fresh thinking

PM May's minor visa concessions won't unlock the potential of UK-India business

Mark Hannant, 11th November 2016

New Delhi's winter pollution is notorious. With an official population of almost 19 million people the mega city is clogged with cars, trucks, auto rickshaws and motorcycles whose drivers honk and jostle for space and pump pollutants into the atmosphere. Fires, lit by roadside vendors selling tea and kachoris (spicy snacks), and the unofficial residents living on the city's pavements, add noxious fumes to the haze that burns the throat and brings tears to the eyes.

Late last Sunday Theresa May touched down at the capital's Indira Gandhi International Airport for her first prime-ministerial trade mission. Accompanied by a trio of ministers, a garrison of geeky special advisors and a couple of dozen British businessmen and women, the party was received by the British High Commissioner to India, Sir Dominic Asquith. A fleet of black Land Rovers waited to whisk the visiting bigwigs through the city's gridlock to the palatial Taj Palace Hotel. That the maker of these iconic British vehicles is now part of the sprawling Tata Group, an Indian-headquartered multinational, signals how power has shifted in the relationship between India and its former colonial ruler in recent years.

Brexit Britain needs to define new trading relationships and clearly hopes to find favour with large, fast-growth economies such as India.

Ms May's first task, on a whistle stop two-day visit to the country, was to join Indian prime minster Narendra Modi and deliver the opening speech at the India-UK Tech Summit. Addressing an audience of close to one thousand she trumpeted her free trade credentials. "Free trade makes a rising tide to lift all boats, it makes us all richer, creates jobs, it increases investments, improves productivity, transforms living standards and creates opportunities for all of our citizens," she said.

Mr Modi was animated in response. He's rarely heard speaking publicly in English preferring Hindi or, his mother tongue, Gujarati. On this occasion he spoke fluently and enthusiastically to enumerate the reasons why India is such an attractive market. "Our innovative entrepreneurs, talented workforce and R&D capabilities combined with large markets, demographic dividend and increasing competitiveness offer new growth sources for the world economy," he said.

Every second three more Indian's gain access to the internet and it will soon be home to a digital market of one billion people. It's an exciting, if complex and challenging, place for British businesses looking for new markets.

Smart cities, design, higher education and entrepreneurship were all key themes at the three-day summit. All are disciplines, or industries, at which the UK excels and where partnerships are sought.

After meetings with Mr Modi and his top brass, and a fleeting address to Delhi's socialites on the lawns of the High Commissioner's residence on Monday evening, Ms May headed to tech-hub Bengaluru. Hosted by the chief minister of Karnataka she visited a supplier to Airbus and turned heads when she donned a sari to visit a Hindu temple.

Back in Delhi, where the pollution had become so bad that 1,800 schools were forced to close for three days, trade promotion duties fell to the Brexiteering Liam Fox, secretary for International Trade, and Greg Hands, minister for Trade and Investment. Jo Johnson, minister for Universities and Science, completed the trio. His older brother Boris hasn't been seen on official business in India since he visited Mumbai in 2012 as mayor of London and told his audience about the city's vital role as a gateway to the markets of Europe.

Politicians earn their keep on these trade trips. Ms May reportedly had more than a dozen meetings on the first day. Concertinaed into a packed schedule of sessions, presentations and panel discussions, they make speeches, launch reports, give interviews, meet business leaders and grin for hundreds of selfie-seeking delegates. Special advisors trip along shuffling pages of briefing notes as their charges skip between rooms and turn on the camera smiles.

Prime minister May and her team are right to prioritise India but there are hurdles to be overcome before the business relationship can achieve its full potential.

On his second visit to India in the past two months, Dr Fox articulated the case for the UK's smart cities' technologies. Given that Mr Modi plans to create 100 such technology-enabled cities in India this is clearly an area where UK PLC can sniff commercial opportunity.

The UK is a leader in intelligent transport systems and other smart city-related technologies. Some UK companies exhibited their innovative solutions as part of the summit. In reality the nature and size of India's urban problems, evident a stone's throw from the hotel, are beyond anything achieved by Manchester or Milton Keynes. Since the UK has only one city with a population in excess of 1 million there's a scale and credibility gap to be bridged before the traffic flow solutions being tested in Bristol, will be applicable in Bhubaneswar or Bengaluru. Mr Modi put it succinctly: "Science is global. Technology is local." UK companies have work to do to make their solutions relevant to India's huge challenges.

For the UK government the problem is that its central post-referendum tenet 'open for free trade, but not for free movement' runs into trouble in India as it does when taken as a negotiating position in Europe. India wants UK visa restrictions lifted for its citizens. The number of Indian students studying at British universities has halved in the past five years in part due to the removal of an historic provision that allowed them to work for up to two years after they graduated. India's noisy commentariat hasn't forgotten that as home secretary Theresa May proposed a £3,000 security bond for Indian visitors to the UK. The idea was ultimately shelved but lingers in the Indian memory.

Ms May offered a minor concession by introducing a fast track business visa service for regular Indian visitors. More is needed. It's an issue that will require attention in the coming months and years if the UK government is to create the strategic bi-lateral relationship it desires and that British companies need if they're to build successful India strategies.

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