Saturday, July 13, 2024

Soft might in the backwaters

Such boat races are usually held in August-September to coincide with the harvest month of Onam. But this one was special. Consider this: two of the boats were called ‘G7’; the other two named ‘Emerging Markets’.

Well, it was organized on the sidelines of a G20 meeting in the tourist paradise of Kumarakom, a village off the Vembanad Lake that teems with charming houseboats. G20, or the Group of Twenty, is a forum for international economic cooperation, comprising 19 countries and the European Union. G20 summits are held annually, under the leadership of a rotating presidency. India assumed the presidency of the G20 forum for a year starting 1 December 2022. While G20 is represented by both developed and emerging nations, G7 is essentially an intergovernmental political forum comprising seven developed nations.

For everyone who gathered that evening, this race, between the developed and the emerging boats, was a sight to behold.

128 oars sliced the water in perfect harmony for about 300 metres (normally, boats here race for 1.5 km). In a best of three, the first race was won by Emerging Markets and the second by G7. The final race? It was a photo finish with no clear winner! “Consensus has won,” the compere of the race screamed.

The message from this race reverberated after the show was over. There was a need to work together. At times, the G20 forums appear vertically split, right in the middle. The G7 group wants to bring up the Russia-Ukraine war in many discussions. At the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Bali, Indonesia, in November last year, G7 leaders were reportedly not even willing to be in the same room as the Russians. At Kumarakom, every speech by G7 sherpas mentioned the Russian aggression.

Sherpas are the personal representatives of a head of State or governments and execute the preparatory groundwork for big summits.

The emerging nations, on the other hand, would rather discuss development. The world, they believe, is besieged with several crises. There is a rise in poverty due to the covid pandemic; worsening climate crisis; inflation; fears of recession and the world falling behind when it comes to meeting the sustainable development goals. G20, emerging countries argue, is not a political but a development forum—it shouldn’t focus just on the war.

India supports this view. “This is a period of great upheaval – a period of great turbulence in the world,” Amitabh Kant, India’s G20 sherpa told Mint. “World is in need of solutions and our presidency is looking at making a difference to the world,” he added.

While consensus-building is a tough job, India has put its best foot forward. The country has deployed a new strategy, hoping a joint communique could be issued at the end of the G20 Leaders’ Summit, in September, this year. While the Kumarakom summit was a meeting of the sherpas, the Leaders’ Summit is the grand finale, attended by prime ministers and presidents.

Kathakali and cruises

The G20 delegates go through an immersive cultural experience whichever state they travel to for meetings. They also meet in unusual places, like on a boat. This, the organizers hope, can help them bond.

In the first four months of India’s presidency, about 54 G20 meetings have been held across 27 cities. In each location, the delegates have been exposed to local culture through various programmes. In all, over 200 meetings across 59 locations are planned.

“Culture acts as a strong bond; it brings people together and everyone feels like a family. It unites,” said a senior official at the Indian Council for Cultural Relations who is responsible for overseeing the cultural programmes at G20. He didn’t want to be identified.

The boat race was not the only cultural event at Kumarakom. “We planned cultural activities on all the four days (the meeting of sherpas was a four-day event), each with a different theme,” said P.B. Nooh, director of Kerala Tourism.

On the first day, delegates experienced Kathakali, the 300-year-old dance form of Kerala. On the second day, Vadakkan Paattu, north Kerala ballads from the medieval period, were performed. Day three showcased percussion instruments unique to the state while the final day’s performances were based on Onam, Kerala’s most important festival. These apart, delegates witnessed a mini show of Thrissur Pooram, an annual temple festival where caparisoned elephants and dazzling parasols are quite a spectacle.

Similarly, the sherpas experienced Rajasthani culture in Udaipur where the first sherpa meeting was held in December last year. Folk dances at Jag Mandir, a palace built on an island in Lake Pichola, left an impression.

These would not have been possible but for the efforts of various state governments. For instance, the discussion with the Kerala government started as early as September 2022. “We went into minute details such as infrastructure, venue and the cultural programme,” said Nooh. “We built and improved local infrastructure.”

All stakeholders—collectors, officials from the police, irrigation and port departments—were involved. Roads, right from the Kochi airport to Kumarakom, were improved. Waterscapes at the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation-run resort at Kumarakom, where the sherpas met, were revamped. A new convention centre that can seat over 250 delegates was built in just 100 days. A new jetty was also constructed at the resort. Meanwhile, Kerala’s police force put up a solid show, too. They patrolled the backwaters extensively.

Apart from the cultural extravaganza, India seems to have perfected the strategy of bringing in a lot of informality to the G20 discussions. “Rather than keeping the delegates in one hall, efforts were made to expose them to different settings,” said a senior foreign ministry official. A house boat with just the 20 sherpas cruised along the Vembanad Lake—they were all by themselves for three hours.

“The scenery was beautiful. We watched the sun set. There was no pressure and, in such situations, people open up and talk freely. It definitely helped to break the ice,” said Trudi Makhaya, South Africa’s G20 sherpa.

Brazilian sherpa Sarquis Jose Buainain Sarquis agreed. “This is how G20 makes progress in a multi-polar world, bridging across differences and learning from a plurality of experiences among both developing and advanced economies,” he said. Brazil takes over the next G20 presidency from India later this year. “India has raised the bar high. It is a difficult act to follow,” said Makhaya. South Africa will head G20 in 2025.

The climate agenda

While the cultural extravaganza may have helped delegates bond, India is backing this up with hardcore diplomacy.

India is part of many international groupings. Besides G20, the country is part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), BRICS, the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, and is even a partner country in G7. “In all these groupings, India is trusted and appreciated for its balanced approach. We are in a position to build bridges with all and get better outcomes,” a senior government official, who didn’t want to be identified, said.

At the sherpa meeting in Kerala, one area of focus was green development (renewable energy, etc). A second area was digital public infrastructure—India showcased its success with the Unified Payments Interface (UPI), an instant real-time payment system. The discussions have given India and many other countries hope. “The backwaters have put us firmly on course,” Kant said. “We are confident of not getting bogged down by the Russia-Ukraine crisis,” he added.

India now wants to set an ambitious agenda for the future. Climate financing is one of them. On 20 March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change submitted its final report. Prepared by over 500 scientists from across the globe, the report painted a grim picture. Developing nations need at least $127 billion per year by 2030 to adopt a ‘cleaner’ pathway to growth. The funding that is presently available to them is just $46 billion. Developing countries stress that multilateral institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have failed to ensure flow of low-cost capital to emerging markets for them to adopt a low carbon pathway. Most sherpas, including those in G7, have expressed the need to reform these institutions.

“Time is fast running out for the world to prevent the climate crisis from becoming irreversible. India’s G20 presidency is critical and should lay the ground for it,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director, centre for sustainable development, Columbia University.

If India can make progress here over the next few months, it could help Brazil and South Africa take the sustainable development agenda forward. The two emerging economies will head G20 over the next two years.

A lot hinges on India’s G20 presidency.

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