Freer movement of people will benefit both UK and India
British visa curbs on Indian professionals and students is myopic and self-defeating.
Even as the UK and India were gearing up for the first India Inc. organised UK-India Week in June 2018, the Theresa May government decided, in its wisdom, to exclude Indian students from a list of so-called “low-risk” countries whose nationals would be subjected to less stringent visa procedures. This caused outrage not only among Indians but also from several important members of the British establishment who favour forging closer people-to-people links between the two countries.
The UK Home Office, when May was in charge of the department, had earlier sent bans to areas with large Indian populations with the slogan “Go home or face arrest” and in the drive against illegal overstayers had sent many UK-resident Indians packing.
Particularly galling for India is the fact that countries like China and Bahrain have been included in the list of countries subjected to easier entry rules.
India Inc. – which has been a strong advocate of closer relations between the UK and India, especially people-to-people ties – is of the firm opinion that this latest move by Her Majesty’s Government is short-sighted and could irreparably damage the otherwise warm ties that exist between the two governments and peoples.
Facts and figures
It is also based on a wrong reading of facts. If it is meant as a pressure tactic to nudge the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to sign an agreement on taking back alleged illegal aliens – which the Indian premier pulled back from doing at the last moment – it will fail. The numbers cited by the May government – 100,000 – look highly inflated and the timelines suggested for the process – two weeks – are wholly unrealistic, and the politics behind it is naïve. Quite simply, India has many other options.
Though the UK remains a top draw for Indian students seeking higher education, the US is a more popular destination and other countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore and even other non-English speaking European countries such as France and the Netherlands are fast catching up.
Consider the numbers: According to figures released by the UK Council for International Student Affairs in January this year, the number of Indian students getting UK visas fell 44 per cent from five years ago. Though it tried to couch the fall by highlighting a slight rise in the numbers for 2017 compared to the previous year, it couldn’t hide the fact that only 14,081 Indian students entered the UK in 2017 compared to 60,000 in 2010.
Many of these highly qualified students return to India and eventually reach the top echelons of their professions – in industry, academia and politics – and serve as ambassadors for closer bilateral relations. A few others stay back in the UK and contribute meaningfully across all walks of life and become part of what Prime Minister Modi has evocatively called the “living bridge” between the two countries.
India Inc. accepts that the Brexit vote was driven primarily by the fear of foreigners taking away British jobs. While this premise may be true in the case of some EU nations, it is completely erroneous in the context of India.
Indians are job makers not job takers. Facts and figures attest to the strong trade and investment links and the benefit of reciprocity and collaboration between the two nations, with many jobs created in both India and the UK as a result.
About 800 Indian companies have invested billions in the UK and these companies generated combined revenues of £46.4bn, employed nearly 105,000 people and contributed £360mn in corporation tax in 2017.
Then, Indian companies are among the top employers in the UK, across every sector, and their good performance makes a great impact on the UK. Look no further than Jaguar Land Rover, two marquee British brands on the verge of extinction a decade ago. They were revived by India’s Tata Group, which invested billions of pounds on upgrades and new designs, saving thousands of British jobs and creating thousands more.
India was the fourth-largest foreign investor in the UK, according to the Department for International Trade, adding 6,867 jobs in 2016-17. This is testimony to the close economic relationship between the two counties, which sustains job growth.
Further analysis of the economic partnership, released to coincide with London Tech Week, shows that London remains the leading European city for Indian tech companies, with London attracting more foreign direct investment (FDI) from Indian tech businesses than any other European tech hub in the past two years
And Indian companies are the second biggest investor in London – ahead of China and Japan, but behind the US – according to London & Partners.
The shadow of Brexit and the hard line adopted by the British government are primarily to blame for the impasse over immigration, particularly with regard to India.
“The problem associated with Brexit is that we are finding it hard to get much movement on a positive outcome regarding the post-study work visa because the focus of the UK is solely on Brexit,” says Sanam Arora, an investment management consultant who is the chair of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union in the UK.
Most experts on international affairs in London, New Delhi and elsewhere aver that May needs to sign trade deals with important partners such as India to offset the effects of Brexit on the British economy. This issue has gained urgency given the current political turmoil in the British Cabinet and government.
But this dream of a Global Britain cashing in on the synergies that exist with a Global India for mutual benefit and for the greatest common good of the larger global community will remain still-born without movement on immigration. After all, no Indian government can be seen to be making concessions to the UK on trade without a reciprocal easing of the unnaturally high walls that seem designed to keep Indian students, tourists and businessmen out of Britain.
There is also a perception of a bias towards China that is deterring India from forming closer economic ties. Consider these:
The UK introduced discounted multiple-entry visas for Chinese visitors and business tourists at a price of for £87 – reduced from the usual £330 – when David Cameron was Prime Minister, but has not done the same for Indian visitors.
Chinese students, like students from 27 other countries can follow a streamlined process of applying for a ‘Tier 4’ student visa; Indian students are still required to submit far more documentation on applying for a student visas.
The number of Chinese students far exceeds any other nationality; almost one third of non-EU students in the UK is from China. This is the only country showing a significant increase in student numbers (14 per cent rise since 2012-13).
But facts on the ground and the history of the past 250 years prove that the UK and India are natural allies. It is now up to the UK to lift this relationship from a purely transactional one that wants access for British goods into India, while stubbornly refusing to give any quarter on the Indian demand for easier access to the British job market and British universities for Indian professionals and students.