If the Indian ambassador to Cambodia, Dinesh Patnaik, gets his way, the two nations will extend their relationship far beyond food recipes, religion and architecture
By Philip Heijmans
Home to the largest Hindu temple in the world – Angkor Wat – Cambodia shares a deep cultural and religious connection with India. Be it through now-traditional Khmer foods such as curry, or the architecture behind the famed Bayon and Baphuon temples, there is no doubting the mark early Indian merchants and Brahmins made in Cambodia centuries ago.
Throughout history, India’s influence has played a crucial role in the shaping of modern Cambodia. Even the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk was known to be close with India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal – a person Sihanouk considered to be a great friend and political mentor.
However, important as those cultural connections are, the new iron forging relationships in today’s world comes in the shape of economic reform and cooperation.
According to Cambodia’s investment board, $850m worth of new projects have been approved in the first seven months of 2012, 75% of which came from foreign countries such as China, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam – all of them ambitious to improve political and social ties with Cambodia.
India’s direct investments in Cambodia at the time made up less than 1% of the total figure. Dinesh Patnaik, the recently appointed Indian Ambassador to Cambodia, would like to see that change.
“The first and most important thing is to get as many Indian and Cambodian businesspeople together as possible,” he said. “The other important thing [for development between India and Cambodia] is to focus on the two most important sectors: tourism and agriculture.”
To do that, Patnaik said that one of his top priorities has become establishing direct flights between India and Cambodia, something he is currently facilitating and hopes to have completed some time this year. Then, the focus will gravitate toward educating India’s businesses about the potential of the Cambodian market.
“Given the fact that… all of the temples here are Hindu and Buddhist, religions which come from India, [Cambodia] is a part of India’s heritage and most Indians would love to come and see it,” he said. “Unfortunately, knowledge about Cambodia in India is very weak.”
Patnaik, who was appointed as the Ambassador to Cambodia in June 2012, said that even though India’s investment in Cambodia is still low, it has been growing over the past three years at a rate between 10% and 20% annually, while he expects the monetary figure to land north of $100m for the first time in 2012.
Of those new investments, the Indian government announced in September that they have pledged $70m in soft-loans for the construction of an electric transmission line connecting Stung Treng and Kratie provinces.
Patnaik also helped launch India’s first chamber of commerce in Cambodia, which already has more than 60 members from several sectors including pharmaceuticals, information technology and agriculture.
In terms of private investments, Indian businesses spent a total of $85m in sugar factories, sugar plantations, power plants and rice milling facilities in 2011, while firms like Mumbai-based conglomerate Tata Group are currently preparing to enter the Cambodian market with a line of goods that includes tractors, agrochemicals and fertilisers.
There is also an opportunity in Cambodia that is unique to what Indian business has to offer, according to Patnaik. “There is a lot of good synergy between both countries,” he said, adding that a similar climate in both countries makes it possible for Cambodia to produce a number of goods that other countries cannot, such as turmeric, cashews, pepper and rice.
“These are things that India produces for dimes, so my idea is to bring both countries together on this and it is already happening in a big way,” he said, adding that India may bring Cambodia its first turmeric plantation, while one Indian firm is exploring the idea of establishing an auto rickshaw factory that could change the landscape of a country currently dominated by tuk tuks and motodops.
“Capacity building is something that we have,” he said, “and most of the technology we have in India suits Cambodia’s requirements as Cambodia has not yet reached a high-tech status.”