India

Interview | “Saab fighter jets tender still ongoing,” says Swedish Ambassador


It was a single engine, originally, that was broadened to include all kinds of multi-role fighters, says Klas Molin.

When Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Stefan Löfven met in Stockholm in April 2018, in the Joint Action Plan (JAP) there was a sharp focus on initiatives in trade and investment, including conversations with major Swedish companies with operations in India, such as Volvo and Ikea. Could you talk a bit about the major points of progress achieved in the bilateral space since then?

I was very happy to, as a fairly newly arrived Ambassador, be working on that historic visit that followed the state visit of President Mukherjee, who had been in Sweden just a couple of years before. That was followed by a Swedish state visit to India at the end of 2019. So, we have had many highlights in the bilateral relationship. Prime Minister Löfven was, of course, here also in 2016, and met Prime Minister Modi during that visit.

Many of the original ideas we’ve been cooperating on for four decades, and the work of many manufacturing companies that have been here since the 1950s, and 1960s — and some since the beginning of the 20th century — mean that we are no strangers to working in and cooperating with India. I speak for the community and the Chamber of Commerce in saying that working and being in India is not just essential, it is also very fruitful and productive. There are companies engaged in the manufacturing, development, and code development of many products, and some that supply manufacturing companies and service-oriented companies, including global service operations. For example, the company Ericsson is bigger in India than anywhere else in the world, including in Sweden, with approximately 30,000 employees. The same is true of ABB and AstraZeneca, including back offices, technical support, and service-oriented operations.

The climate is generally very positive. This past year has been challenging, but the Prime Ministers have very much set the tone for increased cooperation.

Although for its MMRC tender India went with the Rafale, is there hope that the IAF could consider the Saab jet fighters, at some point in the future?

Absolutely, and I believe that is also Saab’s assessment. The tender is still there, it is modified, and it was opened up to two more categories. It was a single engine, originally, that was broadened to include all kinds of multi-role fighters. Saab is definitely a contender and would very much like to partner with India, for co-development and production in India. I believe the process is ongoing.

At the 2018 summit meeting, the JAP agreed on a Sweden-India Innovation Partnership for a Sustainable Future. Could you touch upon areas where innovation cooperation has been translated into policies or actions on the ground? The JAP [following their 2018 summit meeting] has as one of its provisions a standalone partnership on innovation for a sustainable future. Innovation has very much set the tone and dominant flavour. Recently, we had the first dialogue on innovation.

Sweden has a National Innovation Council that the Prime Minister chairs, and it is a very important part of the policy of working with the public sector, the government, academia, and the private sector, in incorporating and setting up science parks, incubation centres, and so forth. This was also much of the idea behind the innovation partnership to partner with India in key sectors, such as health.

Just the other day, during a bio conference, we had a seminar on precision medicine, where Swedish technology, which is not just adopted, but is very much being developed in India at the moment, meets the incredibly rich data of patients in India. This helps pinpointing treatments for patients and developing treatments that can then be extrapolated to huge numbers of patients. This is an example of the latest areas that we cooperate more and more in. And it’s not entirely new. We have had an MoU for well over 10 years now in the health and life sciences.

We had our Minister for Health here a couple of years ago. She travelled to a couple of places in India, met her counterparts, of course, and has worked since with Minister of Health and Family Welfare Harsh Vardhan very closely on COVID-19 response, but also with the AIIMS hospitals in India. We are setting up a hub in Jodhpur.

The foundation of our partnership is very much the manufacturing sector, and increasingly about services, start-ups and the IT sector. Migration is mostly one way — of Indian IT engineers going to Sweden. This is the predominant but not the only category. The COVID-19 pandemic is not making things easier, but we do everything we can regarding work permits and more.

There have been many joint ventures too. You have an Eicher-Volvo joint venture, which is over 10 years old now, on buses and trucks, which is quite successful. They will tell you that they are increasing their market share, with Volvo being well known for long haul buses that are comfortable, air-conditioned and safe transportation.

We had a hackathon recently that ended with an award ceremony. Honourable Union Minister Nitin Gadkari was kind enough to take part in the award ceremony virtually. He has visited Sweden and he and his counterpart in Sweden recently set up a partnership on safe transportation. You might have seen that he had a Road Safety Month declared in February, nationally, and we are now looking at e-highways, electrification and other sustainable and renewable modes of transportation. Space and polar research are also part of the JAP, just as defence is an important component.

Mikael Damberg, formerly Enterprises and Innovation Minister, told The Hindu earlier that the issues that require attention to keep the momentum going on bilateral economic cooperation include IPR protection and reducing red tape in the bureaucracy. Have things moved forward on this count since 2018?

I would say the way that India is moving up in the Ease of Doing Business index is one good sign and testament to something that I also perceive in the Swedish business community. There is definitely a sense that reforms are taking place that make it easier, for example through investment facilitation meetings under a mechanism set up by our Ministers for commerce and enterprise under a joint commission that meets under the Prime Minister. Under this joint commission, I meet the President of our Chamber, we meet the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, we meet Ministry of Commerce, we meet Customs under the Ministry of Finance also and tackle issues that companies have when it comes to the GST. These issues can be brought up directly with the agencies, which is not to say they would be resolved at the table, but the grievances or problems or questions that they have, we have been able to raise in our presence. We have found it very useful.

Also, the States have been vying in some kind of competition nationally for investments, which can lead to them providing infrastructure, guaranteeing electricity supply, sewage, and more for setting up manufacturing and other presences. This can help with red tape.

Predictability is always a factor that these companies mention when asked about what could be even better.

These companies are global, with global supply chains, and they can move part of their production and their supplies elsewhere. Yet they do want to remain in India, and there is no question that they have grown. Over the last decade, we’ve seen 100% increase — doubling of companies with presence in India — and not all of them are Ericssons and Volvos. They include software developers, start-ups and incubation centres, new companies that are created in both in India and in Sweden, but co-owned or jointly owned.

Regarding COVID-19 pandemic and the Swedish firm AstraZeneca being at the heart of the vaccine strategy in India, do you have a sense that the vaccine will be made widely available, equitably distributed world over, including in developing countries?

We know for a fact they are very large in India, and they are an important part of India’s production and rollout. It is heartening to see also their speed and the very deliberate and successful rollout that India is undertaking, including in the neighbourhood, and commercially with over 20 partner countries. We are impressed to see how quickly and professionally this is being done.

In Europe we thirst for successful examples, and India is definitely setting one. Given the mutations of the coronavirus, everyone needs to be vaccinated eventually, for everyone to be safe. There are IPR issues that are discussed in the WTO and elsewhere, and there are exceptions and exemptions possible under regulations. There are ways of solving this and I hope for everyone’s sake that it would be possible to find ways of doing this in the best possible way, which is also commercially viable, takes into account IPR and other issues as well as everyone’s health and wellbeing.



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