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Meet H.E. Melba Pria, The Mexican Ambassador Who Rides In Style

07/04/2016 10:15 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Prabha Chandran

Mexico's young and dynamic Ambassador to India, H.E. Melba Pria, draws attention not only because she uses an autorickshaw as her official transport and plans to run the Berlin marathon in September for the Indian Cancer Society, but because bilateral trade and ties between India and Mexico have never been better. It is the largest source of FDI for India in Latin America and a growing number of Indian companies are investing in Mexico.

In an exclusive interview with The Huffington Post, Pria--who says Indians sometimes call her Priya which means beloved and that is exactly how she feel in India--shares important lessons on how Mexico fixed its notorious pollution problem and became the manufacturing hub of Latin America. A series of high-level visits starting with Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj in September and Prime Minister Modi next January are slated to further boost scientific, space, trade, business and cultural ties between the two G20 emerging economies who have enjoyed a close friendship for 65 years.

Asked about the vitriolic and racist comments made by the leading Republican contender for the White House, Donald Trump, she said: "Donald Trump's declarations are unacceptable. They are divorced from reality and do not consider the contributions of the Mexican community in the U.S. and the depth of our ties." The interview in full:

Starting on a personal note, you've made a splash in Delhi's diplomatic circles by using a three-wheeler as your official ambassadorial transport. What is the idea behind it and how do people react?

I consider the autorickshaw or three-wheeler as one of the most efficient means of transport. It is instantly recognizable as one of India's cultural icons and it is what most Indian people use for transportation, so I figured I could do it as well. It is also a wonderful way to promote our country and our artistry. The floral design which decorates the canvas on the top of the vehicle was made by Mexican artist Senkoe, who attended the Delhi Street Art Festival last February.

So far, the vehicle has resonated very well with the general public. Every time we use it someone notices, and they think that it is a fun and clever way to promote our country.

mexico city bicycle

Delhi seems to have taken over from Mexico City as one of the world's most polluted metros. What lessons can we learn from the Mexican experience? Are you concerned about your health as I know you like to run marathons?

Mexico City has a population of over 20 million people (2010) in its metropolitan area: 9 million in the city itself and about 11 in the surrounding areas belonging to the neighbouring state. It was declared the most polluted city in the world in 1992 by the United Nations. Since then, there has been considerable progress and in 2012, Mexico City had 248 days of air quality considered as good.

In 1989, at the height of the pollution crisis, the government of Mexico City established Hoy No Circula, a vehicle mobility restriction programme. It was conceived as a temporary measure during the winter but became permanent. It restricted the circulation of 20% of the vehicles, from Monday to Friday, depending on their license plate. Later on, it evolved to restrict vehicles which were over 8 years old and made it mandatory for all cars to pass a verification test.

Overall, Mexico's measures to improve air quality have been diverse and the city has not relied on one single programme to curb pollution.

The programme managed to reduce pollution from 25 to 70%, depending on the polluting agent, and encouraged use of alternative transportation: 63% of the population reported using public transportation on the day that their vehicles were restricted. The city recorded a 7.7m tonnes reduction in carbon emissions in just four years (2008 to 2012), beating a 7.0m tonnes target, and in 2013, Mexico won the C40 City Award on Air Quality.

Nevertheless, the implementation of these types of programmes represents a perpetual effort for the sake of having better air quality. Even with 26 years of experience behind it, the programme has to keep reinventing itself. Recently, the Mexico City government announced an adjustment to Hoy No Circula to be established temporarily, from April to June. Given the limited rains and winds during these months, this period is considered as the season of ozone concentration. For this reason, all cars except hybrids and electric cars will not be allowed to circulate for one day a week and one Saturday of each month.

Overall, Mexico's measures to improve air quality have been diverse and the city has not relied on one single programme to curb pollution. It has been a long journey for Mexico City that involved closing and moving polluting factories and industry, changing the type of gasoline to make it less polluting, and defining types of filters and catalytic converters, among other initiatives. These measures were also complemented by bicycle sharing programmes and the improvement and expansion of public transportation.

mexico festival

India and Mexico have enjoyed a problem-free relationship based on a 65 -year-old friendship. How do Mexicans view India? Are they influenced by the writings of one of your most famous predecessors, the Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz?

Our nations may be geographically distanced but our cultures are more similar than most people can imagine. Currently, India and Mexico are both strong democracies with an important demographic dividend, and in the international scene, they stand out as emerging countries with regional leaderships.

Both countries share a past of ancient civilizations and a colonial era that influence our modern societies. Mexico was under Spanish rule for 300 years, achieving independence in 1821 and India was ruled by the British until 1948.

We share the experience of being diverse, complex and colourful societies, with ancient traditions, indigenous people, local cultures and different languages. We both have needed to learn how to live and coexist peacefully in diversity.

Religion is an important part of life in both cultures. It defines rituals, festivities, traditions and even milestones of life in our societies. Our people are warm, cheerful and family oriented. Even our cuisines share similar elements. We can find similar ingredients, plants, regional variations and ways of cooking that make each dish special. Our meals are spicy, rich and recognized worldwide. Both countries are famous for our crafts and we have different kinds of traditional music and local instruments.

India enjoys a favourable image in Mexico as it is seen as a spiritual and interesting country. Practices such as yoga and Ayurveda, which are fairly popular in Mexico, have contributed to this. We have a romantic idea of India its past and its great architecture resonates widely to a country like ours. And of course, Mexico's view of India has been influenced by Octavio Paz. His writings about the country, from his time as a diplomat here, invariably shaped how we have understood India and what the country represents to Mexicans.

You have been visiting India for 25 years. Even your surname, Pria, has an Indian ring to it? Can you tell us a little about your relationship with India and what specifically you hope to achieve in your time here as ambassador?

As I said before, both our countries have a longstanding relationship. Mexico was the first Latin American country to recognise India as an independent nation. We have good relationships, our trade flourishes, but we can do much, MUCH more. And really getting to know each other is vital, with government to government relations, business to business encounters and people to people contacts.

india mexico

Currently, we are planning high-level visits of government officials. Our Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ms. Claudia Ruíz Massieu, visited India last month. The Indian External Affairs Minister, Ms. Sushma Swaraj, will visit Mexico in late September. Likewise, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is planning a long overdue visit to Mexico in January, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto will be visiting India next year as well. These high-level encounters will definitely boost the strategic relations among these two G20 countries that share values and responsibilities in a very difficult international environment.

Governments have the essential task of helping create wealth to benefit both our countries and encouraging a conducive environment for business.

Our business communities have recognized our potentials. Our companies are opening up and jumping together to new endeavours and ventures. India's FDI into Mexico totaled over $2.5 billion USD between 1999 and 2015. In Latin America, Mexico is the second destination of Indian FDI after Brazil. Governments have the essential task of helping create wealth to benefit both our countries and encouraging a conducive environment for business.

Young people should be able to study and have an international experience in any of our universities; we are using art and all sorts of creative languages to reach out to this young generation. We think about tourism, food and many others as tools that we need to use to spread this message around.

I have enjoyed being named Pria, of course, a very unique family name, but here in India, it is even better when people call me Priya which I understand can be translated to "beloved". That is exactly how I feel in India...beloved.

Bilateral trade between our countries grew from $1.5 billion to $6 billion in the last decade. While oil is the major import from Mexico, Indian exports are more traditional based on pharmaceuticals, automotive parts, jewelry etc. What new areas of trade can India and Mexico develop?

As you know, bilateral trade between our two nations is growing rapidly in recent years, at double-digit rates consistently, however, it is well below its potential. Today India is one of the most important trading partners for Mexico and we recognize that our efforts should encourage more trade and investment between our countries.

india mexico flag

There are significant opportunities for India and Mexico to deepen the bilateral trade and investment relationship.

In 2015, the total bilateral trade reached approximately $6 billion dollars. Crude oil is still the major Mexican export to India, besides iron and steel, ores and metals, electronics, medical instruments, food and beverages, auto parts and other engineering goods. Mexico's imports from India, in 2015, jumped to almost $4 billion, a significant increase from the same period of the last year, comprising, inter alia, automobiles and auto parts, base metals, pharmaceuticals, diamonds, textiles and garments, and chemicals and petrochemicals, engineering goods etc.

Mexico is also the largest source of FDI for India from Latin America and we have 11 leading Mexican companies like Cinepolis, Mexichem, Kidzania etc. invested in India. We are working hard towards bringing more Mexican companies to Asia, and specifically to India, through close counselling and identifying interesting business opportunities.

There are significant opportunities for India and Mexico to deepen the bilateral trade and investment relationship. Most major Indian IT companies, several pharmaceutical companies, and auto component companies have a growing Indian presence in our country and are assessed to have maximum growth potential in coming years. Large IT companies like TCS, Infosys, Wipro, HCL, Hexaware, Tech Mahindra, NIIT etc have already established themselves in Mexico. Pharmaceutical majors like Sun Pharma, Dr Reddy's Laboratories, Ranbaxy, Wockhardt and auto component manufacturers like RSB Transmission, PMP Auto, JK Tyre, Motherson Group etc. have invested in facilities and plants in Mexico taking advantage of its strategic location, its open economy with links and FTA with more than 40 countries, its large market and its investment friendly policies.

Other potential sectors for bilateral trade and investment include mining, chemicals, engineering goods, renewable energy, biotechnology, textile and garments and gems and jewellery. As you might know, Mexico is the 1st producer of silver and the 4th of gold in the world.

make in india week

Are you considering any new initiatives under the Prime Minister's Make in India, Skill India or Smart Cities programs? How did Mexico become the manufacturing hub of South America?

Mexico supports 'Make in India', 'Skill India, 'Smart Cities' and other programmes currently undertaken by the Indian government. Mexican companies have shown keen interest in sectors like food processing, IT and telecom, auto component, Infrastructure (affordable housing) among other sectors and will, therefore, continue to support such initiatives.

Today, manufacturing is an essential component of the Mexican economy. Mexico produces 50% of all Latin-American manufactures. But this was not always the case, and I can share our experience in becoming America's manufacturing hub.

Like many Latin American countries prior to 1960, Mexico pursued a policy that is commonly referred to as "import substitution industrialization. Then, Mexico launched a "Made in Mexico" campaign similar to "Make in India" programme in the 1970s and 1980s. This robust and successful campaign made Mexico a major manufacturing hub.

We believe our country, particularly at this moment in time, is one of the best and most exciting places in the world to invest and do business, especially for Indian companies.

Over the last several decades the "Made in Mexico" brand has evolved from a simple low-tech, high-volume, low-mix assembly-based manufacturing model to an emerging industrial powerhouse with in-country capabilities to produce a gamut of sophisticated items ranging from high-tolerance, precision machined components that are incorporated into modern jetliners to delicate and highly calibrated devices that are used in life-saving medical procedures.

The "Made in Mexico" brand has come to embody quality, as well as to represent one of the world's most competitive total landed cost manufacturing locations.

I see India as promising, not only because of its future growth potential of local market but also for its qualified source of labour and current size of local market

This does not mean that we will reduce our efforts to attract Indian investment to Mexico. We believe our country, particularly at this moment in time, is one of the best and most exciting places in the world to invest and do business, especially for Indian companies.

Regarding Smart Cities, we know and understand that well-being, productivity, and economic growth could all be increased with more efficient cities. In many cases in Mexico, urban development has distanced people from their workplaces and services, creating congestion, loss of productivity and delays. This is a problem that we share with India, and the Smart Cities programme objective of addressing deficiencies in core infrastructure could be very helpful as an example for Mexico.

Urban development in Mexico has been set as a priority with the creation of the Ministry of Agricultural, Territorial and Urban Development that aims for better coordination of urban policy at a national level. The trends point towards an explosive urban growth in Mexico, and from 2010 to 2030, it is estimated that urban population will go from 71.6% to 83.2%. India faces mass urbanization, estimated at 814 million people by 2050. Sustainable urban spaces should be an essential concern of both governments, and we can both benefit from each other's experience.

India has the largest group of young professionals and students in the world. Are there exchange programs, scholarships and other opportunities for youth to get to know Mexico better? How can people apply?

There are plenty of scholarship programmes for Indian students in Mexico. The scholarships for masters and PHDs are offered to more than 180 countries through a series of bilateral conventions, multilateral programs, and special agreements. More than 70 Mexican institutions of higher education participate and all offer academic programs registered with the National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT) in the National Program of Quality Graduate Degrees. These programs demonstrate the progress made by Mexico in various areas of the sciences and humanities.

We believe that the presence in Mexico of international students, academics and scientists helps build permanent bridges of dialogue that enrich the long-term foreign policy agenda through contributions of exceptional value for the country and for its partners abroad. In addition, the Mexican institutions and the academic community benefit from the increased internationalization.

Currently, we are waiting for the publication of this year's call, which of course we will promote through the Indian Government and through Indian academic institutions. Normally, there are several schemes available, including programmes for graduate and post-graduate students, as well as for "Mexican specialists", artists and visiting professors. If anybody would like to know more about them, they just have to contact the Embassy.

We have a Joint Committee on Science and Technology that is expected to meet on May 16 in Mexico City. What specific areas of cooperation will we discuss?

Since 1975, Mexico and India have developed a stimulating relationship in the fields of science and technology. As you mentioned, the Joint Committee on Science and Technology will celebrate its 6th meeting in May this year, and they will discuss the new proposals for research cooperation between academic institutions from both countries in areas such as solar energy, water resources, seismic activity and biotechnology. Since 2009, we have funded around 20 research projects, and just this year we are hoping to start at least 15 new ones.

However, we realise that our cooperation in this matter could go far beyond and thus we are looking to establish a broader cooperation programme with the Department of Science and Technology of India, one which could include joint financing of research projects, technological development and innovation in areas of common interest, including the possibility of establishing joint laboratories.

Additionally, in 2014, Mexico and India signed a Memorandum of Understanding between the Indian Space Research Organization and the Mexican Space Agency, formally agreeing on cooperating in areas related to the peaceful use of our outer space. Since then, our space agencies maintain a productive dialogue and they are currently working together on disaster management techniques to be used during geological phenomena such as cyclones, floods, and earthquakes. Their next meeting is due in April here in New Delhi.

barbara mori hrithik roshan

Ever since Hrithik Roshan and Barbara Mori made the Bollywood film Kites I've been wondering why we don't have more cinematic collaboration. Do you think there is a market for Bollywood films in Mexico and vice versa?

Mexico is working hard to promote tourism from India to Mexico. Definitely, Bollywood's industry is a tool to be used in this sector. There have been negotiations to invite selected producers to shoot in locations in Mexico. There are some incentives provided by the Mexican government to encourage this activity. Also, it is a good opportunity for Mexican products and historical sites to be promoted through the films. Therefore, this is an initiative that should be explored.

India's passion for cinema has been the gateway for a successful Mexican venture: Cinépolis, which incidentally is largest cinema chain in Latin America and the 4th worldwide. This cineplex screen provider of Mexican origin already holds the 3rd position in India, and will soon be present in 30 Indian cities with more than 500 screens.

mexico oil

Mexico's growth is linked to its oil reserves so how is the crash in oil prices affecting the economy? Is the country looking at alternative energy sources and is this an area of cooperation?

Mexico's growth does not only come from oil but, being one of the largest producers of oil, Mexican economy is going through the trough phase. Even the International Monetary Fund has trimmed its 2016 growth estimate for Mexico by 0.2 per cent.

Mexico contains some of the world's largest reserves of oil and is one of the important suppliers of the global oil market. Crude oil prices have fallen dramatically over the past two years--from over $100 per barrel to less than $30.

However, Mexico still enjoys a special allure thanks to a solid long-term outlook after structural reforms, including opening energy and telecoms markets and low labour costs. Our government has pushed through several ground-breaking reforms that could set Mexico apart from many of its peers. Besides that average manufacturing labour costs in Mexico are now almost 20 percent lower than in China, whereas, in 2000, Mexico's labour costs were 58 percent more expensive than China's.

Our Government has set the target to achieve the share of 35% of clean technologies in total power generation by 2024. Strong winds blow through its southern region and, in the north, the sun is strong and consistent, providing our country with the ideal natural conditions for renewable energy production. Between 2010 and 2014, Mexico received about 45 foreign direct investment projects in the renewable energies industry that added up to US$ 13372 million, mainly in the states of Oaxaca and Baja California. The main investor countries were Spain, the United States, and Germany. Indian companies should also take the advantage of our renewable energy potential, which could offer new benefits and opportunities for both of our countries. Indian renewable energy companies have recently shown keen interest to enter the Mexican market and are very well positioned to develop, supply, build, and finance projects in Mexico's evolving energy market.

mexico flag

Both Mexico and India have a large overseas diaspora. Have you been able to involve the large number of Mexicans living in the US in national development projects and in furthering Mexican interests?

As you know, Mexico has the second largest diaspora in the world (12 million), second only to India (16 million). Indeed, Mexico has developed strategies on how to engage even with second and third generation Mexicans, such as the possibility of having dual nationality, the establishment of DREAMER Networks and DREAMER visits to Mexico, as well as events and economic programmes, such as the 3x1 programme and other remittance investment schemes.

We are also shaping public policy so our programs respond to the current international and regional immigration context. Currently, more migrants are returning to Mexico than ever before. On average, from 2009 to 2014, 167, 000 migrants returned to Mexico from the US (1 million Mexicans in total during this period).

We are in the process of launching "Open Doors", a new program designed particularly for returning migrants which consist of a one-stop shop in Mexico where migrants can receive services from different ministries and government agencies to facilitate their social and economic reintegration.

We currently offer similar services abroad through our consular network. In each consulate we coordinate:

• Public Health efforts (Health Window),

• Education (administrative procedures, scholarships, online education)

• Economic (financial education)

• Development efforts (government grants to invest in Mexico)

However, we still have much to learn on this matter and I am sure that India can impart valuable lessons. For example, India has been incredibly effective in promoting its people's skills and their contributions to their countries of destination and it can even be said that India has been successful in using its diaspora as a public diplomacy tool.

trump mexico

Finally, how do Mexicans react to the provocative statements by Donald Trump about them and their country? How does one explain is success

The Mexican Government is fully respectful of the U.S. electoral process. We are also aware that the primaries process is still on its way and, even though Mr. Trump is ahead in the polls, the process is far from over.

We will undoubtedly continue to defend the rights and interests of Mexican nationals abroad - especially within the United States. Every time that there have been ignorant or discriminatory remarks, we have reacted in a prompt and firm manner to condemn them and to set the record straight about the important contributions of the Mexican community in the US. We will, therefore, continue rejecting any expression denoting racism that might endanger their dignity and integrity.

Donald Trump's declarations are unacceptable. They are divorced from reality and do not consider the contributions of the Mexican community in the U.S. and the depth of our ties.

The Mexico-US relationship is deep and complex and we cannot circumscribe what defines it from the statements of one single person. Donald Trump's declarations are unacceptable. They are divorced from reality and do not consider the contributions of the Mexican community in the U.S. and the depth of our ties. We must remember that rhetorical upheaval during political campaigns is natural, especially during long electoral processes, which can be very consuming in media terms, often forcing candidates to seek public attention for months.

During primaries, especially in a bipartisan system, you are addressing very targeted constituencies which call for a much narrower scope. Candidates' messages usually become more moderate once you get into the general election.

Once a public official possesses the ability to exercise power, the weight of reality imposes itself, and country leaders who were once candidates, realize the necessity of seeking consensus and engaging in inclusive dialogue with everyone. Individuals serving public office understand that governing is completely different from a political campaign; leaders require an objective and serene perspective that allows them to be inclusive of the population as a whole.

Therefore, due to the nature and principles of our neighbour, we are confident that we will maintain the institutional and respectful relationship we have shared historically, despite the political party or the candidate who wins.

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