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A Quick Look At The Australia-India Trade Cooperation: Voices, Lessons & Bridges To Bolster

Australia and India are the world’s two very significant democracies. Both value orderly, democratic way of functioning in the global economic and geopolitical landscape. Since the past few years, there has been a growing recognition of the fact that coming together of these two economies will certainly do good for the stability of the world economy….

Indo-Aus trade relations: how it all began
India-Australia trade relations can be traced back to early 1800s. Back then, the British Empire had a strong presence in the region especially east of India. With the establishment of a colony in Australia, trade and communication between these colonial cousins were established. Ships sailed between the two continents. These ships imported Indian goods to Australia that include candles, soap, sugar, rice, tea, shoes, rum, cotton textiles, clothing, tobacco, leather, canvas, rope, iron and other general household goods. On the other hand, Australia exported coal to India. The trade was built initially under a monopoly arrangement with the East India Company. In 1801, the first Australian ship laden with coal sailed to India.

Australia was also a regular exporter of horses to the Indian military from around 1834 until the end of WWII [Australian horses were called "Walers", bred particularly for their endurance in difficult conditions]. 
There were strong scientific as well as artistic connections between the two colonial cousins, facilitated by the British Empire. The striking similarity between the Calcutta botanical garden (founded in 1786) and Sydney botanical garden (founded in 1816) is a testimony to it. Movement of experts from Geological Survey of India to Australia were a regular feature, exchange of artefacts between Australian museums and Asiatic Society, Calcutta and exchange of plants and animals for botanical/zoological research and even for amusements were recorded from this period onwards. For instance, in 1851, a twenty-month old elephant was brought by the ship ‘Royal Saxon’ from Calcutta. It was then exhibited with permission on Sydney’s Hyde Park (Etheridge, 1919). Inauguration of steam-engine driven ship communication between India and Australia in 1852 further facilitated trade, commerce and people-to-people links between the countries (Mukherjee Saha, 2015). 

Over the years, the geopolitical changes impacted the trade relations between the countries. Since the time India opened its trade office in Australia in 1941 and appointed its first High Commissioner to Australia in 1945, it has come a long way.

Where are we now
Inspite of the ever-growing zeal and enthusiasm and an increased spend on trade promotions from both sides, it seems there has been a stagnation of trade with the annual trade turnover yet to reach its desired potential- AUD 14.5 billion in 2017 (Source: DFAT).

What could be the challenges and impediments in this strategic international cooperation?

Back in 2012, in response to a call for submission to the then Australian Government’s white paper on the related subject, we mentioned that exploring, establishing and nurturing links with India will require persistent hard work and simultaneous warm hearts approach. An approach, where there is appreciation for jobs well done and tolerance for differences and ambiguity. The prudent way may be in starting small, regularly measuring the impacts and then taking the next steps forward.

Unfortunately, in 2018, another report notes that ‘Australian businesses has long put India in the ‘too hard’ basket’ and that they have taken an “once bitten twice shy’ perspective”. 

Well, we do not claim to know about other businesses and their experiences but can surely share our very own practical first-hand experiences. As an Australian small business, in the past few years, we have established trade relations with two industry sectors in India –a. Darjeeling Tea (commodity, agri-business, food processing) and b. Art (art and culture, artisans). Both these are unique in their own ways, fine in their class and aesthetic. Our stakeholders there are spread across the vast geographical boundaries and here our consumers/clients too are a mixed crowd- enough of variety to test any hypothesis. 

It is no brainer that on both sides there are people and businesses who are aligned to the thoughts of co-development and progress while there are outliers. This, I believe is true everywhere around the world. Any match-making of businesses and hence growth in (bilateral) trade at the macro-level is therefore a combined effect of at least the following and we repeat what we have been saying before. Trade progresses-
# When there is a level of trust/respect established between the parties involved;
# When a common language is spoken with an effective pro-business mentality; 
# With proper process control and 
# Where mutual benefit /greater good is given a priority rather than forever 'work-in-progress' projects feeding the middle-men who are mainly bothered to keep the ‘new initiative’ funding channels alive.

Therefore, looking beyond the differences would require conscious effort to portray to the mass, the images of both the countries in a more positive realm as positivity thrives!

Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those by the contributors alone and do not represent the views of any other organisation, the forum moderator or that of Aei4eiA.

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Dr. Jayantee Mukherjee Saha