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PM jogs Ethiopia's dosa connection

Sentimental Singh dwells on likenesses of cuisine and culture

Sankarshan Thakur Published 27.05.11, 12:00 AM
Singh in Dar-es-Salaam. (PTI)

Dar-es-Salaam, May 26: We cruised south flying over the fabled Mount Kiliminjaro — its tabletop peak powdered with vanilla snow — still wondering what had urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh onto a purple patch back at the Ethiopian Parliament House in Addis Ababa this morning.

“Many millennia ago, Africa and India were joined as one landmass,” he told a rapt gathering of Ethiopian MPs. “Today we are separated by the waters of the Indian Ocean but our connections are deep…. I am conscious that when one visits Ethiopia one visits the cradle of humankind… it is a land of great natural beauty which was home to the most ancient kingdom in Africa.”

He spoke eloquently, and amid repeated rounds of applause, of peculiar likenesses of cuisine and culture — the ferment flour core of the Indian dosa and the Ethiopian injara (sourdough flatbread which resembles a dosa), of the rural custom of head-dresses and of the tradition of treating guests as gods.

He called his visit — the first by an Indian Prime Minister to Ethiopia — “a voyage of friendship and solidarity” and the Parliament hall erupted with the clatter of clapping. It was resonating well after the exuberant reception at Dar-es-Salaam’s Julius Nyerere Airport was over — a 13-gun salute from cannons lined up on a knoll by the tarmac, a stirring army brass band and ululating women.

It isn’t often that the Prime Minister gives himself to extended sentimentality, as he did this morning, but then, it isn’t often that Prime Ministers imagine a relationship and its possibilities and set forth to shape it into tactile reality. Manmohan Singh’s African summitry over this week is possibly the beginning of that shaping.

It isn’t often, after all, that Manmohan Singh spends so long abroad in the same neck of woods. If he is doing that, hinted an aide, it is because he believes this is good investment. If he has repeatedly invoked ties of the past, it is possibly because he has convinced himself there is something in it for the future.

As one top official said en route to Dar-es-Salaam, king pearl of the East African coastline: “Africa is the only growth continent left, and given our deep ties of history and culture, it is an opportunity like no other. Don’t look at it purely in today-tomorrow terms, think two decades ahead, probably three, think of the losses of not making a start in Africa now.”

The Indian foreign policy establishment remains stoutly averse to any suggestion New Delhi erred in its calculations and is now trying to desperately catch up with the Chinese who have built a formidable investment lead on the continent.

“Our ties are different, our approaches are different, what we are trying to do in Africa is different, comparisons with the Chinese enterprise and objectives are odious,” a senior foreign office official said.

He quickly conceded, though, that “irrespective of the Chinese”, India does believe it has fallen behind in Africa and will need to accelerate efforts to create what he called a “launch platform”. The Prime Minister’s visit —and the almost daily aid dispersal that has attended it — is the new arrowhead of the Indian effort.

One of the prime offerings of Africa in the Indian scheme is what has become a touchy issue at home: land. Huge tracts are available for exploitation by industry and modern agriculture, of which Africa has very little.

“It is only a nascent idea at this stage, but the land Africa possesses could, apart from all else, become a huge food security insurance for us,” an official said. “It may sound far-fetched at the moment, but land use in Africa is looked at keenly, it could become a huge future asset for India.”

Indian entrepreneurs leasing land in Ethiopia — it is a huge understatement to say the rates are competitive — may be the cause of some local disaffection; there have been reports of alleged land grab by Indian horticulturists and of local people being evicted to accommodate Indian business interests.

But as Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi made amply clear yesterday, the nation is eager to lease land away. “Reports that there is any local problem over land leasing in Ethiopia are absurd, there is no land to be grabbed in Ethiopia, there is only land to be developed and I hope Indian investors will look keenly at the prospects we have to offer.”

According to Zenawi, Ethiopia has close to three million hectares of “unutilized and uninhabited” land, of which the government has only leased out 10 per cent. “The land possibilities in Ethiopia, and across most of Africa, are immense,” an official on the Prime Minister’s delegation said.

“But they will only become a reality if we are able to convince African governments and African people that our intentions are genuine and motivated by a desire for mutual profit.”

What the Prime Minister himself told the Ethiopian Parliament this morning wasn’t very different: “Ethiopia has the credentials to shape the new vision of Africa’s prosperity… I call upon you to take the lead in this process. The people of India will stand with you every step of the way.”

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