Shuchita Sonalika, Director and Head of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) in Britain reflects on her first six months in the UK and the challenges and opportunities for Anglo Indian trade.
In the first six months of having taken charge as the new Director for the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)’s UK operations and being based in London, I have gone up and down the tube, always heeding to “Mind the Gap”, in an attempt to get the pulse of the UK-India economic relationship.
I have met a host of stakeholders starting with the High Commission of India, national-level British industry bodies, smaller and regional trade and investment agencies, members of the Indian diaspora so well-weaved within the very fabric of British society, as well as academic and thought leaders. I am sure there are many others vested in this relationship, but these are the rounds I have made so far. The views I have heard are varied –some say that the business potential of this relationship is understated and under-utilized, but some write off much as “hype”. For some, the relationship is pinned on historic linkages and others talk about the limitless future that lies ahead. Some draw immediate comparisons to the US-India relationship and some bring up the UK-China relationship for reference.
While I continue to observe and absorb, I am going to be brave and share some of my first impressions:
– The Daily Jog: We collectively think of the UK-India business relationship at a very broad, overarching level, propelled by high-level visits and official delegations, which are almost like Marathons. A few days of relentless activity, examining the strength, endurance, perseverance of the relationship. But there is so much energy and appetite in this city on a daily basis to engage with India, on India, about India, that it can be mindboggling! I find myself at these gatherings with increasing frequency and the more I go out, the more I find out about even more. It is these countless “interactive sessions”, panel discussions, seminars, receptions, dinners that keep the pulse of the relationship going. Nothing like a quick daily jog leading up to the Marathon, I suppose?
– New Opportunities: Historic linkages are not enough. Yes, we have a common secular, democratic heritage. Yes, we share common parliamentary and judicial systems. Yes, we speak a common language (err… put me in a remote corner of Scotland or Wales, I might not claim that!). But, all of that is what brought us to this point. What we need now is to build a shared future. We need to look forward – to see new horizons and scope opportunities in new, emerging sectors. Smart Cities. Engineering for the future. Digital media. Creative industries. Sports. New age skills. Leadership.
– Entrepreneurs and SMEs: We can create waves in Technology and Entrepreneurship. I have met so many entrepreneurs, incubators, investors in my short time here, just buzzing with enthusiasm, with ideas that have tremendous potential for application in India. In India, the entrepreneurship ecosystem is being given a solid boost. Joint R&D funding opportunities are available for UK and an Indian companies to come together and co-create solutions. Small businesses in the UK get excited about the prospects of collaborating in the Indian market but also worried about handholding and support. We need to spread greater awareness of such opportunities and encourage entrepreneurs and SMEs to take that leap of faith with reliable partners. Technology could really step on the gas pedal in driving the UK-India relationship forward. In a Hybrid, of course.
– Partners: Speaking of reliable partners, the UK India Business Council, a natural ally for both sides, has significantly strengthened their India resources and capabilities. They are a delight to work with and have always been ever-supportive. I often say at presentations now that UK companies should feel relaxed in setting up base camp at UKIBC’s Launchpad service in India and then hiking out to find partners taking advantage of CII’s extensive business network! We also work closely with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) on two programs– supporting their India Banquet, a gorgeous, gala dinner, and they support our annual conference taking stock of the UK-India Economic Relationship, which seems to have grown into a very prestigious, much-awaited conference of the year. The High Commission of India in London is also exceedingly proactive. It is important for the business community here to know of these helpful resources at hand as they think about India and doing business with India.
– Trade: Bilateral trade volume sits, dare I say – restfully? – at USD $15 billion, and this includes both merchandise and services. While US-India trade has crossed the $100 billion mark and UK-China trade has galloped to over USD $80 billion, UK-India trade remains puzzlingly low. I am yet to understand whether this is caused by lack of framework agreements such as the India-EU Free Trade Agreement which has been quite some time in negotiation, or the sizes of the other markets are at a different scale and thus don’t offer a fair comparison. It may also be that the business relationship has graduated from trade to investment, because the investment story seems much more heartening.
– Investments: It has come as a very pleasant surprise to learn that the UK is the largest G20 investor in India, and that India has emerged as the third largest investor in the UK (inching to the second), investing more in the UK than the rest of Europe combined! Investment will clearly drive future growth in both markets. The UK economy is showing signs of consistent growth and Indian companies have certainly contributed to this, through investments, mergers and acquisitions, value creation and employment generation. Grant Thornton in collaboration with CII prepares India Meets Britain, a Tracker of the fastest growing Indian companies in the UK, which now in its third edition, shows progressive trends of increasing Indian activity and job creation in the UK. Make sure you have seen a copy.
– Regional Focus: Beyond London, there is lesser awareness of business opportunities in India. Nottingham and Manchester have been quite proactive in taking delegations to India, as has Wales. But we need to step up our game in bringing this awareness to the regions. This is why we launched RoadtripUK, a program that takes Indian companies based in the UK out to the regions. We have launched a flagship India-Scotland Business Summit with Scottish Development International, who have identified India among their priority markets. Scottish SMEs have since made their way to India by way of exports and investments! Opportunity lies in the regions – and well, who doesn’t like a good road trip?
– Diaspora connect: To leverage the tremendous Indian Diaspora connect, CII and the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India jointly set up the Overseas Indian Facilitation Center (OIFC). In its new avatar, the OIFC has initiated a Corporate Internship program in India open to Diaspora students in the UK and an India Fellows program for Diaspora entrepreneurs. If you are in either of the categories and would like to get involved in offering or taking internships or fellowships, please certainly get in touch.
– Where are the Women? This is a question I have heard more than half a dozen times here in the context of India’s business community. And I’ll be honest, while there are phenomenal women business leaders in India, it’s been hard to get adequate representation. We are painfully conscious of the need to cultivate greater empowerment for women, not just at the grassroots but the board level as well. I welcome any ideas from the business community here to co-create meaningful programs and share any best practices that can help us in developing a UK-India collaboration.
As I step into this role, I realize the size of the shoes I have to fill. CII has been present in the UK for the last 35 years, and has enjoyed a long-line of charismatic and diligent leaders! Trying to play a role in enhancing a bilateral economic relationship, is by no means an easy task. But I am confident that with the daily jog, the strength and support of our partners, supporters and friends here, and with new buzzing ideas, and getting out a bit more to the regions, it will be an interesting journey, and hopefully one that will help connect more and more Indian and UK businesses, explore greater opportunities and take the relationship to the next level.
Used with permission of the author, a copy of this article first appeared in a Grant Thornton publication.