Praful Talera, member of International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS ) in London and the Latin America and Carribbean Committee of Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), was in Pune to deliver a lecture, ‘Geopolitics and geoeconomics’, as part of the Medici Effect Lecture Series at TIFA Working Studios on January 16. Over an hour’s talk, he explained how nations have leveraged waterbodies, from oceans to canals, to gain political and economic advantage. Talera, who has an experience of 36 years in the supply chain management and logistics industry, talks to The Indian Express on how he has made ‘Samudra Bharat, Samruddha Bharat’ his life’s mission. Excerpts from an interview:
What are the choke points of power and the master keys that control world trade? What is their importance today?
Choke points are natural formations identified by Admiral John Fisher, a Britisher commissioned on the HMS Calcutta. When the British mapped the world and the Latlong Grid was born, they realised that there are certain crucial points in the world, which if controlled can help them dominate the world. All the geopolitics and geoeconomics in the world today is founded on this logic.
Choke points are used much like pressure points of the body to hurt or harm in martial arts. These narrow straits are being used by navies in the same manner as mountain passes have been by armies to their advantage throughout history. In case of primary choke points, entry and exit are limited and there is no other way. An example of a primary choke point is the Bosphorus. There is absolutely no other way to go from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, unless you go through the Straits of Bosphorus. Gibraltar is also a primary choke point. There is no other way to go from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.
How have choke points changed the history of nations?
When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, they choked the Spice Route into Europe from India and started extracting heavy tax. The Spaniards and the Portuguese, who are on the Atlantic, decided to find a cheaper route to India, where the spices were coming from. Thus, they got out of Europe. Christopher Columbus discovered the West Indies in 1492 and, in 1498, Vasco da Gama arrived in India. It was Arab and Indian traders who got him to Calicut, the modern day Kozhikode.
Within 40 to 50 years of the Turks taking over Constantinople, the Americas were discovered and a sea route to India was opened up by the Europeans. As the Europeans got out, they became bolder, technology developed and the Industrial Revolution took place. They colonised countries. Europe was in the Dark Ages when India was flourishing, but we missed out on the Industrial Revolution.
What is needed for growth is resources and they got the resources of the Americas, Africa and Asia to build Europe.
Why has India been slow in tapping the potential of the sea, unlike the Europeans?
Kalinga was trading with Indonesia 2,000 years ago, which is why Ashoka invaded Kalinga. He was lured by Kalinga’s wealth. We were trading overseas but forgot it as Indians began to suffer from the kala pani taboo, which was centred around ocean travel, where it was believed that if you crossed the ocean, your dharma will be tainted and you will become an outcast. Sadly, even today, there are cases from various parts of India that have gone to the high courts because a priest is not allowed to become a head priest as he has travelled overseas. Lord Curzon had said the strategic boundaries of India were Aden in the West and Singapore in the East. Both these choke points were controlled by the British during the Raj. The British built an empire using our wealth, resources and manpower. The size of the Indian Army, which fought for the British during WWII, was more than double of what it is today.
How is the Indian Ocean of advantage to India?
India is blessed with one of the finest geographies in the world and is the only country with an ocean named after it. Our advantage over China is that our neighbour has to travel through the Malacca Strait to reach the Indian Ocean. All the oil that fuels China’s growth is going from the Middle East through the Indian Ocean and the Malacca choke point. The solution to the Doklam crisis lies in the ocean. In the mountains, we are almost eyeball to eyeball with the Chinese, who occupy the higher altitudes. But, in the ocean, we can choke them in the Andamans, which is close to the Malacca Strait. India is also strategically positioned in the Indian Ocean. We have 40 neighbours across the Indian Ocean and it is so much cheaper and easier to trade across the ocean. There is a huge Indian diaspora spread across these countries on the Rim of the Indian Ocean. In Mauritius, for instance, they speak Bhojpuri. The NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) members refer to the Atlantic Ocean as the pond. Why can’t the Indian Ocean be our Lotus pool?
What is the aim of the Maritime Research Foundation, which you have founded?
I realised that one of the reasons our country is being held back is our lack of a maritime culture. We had a glorious maritime heritage. I want to build a maritime culture in sub-continental India. To start with, in Pune, which has a lot of waterbodies, I want to get one child from the fishing community of Khadakwasla lake, Panshet, Pawana lake, Varasgaon to go to sea.
I want to guide, mentor and support the child because if one of them goes to sea, in whichever capacity, the child will become a role model for the entire community.
I would like to then scale it up and take it across India, across the rivers and waterbodies, from Bhopal lake to Nainital lake. That will change the culture of India in a generation or two. The oceans, instead of remaining ‘kala pani’, will become suwarna samudra, an ocean of opportunities.
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