The Indian Council of World Affairs in collaboration with the ASEAN-India Centre at Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), New Delhi, organised a two-day international webinar on “20 Years of Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC)” on 5-6 November 2020 to commemorate the two decades of this initiative. The Webinar had a total of 23 speakers from India and the Mekong countries. The speakers constituted a multi-disciplinary group of academics, policy makers, diplomats, and experts.
2. Major themes discussed over five sessions of the Webinar included:
3. Secretary (East), Ministry of External Affairs, India Smt. Riva Ganguly Das delivered the inaugural address. She emphasised the historical, cultural, and geographical linkages between India and the Mekong region and how they enrich the contemporary cooperation. As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented crisis, the MGC initiative becomes a crucial platform in making progressive policy decisions and suggestions to counter the negative impact of the pandemic and to suggest a way forward. She outlined how progress has been made under MGC Plan of Action (2019-2022) adopted in 2019. India’s Quick Impact Projects, capacity building and human resource development efforts are important areas of cooperation with the region. Director General, ICWA, Dr. TCA Raghavan emphasised the need to make efforts to enhance collective scholarly endeavours focusing on our common heritage, civilizational and historical linkages. Twenty years of MGC is an opportune occasion to take stock and reflect on the progress achieved so far and to chart the course forward. Chairman, RIS Dr Mohan Kumar highlighted the importance of connectivity and how the conference should specifically identify the obstacles faced by the MGC countries to further strengthen economic relations.
4. The first session of the conference was titled ‘Shared Culture and Heritage’ and was chaired by Dr Prabir De. The speakers in the session were Parul Pandya Dhar, Associate Professor of South and Southeast Asian, Art History in the Department of History, University of Delhi; a joint presentation by Dr. Sudha Gopalakrishnan Director, and Ms. Niharika Gupta is Director (Research), Sahapedia, New Delhi; Prof. Dr. Sophana Srichampa, Chair Centre for Bharat Studies, Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia, Mahidol University, Thailand; and Dr. Piyanat Soikham, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Ubon Ratchathani University, Thailand. The session discussed the facets of the shared historical linkages through civilisational links that exist between India and the Mekong countries. It was stated that the cultural connect between India and Mekong is visible in archaeology, language and text, religion, shared restoration of heritage sites, and academic exchanges. The session discussed how the MGC can help build a closer understanding on the historical and cultural linkages by undertaking projects such as establish centres in existing universities and resource centres, digitalisation of historical documents, exchange of scholars, networking among museums, etc. India could promote Yoga and Ayurveda in the Mekong region.
5. The second session on ‘Economic Relations’ was chaired by Ambassador Sudhir T Devare, Former Secretary (East), MEA and Former DG, ICWA. The speakers in the session were Mr. Madhurjya K Dutta, Director, Trade Facilitation Division, Mekong Institute, Khon Kaen, Thailand; Dr. Vo Thi Minh Le, Deputy Head, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, Hanoi, Dr. Truong Quang Hoan, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, Hanoi; Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh, Director, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata; Mr. Pranav Kumar, Head, International Policy, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), New Delhi; and Dr. Temjenmeren Ao, Research Fellow, ICWA. The session discussed the growing economic engagement amongst the MGC countries and how to further it by undertaking actions such as trade and institutional reforms to help accelerate the relations especially at the time of the current pandemic. The Chair and speakers in the session emphasised how poor connectivity is a pressing problem that prevents further trade and investment flows between India and the Mekong countries. Economic cooperation between India and the Mekong needed to be enhanced by encouraging regional value chains. India could assist in constructing affordable healthcare facilities in the Mekong.
6. The third session on ‘New Economy and Sectoral Cooperation’ was chaired by Rajiv Bhatia, Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House, and Former DG, ICWA. The speakers in the session were Dr. Huy Hoan Nguyen, Vietnam Academy of Social Science, Hanoi; Dr. Sunil Shukla, Director, Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India, Ahmedabad; Dr Reena Marwah, Associate Professor, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi, New Delhi; and Dr. Nomesh Bolia, National Coordinator of ASEAN PhD Fellowship Programme, IIT Delhi. The session highlighted how the MGC is not only about cultural cooperation but is becoming a platform to build partnership in other sectors that include energy, capacity building, industries, education, etc. The session discussed on how there is a need for the MGC to build a multilateral mechanism to address the emerging challenges areas such as water and food security, and the ecosystem threat in the lower Mekong region.
7. The fourth session on ‘People-to-People Contacts’ was chaired by Preeti Saran, Former Secretary (East), MEA. The speakers in this session were Dr. Vannarith Chheang, Senior Fellow, Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, Pnom Penh; Dr Vo Xuan Vinh, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, Hanoi, Dr. Shristi Pukhrem, Senior Research Fellow, India Foundation; and Dr. Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedi, Former Visiting Fellow, RIS. The discussion focussed on the people-to-people dimension, which is a key element of the MGC based on the commonalities in folk dance, music, epics like Ramayana, art and crafts, Buddhism linkages, popularity of Bollywood and yoga, ethnic and cultural affinities. The session emphasised on the lack of connectivity as a major impediment and that the MGC, which is a celebration of a rich history of trade, cultural and people to people cooperation, depends on it. Other than the importance of the cultural and people to people connect, the strategic significance of Mekong is well known and India shares good bilateral relations with each of the countries of the sub-region.
8. The fifth and last session on ‘Way Forward: Towards the Third Decade of MGC’ was Chaired by Dr Sanjaya Baru, Member, Governing Council, ICWA, New Delhi. The speaker in the session were Dr. Myo Thant, Senior Advisor, Myanmar ISIS, Former Principal Economist, Asian Development Bank, Manila; Prof. Suthiphand Chirathivat, ASEAN Studies Centre, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok; Dr Nani Gopal Mahanta, Director, Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Gauhati University, Guwahati; Nitya Nanda, Director, Council for Social Development, New Delhi; and Dr. Prabir De, Professor, ASEAN-India Center, RIS. The panellists reiterated the importance on resolving and pushing forward the ongoing connectivity projects and build connectivity in terms of physical, digital, and people-to-people contacts. While looking into the third decade of the MGC, the session discussed the need for cooperation to be people-oriented that includes projects in the field of health, community, education, job creation, and cultural exchange to be built through dialogue.