Beyond Oil and Gas: India and the Russian Far East

The Russian Far East could be the next frontier for adventurous Indian tourists. Source: Lori/Legion Media

The Russian Far East could be the next frontier for adventurous Indian tourists. Source: Lori/Legion Media

The vast expanse of Russia’s Asian regions offers tremendous opportunities for India and needs to figure prominently in New Delhi’s 'Look East’ policy.

Just around the time that the P.V. Narasimha Rao government was working on formulating a ‘Look East’ policy, India became one of the first foreign countries to open a consulate in the city of Vladivostok. Those were the days when people living in the Russian Far East didn’t have enough disposable income to even think of a visit to distant India, but residents of the city appreciated the initiative that they felt put a once-closed region on the international map.

The Indian engagement in the Russian Far East continued with ONGC’s large investment in the Sakhalin-1 project, making the bellwether one the investment pioneers in the region. Sakhalin Island, like Vladivostok, was closed to foreigners and non-residents, and was isolated from the rest of the world for over four decades. The islanders were amused to see “real Indians” and one particular turbaned Sikh gentleman who spoke fluent Russian was the object of many a stare and a lot of affection.  Over the years, two Indian restaurants opened up on the island and it became trendy for wedding lunches to be held in one of them.

The kind of goodwill for India that continues to exist in the Russian Far East probably has no parallel. While some see a real or imaginary “Chinese threat” of a demographic invasion, the positive feelings from the heyday of Indo-Soviet bonhomie and the sheer distance to the country gives India (and Indians) tremendous leverage in the region.

Energy-starved India can obviously benefit from the rich deposits of oil and gas across the distant Russian regions. Besides the Sakhalin-1 project, India will be receiving gas from Gazprom that will probably be liquefied at an upcoming plant near Vladivostok. There is, however, more to the area than just energy. For starters, Vladimir Putin’s representative suggested in a recent interview to RIR that there were opportunities for Indian pharmaceutical companies in the region. For an area that is subject to extremely harsh winters, processed food is a necessity and despite the transportation costs, Indian agricultural products have a market. A test case can be made with a strategy to export Indian tea directly to the region. The Russian Far East can be a springboard for Indian tea manufacturers to recapture a market where it nearly enjoyed a monopoly at one point of time.

Business interests aside, there is also a lot of potential for cultural exchanges. As the response in remote Yakutia for performances of Kutiyattam showed, a lot of people in the distant outposts of Russia have an interest in Indian performing arts and music. India should actively promote cultural exchanges with the region. Vladivostok-based Mumiy Troll, one of Russia’s most famous rock bands, will be performing live in Hong Kong and Singapore this year. True rock fans in Bangalore and Mumbai would definitely be happy to see a live concert of the band in their cities.

Tourism between the Russian Far East and India is a virtually untapped industry, especially when one considers the phenomenal rise in independent young travellers from India looking out for new and exotic destinations. What could be more exciting for a young adventurous global Indian than trekking by the snowy volcanoes of Kamchatka or the Kuril Islands? Now that Southeast Asia and Europe have been done to death and trips to Moscow and St Petersburg are no longer uncommon in India, the vast expanses of land, stunning nature and “exotic” cities of the region east of Siberia could be the next frontier for young India.

Russia is keen to modernise and internationalise the Russian Far East, as it so eagerly displayed at last year’s successful APEC Summit. India should use this opportunity to added even greater depth to the bilateral relationship.

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