Juba (South Sudan) - world's newest nation is eight months old. I drive past our consulate at Juba, South Sudan two days after we finally announced its upgrade to a full embassy. The brass plates haven't been replaced. An hour later, on my return from upcoming Rock City, with Zain and Vivacell telecom signage toasting the independence, even the consulate plate is gone!
Next evening Parimal Kar, the disarmingly honest consul-general shared over dinner that such is the shortage of engravers that the new "embassy" plate may take a few more days to show up. The crunch, Kar explained, stretches to any skilled hand we could list out.
There's a queue before air-conditioner mechanics to refill the gas. The nation runs on diesel generators, try finding someone to cut the downtime. Where's a plumber who could double up as an SOS carpenter in the virtual containers going as hotel rooms for $300 a night? Or the electrician who could release life into Juba airport's x-ray machines! Go hunting for "Mr. Fixit" to 10,000 roaring 4x4s Toyotas invariably, raring for space on the nation's non-existent roads.
This isn't just a Mecca for India's low-brow techies in the future Dubai of Africa. There's a lot happening for the middle-tier of India Inc. Take Vijay Sharma of Kamakhya Hospitality, a busy construction company. Sharma has more orders than the labour force he can organize from neighbouring Kenya and Uganda.
Bali S. Nandhra isn't even a pure India-Inc import. Nemule, his construction company, started from Uganda, where the family still resides. Bali invested in South Sudan's liberation war ahead of every other Indian. Yesterday's grateful friends are ministers, ambassadors and under secretaries of the new nation. It helps that Nandhra's Nemule Resort also has a pool. It's a big deal if you consider that only one building in the country, the New Sudan Hotel, only a few weeks back, got itself an elevator.
Diesel costs $2 to a litre. Two small bottles of water could cost you the same. It's been over six weeks since Juba turned off the taps on crude supplies to the world, chucking out the Chinese chief executive Liu Yingcai, protesting both against theft by the pipeline company and Khartoum's massive bill for carriage fee.
But Beijing is playing this down and showing up on every door. The office of under secretary for petroleum and mining Macar Aciek Ader is a favourite haunt. The discreet, dyed-in-the-wool civil servant is deposing in Parliament over the draft mining and petroleum legislation. This would set the ground rules for assurances, duties, royalties, local-partner conditionalities in one of the most exciting mineral hunts in the world.
Other groups await Under Secretary for Environment S.J. Dima, eager for his understanding of agriculture and impact assessments. On March 3, at Lamu port in Mombasa, Ethiopia and Kenya signed eight pacts to eventually open an oil pipeline and refinery.
It's a move Republic of South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit hopes would help his country break free from Khartoum. Amid the frenzy, India's own South Block needs to play quick and fast. The only big deal we've had is the ONGC-Nile-Ganga BV investment of $700 million in 2003.
Even this is on the slow burner after Juba's self-imposed embargo. A flotilla of investments in acreages, pipelines and refining need to be cleared faster than what the India's foreign office and the ministries of petroleum and finance are used to. Would asking Dinesh Trivedi for a railway line be too much?
We aren't hopelessly out of time. Echoing the mood on the street, most ministers of Mayardit's team would prefer an Indian over anyone else. The bridge between their deep interest in us and their need to broad base the future beyond oil, into agriculture, fisheries, forestry, mining, and eco-tourism, is Indian mandarin Deepak Vohra.
Everyone in Juba seems to know this 1973-batch member of the Indian Foreign Service who is equally fluent in Arabic. He also is presidential advisor to the ministry of agriculture and forestry. He strongly believes and says: "Republic of South Sudan is for those with early-bird vision and risk appetite to match."