Lord Karan Bilimoria is President of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), which speaks for over 190,000 British businesses of all shapes and sizes. The peer and entrepreneur behind the Cobra Beer brand was in New Delhi last week to participate in the business-level interactions scheduled as part of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit to India.
Here he speaks to iGlobal about the various facets of the long-awaited bilateral visit, the free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations and the diaspora living bridge.
How would you define the mood music of the visit?
I'm very happy that the , to Ahmedabad and the Sabarmati Ashram. You cannot but be inspired when you go there. I never forget the saying that is on the saying that is on one of the walls – "Right versus Might", when this one individual took on the biggest empire of the world at that time and won. That is so very relevant even today, about right versus might.
It's third time lucky, given the visit had to be cancelled twice because of the pandemic, which is very good news.
The living bridge is very much part of the bond – the 1.5 million Indians, the Indian diaspora in the UK, which is the largest ethnic minority community in the country and, I boast and say with pride, also the most successful minority community in the UK, excelling in every aspect - whether it's politics, business, professions, creative industries, education, science. That bridge is made up of the best ambassadors for the UK-India relationship. We could do much more with that and visits like this will help turbo charge that living bridge.
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What are the highlights of this tour for UK-India relations?
This is a very long overdue. The last prime ministerial visit was Theresa May five and half years ago. I've been privileged to accompany all the Prime Ministers since Tony Blair in 2005 and then Gordon Brown, then David Cameron twice and then Theresa May.
There's been a huge gap and it's great news about Prime Minister Boris Johnson's visit. It's also very timely as we are in the midst of free trade agreement negotiations. This is a very opportune moment to come to the country to help that move along, keep that momentum going because we want to try and get an FTA agreed ideally by the end of this year.
What are some of the deals that stand out for you?
There is a £1 billion deal that are creating over 10,000 jobs and covering a huge array of sectors. This demonstrates the sheer potential – it covers just about everything. There are deals from Tech Mahindra to Bharat Forge to TVS Motors, property, software, – a lot sectors are covered.
There's also an AI Chevening Scheme. I'm very keen on anything to do with education between the two countries and to have a specific AI Chevening scholarship will be great news. It is an area the UK is very strong in and this is a great potential partnership going forward between our two countries.
If we look at the whole green industrial revolution, the UK is very strong with wind power, hydrogen whereas India is very strong in solar power. So, there's tremendous opportunity to partner. And, when it comes to green finance, the UK is increasingly seen as a global capital market.
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How important is the issue of visas and movement of people?
The movement of people is an area that is important. In the Australia FTA, we have within that for young people 18-35 year olds to work and live for three years in each other's countries. So, you can have youth mobility built into an FTA.
For Indian professionals coming to work in the UK, IT or any sector, the points based system is there. The Indian numbers are over 40,000. But we have an acute labour shortage in the UK across all sectors. So, if there are skilled Indians who fulfil the requirements, then we should be welcoming them.
The National Health Service (NHS) would collapse without Indian doctors. There is big shortage of doctors and nurses. If the Indians can come in to address that, it's a win-win.
For students, the two-year post graduation work visa has been a huge success. It was brought back in July last year and now the Indian student figures are rocketing.
We set ourselves the target of 600,000 international students, which we have already crossed. My target as the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on International Students and President of the UK Council of International Student Affairs is a million by 2030. A huge proportion of that is going to be Indian students.
The potential for research collaboration between Indian and British universities is enormous. It's only a matter of time that foreign universities will be able to open up in India; we are waiting for that formal announcement.
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Is an autumn/Diwali timeline for the UK-India FTA realistic?
Where there is a will, there is a way. It is certainly possible. If we look at what we achieved with the Australia free trade agreement, which CBI helped a lot with. That took place within one year. And that is the most comprehensive modern free trade deal on this planet - it covers everything from goods, services, IP, innovation to movement of people and youth mobility. If that could be done in one year, there is no reason why we can't with India. The New Zealand deal, which the CBI helped with as well, was concluded in just over a year.
On the Indian side, India has just concluded a in less than three months. And, another deal with Australia, done very rapidly. So, the Indians have shown they can conclude trade deals rapidly, the UK has shown the same and both have the will to conclude the UK-India one rapidly, it can be done.
Whether it's October or the end of the year, my personal target is the latter.
There will be lots of issues to be sorted out – the mutual recognition of qualifications, movement of people, also data localisation, intellectual property, agriculture. The CBI is there to help, just as we did with the Australia and New Zealand deals.