AHMEDABAD, India — Secretary of State John F. Kerry arrived Sunday in this city where Mohandas Gandhi set the stage for India’s independence from Britain, with the top U.S. diplomat seeking to boost trade ties and promote sustainable energy.
Kerry’s trip to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state lays the groundwork for President Obama’s visit to India for its Republic Day celebrations on Jan. 26. Indian and U.S. officials hope to announce progress on talks related to climate change and efforts by the New Delhi government to make India more hospitable to foreign investors.
The United States aims to sharply increase trade with India, which stood at a little less than $100 billion a year in 2013, to about $500 billion in coming years. There are plenty of foreign suitors eager to do more business in this nation of 1.2 billion people, and many of them sent emissaries Sunday to a biennial trade conference that was organized by Modi when he was the chief minister of Gujarat state. Ahmedabad is the largest city in the state.
As the Vibrant Gujarat conference kicked off, many speakers lauded Modi’s aggressive pursuit of foreign investment, saying it could serve as a model for the entire country.
A senior State Department official said the United States is encouraged by Modi’s attempts to introduce pro-business measures in India. Many U.S. businesses have been reluctant to invest because of the country’s stringent laws, such as those related to liability and intellectual property, including patents and copyrights. Modi’s government is trying to streamline and simplify taxes, liberalize barriers to investment and cut red tape.
The State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic protocol, said that “those decisions that [Modi is] making and his government is making to make the business climate better for Indian businesses are also going to help U.S. businesses.”
The United States has encouraged India to lower domestic content requirements for solar panels, which would allow American companies to market solar equipment in India.
“The business environment here, it’s no secret, it’s been a very difficult one, and it’s really, I think, acted as a barrier to keep companies out because of that,” the official said. “. . . And I think there’s a great excitement now because of the direction that the prime minister has laid out and the changes he’s made so far and what he’s projected that he’s going to do to create a completely different environment.”
Kerry met separately with Modi and attended a roundtable with several titans of Indian industry, including executives of international conglomerates, the banking and telecommunications sectors and the energy industry.
But even in Ahmedabad, a prosperous industrial hub of 6 million people, the abject poverty in which many Indians live is visible. The street approaching the modern convention center where the Vibrant Gujarat conference is being held is lined with slums. Unpaved streets and tin roofs held in place by stones can be glimpsed beyond concrete walls.
In his remarks at Vibrant Gujarat, Kerry warned that climate change threatens economic opportunities.
“Global climate change is already violently affecting communities, not just across India but around the world,” he said. “It is disrupting commerce, development and economic growth. It’s costing farmers crops. It’s costing insurance companies unbelievable payouts. It’s raising the cost of doing business. And, believe me, if it continues down the current trend line, we will see climate refugees, fighting each other for water and seeking food and new opportunities.”
Kerry also made a stop at an ashram founded by Gandhi along the banks of the Sabarmati River that has been turned into a museum and international research center. Kerry slipped off his black dress shoes, a gesture asked of all visitors before they enter the house, where Gandhi and his wife lived for 12 years before marching against a British salt tax, inspiring a protest that marked a pivotal moment in the long struggle for India’s independence.
Before leaving the ashram, Kerry signed the guest book: “It is a great privilege to visit this remarkable house from which so much thought and action changed the world.” He finished by adding, “Gandhi’s example inspires all of us to this day and for my generation helped to shape America.”
Kerry also met with Tshering Topgay of the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, in what is thought to be the first ever meeting with a secretary of state. Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, and Kerry said the United States wants to discuss the economic changes underway as Bhutan makes the transition to democracy.