupee has actually strengthened by more than 25% since 2014. As Norwegian companies tend to compete on quality and lifetime cost, a stronger rupee should make Norwegian products more competitive in the Indian market. When it comes to investments, we have close to 100 Norwegian businesses established in India including most of the major companies. They are typically long-term investors. Periodic changes in the stock market have little influence on their long-term strategy.
Although Indo-Norwegian trade has risen to over $600 million annually, Norway is not among India’s top 15 trading partners and accounts for 0.50% or less of our trade. Similarly, India is a very small player in Norway. While this points to enormous potential for growth, what obstacles must be overcome? Do you have some concrete initiatives planned?
Trade between India and Norway has increased over the last decade. Much of the Norwegian business with India is, however, not reflected in the Indo-Norwegian trade figures. There are a number of reasons for that. Norway has several factories in India. Many Indians may be familiar with MTR Foods, which produces and sells Indian ready-to-eat packages of food. Jotun produces paint in India for the Indian market, Sapa produces for the Indian market. Norway has been “making in India” for many years already. Besides that, much trade from Norway to India is routed through trading hubs or third countries, such as Singapore, and does not show in the Indo-Norwegian trade figures. Our extensive shipping operations with India are not reflected in the statistics either.
The current Norwegian sovereign oil fund investment in India of approx $5.5 billion is considered modest. Is this because the returns from the Indian market have been unsatisfactory to date? Is Norway planning to widen its engagement by investing in other sectors of the Indian economy?
“[We] hope to see more Indian companies investing in Norway, encouraged by the positive experiences of those businesses which have already done so.”
NBIM, the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund, invests in listed stocks, bonds and property. The “direct” investment in India is presently approximately USD 5 billion in stocks and USD 3.5 billion in bonds, which are primarily Indian Government bonds. NBIM is, however, planning to increase its investments in the Indian market. NBIM’s portfolio in India could thus progressively grow as the Indian economy grows.
There is an ongoing discussion if NBIM should start to invest in infrastructure in developing economies. If that were to be decided as a part of the investment strategy, India should potentially be an interesting market for these kinds of investments.
What measures will be taken to make it easier and more attractive for Indian companies to do business in Norway?
The Norwegian Embassy in India has implemented faster processes for giving visas to employees of Indian companies established in Norway. Innovation Norway, which is the commercial section of the Norwegian Embassy in India, has a separate department named Invest in Norway, located in Norway. Their task is to support foreign investors and businesses that want to establish in Norway. We feel that there is a positive trend, but would hope to see more Indian companies investing in Norway, encouraged by the positive experiences of those businesses which have already done so. I would also add that the Norway India Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NICCI) is a very active organisation of Norwegian and Indian companies, assisting businesses wanting to invest in Norway.
Norway has facilitated India’s polar research program on climate change and microbiology. It was in the news recently following collection of the first full year of data from the Arctic observatory. Could you tell us what the implications are for further joint areas of research and knowledge sharing?
Norway congratulates India on the collection of its first one-year data from the underwater observatory in Kongsfjorden in Svalbard. India and Norway have cooperated in polar research for many years. Through close co-operation in Antarctica and on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, we also assist each other in logistical challenges. Scholarly exchanges between our two countries have been going on for years already; one example is the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research’s (NCAOR) close collaboration with the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø and the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo. I should also mention that Dr Harsh Vardhan, Minister of Science & Technology & Earth Sciences, will be visiting Svalbard and the Indian research station there this month.
Earlier this year a common joint call for proposal on NOK 30 million for Indo-Norwegian research projects in polar regions was announced. This will further strengthen our scientific cooperation for the next four years, specifically focusing on the climate system in polar regions, including possible connections with the Asian monsoon. The implications for our joint efforts is a solid contribution to a better understanding of our climate systems in an era where climate change is a severe threat to humanity.
Norway is a leading exporter of oil and gas and India is a major importer of these commodities but from Gulf countries. How would you like to see our cooperation develop in this sector?
“The implications for our joint efforts [in climate research] is a solid contribution to a better understanding of our climate systems in an era where climate change is a severe threat…”
A. Norway is an energy-rich country. Some 98% of our electricity is produced from renewable resources, primarily hydropower — we are the largest producer in Europe — but also from wind, bio and solar energy.
When it comes to the oil and gas sector, Norway has world-leading technologies and know-how. This could become a very important area of cooperation between India and Norway. As an example, India is, with your applied technology at present, able to take out approximately 25% of the oil in the reservoirs. Norway manages to take out about 55%, approaching 60%, indicating that there may be a vast economic potential in increased technological cooperation in this field. Norway has very high expertise on subsea oil exploration. Some companies like Aker Solution and DNV-GL are already involved in some of the projects on the Indian east coast.
Norway’s development aid program to India includes gender empowerment and governance which are key to India’s future growth. A wonderful success story is the support Norway provided for women’s reservation at panchayat level which has brought many more women into village-level governance. Do you plan to build on this? Indians have also followed the Norwegian example of reserving seats for women on listed company boards but this is still early days.
Norway is no longer a traditional aid donor to India. However, we do have a number of cooperation projects with partners like UN Women and The Hunger Project, both of which are focused on women’s rights and political participation at the gram panchayat level. We certainly plan to continue building on these projects. India has an impressive tradition for women’s participation in politics, a legacy we cherish and wish to contribute to. India had a female prime minister before we had one. Our own experiences in Norway clearly indicate that women’s participation in society, politics and the economy has been perhaps the single most important factor in the construction of our modern welfare state and our economy.
“Pollution… is a challenge for the permanent inhabitants of those cities rather than for foreign diplomats.”
How do you feel about living in the world’s most polluted city for the next few years? Is Norway planning to help India tackle the serious challenges of pollution and climate change mitigation?
Pollution is, of course, a source of concern, both for me as a diplomat and as a family man. The urban pollution levels of cities in many emerging economies are a challenge — but most of all, it is a challenge for the permanent inhabitants of those cities rather than for foreign diplomats. Norway wishes to be a relevant and effective partner for India in tackling these challenges. There is already extensive technical cooperation between Indian and Norwegian research communities, which we are keen to continue and strengthen. Whether it is in the fields of renewable energy, clean technology or research and development, Norway has cutting-edge competence.
Finally, we live in a volatile neighbourhood where peace has been elusive for decades. Some call it the most dangerous place in the world with two nuclear armed neighbours who have fought three wars. What are your thoughts on prospects for peace and how can we deal with cross-border terrorism?
This is certainly a region with considerable security challenges, which makes it particularly important that all governments in the region contribute constructively to a peaceful and predictable South Asia. Challenges must be dealt with squarely within the framework of international law, based on mutual respect, dialogue and cooperation.
Written by: Prabha Chandran
Also published in The Huffington Post