As the East rises in prominence, wealth, and geopolitical importance, more Asian countries are discovering the “Start-Up Nation.” Today, Israel has extensive business ties with a number of Asian countries, including China, Vietnam, and South Korea.
Add India to that list, too, says Dr. Arvind Gupta, the head of technology affairs in India’s BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), the largest opposition party in the country. Although Israeli tech and business deals with other Asian countries — especially China — seem to grab most of the headlines, there is considerable trade between Israel and India. India is the largest purchaser of Israeli military equipment, and Israel is the second-largest military partner of India after Russia. In 2009, that business was was worth about $9 billion.
Non-military trade is also robust, with both countries doing nearly $5 billion in business in 2011. Israel and India are also in the final stages of negotiating a free trade agreement, which is expected to at least triple trade between the two countries. Currently, India is Israel’s second largest Asian trading partner, behind China.
With all that, something seems to be missing; not that much is written about trade with India. Ditto in the India media. Why the reticence?
There are reasons for that, Gupta told the Times of Israel at the Israel-Asia Summit, held in May at the Peres Peace Center in Jaffa. The summit brought leaders of Israeli and Asian tech together to discuss policy, technology, environmental issues, social policy, and a plethora of other issues where Israel and Asia have common interest.
Politics, said Gupta, was somewhat of a factor, as India has tried to take a middle ground between its relationship with Israel and its relationship with neighboring Muslim countries including Pakistan and India – as well as with its own sizable Muslim population. Plus, it should be noted, India was, along with several others, a founding country of the Non-Aligned Movement, of which it is still a proud member — and, of course, as a Non-Aligned country, India attempts to take a middle ground between its relationship for Israel and support for Palestinian sovereignty.
But a much more important factor is the nature of the business between Israel and India, which generally takes place between large entities and corporations. A good example of that is NaanDanJain Irrigation, now fully owned by Indian agritech powerhouse Jain Irrigation. NaanDanJain provides drip irrigation equipment and technology to Indian farmers, but that equipment is often out of reach to poorer farmers. Similarly, many of the developments in Israeli technology are, at the very least “off the shelf,” applicable to middle class Indians, with the poor masses “locked out” of many of the innovations that could help them.
One of the challenges, then, is to try and adapt that technology for the masses, providing them with ways they can improve their situation. “We were able to do that with drip-irrigation technology,” said Gupta. “Obviously India’s drip-irrigation needs and conditions are far different from Israel’s, but, working together, we were able to adapt that technology for India. In the same way, we would like to see more of Israel’s high-tech adapted for the Indian reality, used to help both the haves and have-nots. The ideas and tech are great, but they need to be adjusted to the needs of India.”
One way to do that, said Gupta, is to increase the number of individuals — especially students — in exchange programs. As Indians work with Israelis on tech projects, it will be easier for them to adjust the technology for local needs. “There needs to be more people-to-people, and especially student-to-student, connections,” said Gupta. “This will reduce apprehensions among Indians, and encourage closer ties of all kinds between the two countries.”
It worked for him, Gupta said. “This is my first visit to Israel, and I have to say that the stereotype of the place as a trouble zone is just not true. It is mostly business as usual, people making their way day to day.” And, Gupta added, there is much more coexistence and cooperation with Palestinians than he had been led to believe. “That this coexistence can occur within the conflict has been an important learning experience for me.”