Let me say what a great pleasure it is to see you all this evening. As the High Commissioner told you, I am here for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. The Foreign Ministers meeting tomorrow and the Heads of Government day after. I will be representing India on that occasion.
This is of course my first visit to Kigali , but it is not my first involvement with Rwanda because over the years actually our relationship has steadily grown and it is reflected in the opening of the High Commission here; in the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi ji came here a few years ago; in the fact that there are today a number of successful developmental projects in Rwanda which reflect our friendship.
So, it has been really a steady, forward-looking relationship in the making and I very much hope that my presence here serves as an opportunity to take that to a higher level.
What I do want to say is that in many ways what President Kagame has done in this country is really remarkable, given what happened here some decades ago. The way he has rebuilt this society and today, really positioned Rwanda as among the most progressive; one of the most business friendly; one of the most socially inclusive societies is something which is notable. Clearly, when we look at Africa, we really count Rwanda among our important friends.
When we, in India, think about the world, it is natural that Indians abroad are in our thoughts. When something good happens here, when we read about somebody’s achievement, a project, some initiative, we share the satisfaction which the Indian community has. And when there are challenges, there is adversity, we also worry for you. And you would have seen that in the last few years, whether it is the Vande Bharat Mission, which we did to bring back our citizens at the time of COVID or some of the operations we have done, most recently, Operation Ganga in Ukraine to rescue our students who were trapped there by the fighting. The commitment of the Modi government to Indians abroad, I think is really at a qualitatively higher level and a lot of that is actually expressed by the Prime Minister himself when he goes abroad, because, you would see wherever he goes, whenever he goes, one constant feature in his program is always a meeting with the community and that, really, in many ways is a transformation, in the way in which India interacts with Indians abroad.
It is also equally natural that those of you, who live abroad, are away from your motherland, also have your country in your thoughts. When you read the news, when you see the TV, when you follow social media, there are things which happen in India, and you will be asking yourself also and maybe discussing amongst yourselves in the evening, what is the latest news, what is happening, where is the country going.
I thought I would use my presence here today to share some of that with you. First of all, I want to give you a very clear sense that we have come out of three years of very difficult circumstances, the period of the COVID challenge, with a great deal of confidence, with the belief that we have actually dealt with a once in a century crisis. And done it in a way in which there are lessons even for the future for us.
I remind Indians abroad, that there was a time when we would have waited for help from others, we would have waited for medicines and vaccines from others. We would have done things in our own way ‘haan theek hai, pace, we are not so bad . But today actually in this COVID crisis, we were among the earliest to vaccinate our people, we could do so because we had Made in India vaccines, we could do so because we had invented in India vaccines, we could do so, because we were actually successful in moving from vaccine production to getting it into the arms of people. And if you think, that is to be taken for granted, do look at other parts of the world where that has not happened.
The fact that we could actually vaccinate without actually any confusion, without creating I would say, a public stampede, in a very systematic way, using a digital platform. That we could do this on a scale of a billion people, is I think an achievement, which all of you should recognize and you should be proud of.
But it is not just the vaccination that we should accolade and recognize. We should also recognize what is happening during this period. When the Spanish Flu came a century ago, more people died of hunger in India than they died of the flu. Now, this time around, Prime Minister was very clear that on his watch, this would not happen. So, we actually embarked on what has been the largest ever food support system, that any country has ever done. And even today, 28 months after we began, we still give food support to 800 million people. Think of it, this is the population of Europe and the United States combined. This has been going on for two and a half years, equally for those who are more vulnerable, and in fact, interestingly a lot of them were actually, women. We were able, for 400 million, to put money in their bank accounts, and that happened because the Prime Minister had the vision, before COVID came, to ensure that all Indians open bank accounts. At that time, people did not understand why he was asking them to do that. But now we see that the ability to actually directly transfer money, the ability to directly transfer benefits to people, today has created a sea change in the quality of governance in India.
This governance is focused, now, on improving living conditions. Living conditions both in a very basic way, as well as living conditions in terms of opportunities, especially for the coming generation. There are massive programs underway to connect all houses to electricity, to connect all houses to tap water, to actually improve the water situation and all of you have memories of India and you know how difficult even in cities, getting water has been. To actually create a health infrastructure where the average Indian can get treatment at affordable cost. To provide for home ownership in cities, home ownership in the countryside. And if we can actually do this – health, water, electricity, home – you can understand how much this India is changing. And it is not a wish. And we have just completed 8 years of Modi government and we were doing our own self-audit, where have we done well, where we should be doing more. And the fact is, every ones of these schemes today runs to hundreds of millions of beneficiaries.
So the pace of change you see in India, that is something. Probably, I am among the oldest persons in the room here. I can tell you in my life I have not seen this pace of change. So, in a way, I would even say, there is a revolution, a democratic revolution in the making – with a delivery today to the people. A last mile delivery to the people.
It is not a government of promises, it is actually a government of delivery and that is why actually when you see what political outcomes are in India, a lot of that is actually people who have seen the benefits of delivery, who are now reaffirming their faith in the government.
One of course, is to build a society, to create a safety net, to ensure that the most vulnerable go up in life. But then comes the next layer- what are the opportunities and there again, there is a big change in thinking. It’s very interesting, in the last month I have been to an IIT, I have been to an IIM, I have been at the highest ranked academic research institution of India – the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. And when I was visiting them, I was actually looking at how much we have multiplied institutions of research and higher education in this country in the last decade.
But again, it is not at the tertiary level alone. It starts right at primary school, school attendance is growing, girls attendance is particularly growing, retention levels are growing, more people are entering middle school, more people are passing high school. The opportunities which people have of doing their own business, this could be small and medium enterprises, but it could actually be a very humble person selling goods on the street in a cart. Even that person today from a program which we have initiated is actually able to get loans from the bank.
So you have actually, I would say, to me the change that I see is in our self confidence. A feeling that, yes the conditions are being created. I am not in any way minimizing the challenges. We have a long way to go, I think we are all very very clear about it. But there is, I would certainly say, particularly in the young people that belief, that today this is now a world of greater opportunities, it is a world of startups, a world of greater skilling, it is a world of actually much more self-driven businesses and that is manifesting itself in very different ways.
It is showing itself in the growth rate which is the most obvious indicator. Among the major economies of the world today, we have not just come out of where we were before COVID, we are growing at a much faster rate. In fact, in the last year, we have done the highest ever exports in our history. For the first time, we have crossed 400 billion dollars. If any of you, and now travel is becoming normal, so the possibility of you going home is more frequent, is less difficult, go back to the city, town where you come from, see the activity going on. There is not a single town in India, not a single village in India where something is not happening in terms of road, in terms of infrastructure facilities, in terms of education, in terms of health. It is actually manifesting itself in activity across the country. And that sense of confidence, that sense of progress that is really what I wanted to also share with you today.
But let me conclude again by underlining that when we in India look at the world, think about diplomacy, engage governments and people of different countries, finally their image of India – I am on my first visit here, I know my counterpart, we have had conversations on the phone, sometimes maybe on video, occasionally we would meet sometimes in UN or some other gathering – but the image of India is actually a face which people will put and that face is a face of an Indian that they know. So if people in Rwanda today, it could be the leaders of Rwanda, it could be the professionals of Rwanda, it could be the average people of Rwanda, the faces they put of India are your faces. Their image of India is the image that you create. I benefit from the foundation that you lay.
So in many ways, my presence here today is also a thank you to all of you, that you keep the flag of India flying, that you shape the image of India, you create the relationships and the motivation for the government and the society in Rwanda to deal with us and I can tell you as I can reaffirm to you, we consider this in Africa as among our really important relationships. The Commonwealth meeting is of course one way of expressing it, one opportunity to express it, but in many other ways it is a relationship that I am very convinced will continue to grow in the coming years. And I hope that all of you, each in your own way will give your fullest support to it.
So once again really a very big thank you and I bring you all the good wishes of the people and your motherland.