The 2020s will be the India decade and the UK must act in time
Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner presents his views on what UK’s rapidly growing exports to India mean in the context of global growth forecasts.
In most of my 30-year career in business starting in 1980, British businesses viewed the Indian economy as a slow, dusty pitch where visitors would be frustrated by the lack of pace and bounce. They could occupy the crease, but it was hard to be a hero. But times have changed. Now, my main task, as Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner for South Asia, is to help British companies to understand that the Indian economy is “full of runs” for anyone with a good plan. Just as the IPL now produces as many runs in 20 overs as would, in the past, have been scored in a day of 80 overs, so Indian businesses now stand astride the world as beacons of innovation and technology. Two Indian companies, TCS and Reliance, were in the Top 5 performers of the World Stock Market Index of Top 100 Companies last year and, as for pace and bounce, the Indian economy contributed more to global growth than any other country after China and the US. Not surprisingly, last year, British exports to India rose at nearly 20 per cent – faster than to any other G20 market.
So, the Indian economy is globally-relevant, growing faster and more open to British exporters than in previous eras. How should British companies respond? My answer is “Quickly”. Very roughly – in the 1980s, British boardrooms were focused on the US; and in the 1990s, the EU. In the decade from 2000, Boards required a strategy for China and now, twenty years on, most of them have one. But the 2020s will be the India decade – when UK Boards move from discussions, late on the agenda, about the sixth largest economy in the world, to a recognition that it is not an option to ignore what will be the third largest economy and a tech leader of the free world, by the end of the decade. The pressure is on.
In 2015, Prime Minister Modi used the expression the Living Bridge, to illustrate the depth of the relationship between our two countries. The Living Bridge passes over many countries with which we are both friendly but there is nothing that comes close to the flow of ideas, values, investment and people that pass over our Living Bridge – 24/7. The UK Visa Service reports that the average length of stay in the UK for a visitor from India is 21 days, compared with three days for the rest of the world. The ties of business and family call for more than a fly in-and-out.
Technology Partnership is a central plank of HM Government’s Regional Trade Plan for India and builds on the concept of the Living Bridge; or, channelling the best of Californian entrepreneurialism, a Silicon Bridge. This Silicon Bridge will carry partnerships between both private and public sector enterprises. In its landmark 2018 study “the UK and India: Bilateral Innovation Collaborations”, the UK India Business Council argued that India’s investment in the UK and the UK’s investment in India is already far stronger than the headline numbers would suggest. The report described collaborations that included the £150 million joint venture between Tata Motors and the Warwick Manufacturing Group (part of the University of Warwick) to establish the National Automotive Innovation Centre, to focus on developing electrified and autonomous vehicles; and how the University of Birmingham and the National Centre for Cold Chain Development have designed a more sustainable supply chain network for farmers, called “clean cold” which will drive a substantial reduction in food waste and help cut costs for local farmers. The programme has the potential to double farm incomes – so even partial success could transform the lives of half of India’s population.
And work has started for the inter-governmental Technology Partnership announced at the time of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the UK in April 2018. In collaboration with NITI Aayog, the Indian government’s influential policy unit, the UK Government is bringing its Tech Hub model, pioneered in Israel, to Indian cities to promote technology transfer, investment and commercialisation. And with the Healthcare Artificial Intelligence programme, the partners will introduce low cost diagnostic triaging for people with very limited access to healthcare. We expect the pilots in lung cancer and diabetic retinopathy to start in the next few weeks.
What all these programmes have in common is a commitment to benefit the economy and society in both communities and a determination to resist the false choice between development and sustainability. Low carbon mobility and Artificial Intelligence in healthcare are as important in the UK as they are India; and technology and know-how flow both ways across the Living Bridge. India has been the world’s low cost back office, but on that foundation, has become a leader in data analytics and artificial intelligence. The UK recognises the importance of the UK subsidiaries of TCS, Wipro, Infosys, HCL, Tech Mahindra and many others, not just as employers, but more generally, as sponsors of technology entrepreneurialism in the UK. In its 2018 #IndiaMeetsBritain Tracker, developed in collaboration with the Confederation of Indian Industries, Grant Thornton reported that there are now 842 Indian business operating in the UK (up from 800) employing 104,000 people, with a combined turnover of £48 billion. India and the UK have long been Top Five investors in each other’s economies and these successful investments provide secure foundations on both sides of the Living Bridge.
I worked as a teaching assistant in a school in West Bengal for three months before I went to University; and I fondly remember April 12th 1976 when Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath and Mohinder Armanath led India’s chase to become the first side in Test Match history to score more than 400 in the fourth innings to win the match. At every break, we would look at the chalked update on the blackboard as India got closer and closer until we were able to cheer the final score – India won by six wickets. 40 years later, I’m back here in India and looking forward to this summer’s Cricket World Cup. Ball-by-ball smartphone messages have replaced hourly updates on blackboards; but I will be enjoying the far-off drama, across the Living Bridge, the Jeevit Pul, as much as I did all those years ago.
Crispin Simon is the British Deputy High Commissioner Mumbai, Director General Economic, Trade and Investment India and HM Trade Commissioner for South Asia.