The President of the Indian Professionals Forum lays out the business case for better immigration policies.
India and the UK have long enjoyed close commercial and cultural ties and since Britain has decided to leave the EU, it is looking at India with renewed Interest.
Indians are the third-largest ethnic group in the UK with nearly 2 million people. Roughly half of them are highly skilled professionals, working in business, government, healthcare, education, technology and other sectors. They are also one of the most prosperous ethnic minority groups here.
Trade and investment between the two nations has also been strong. Between 2000 and 2016, the UK invested $24.07 billion in India – increasing its investment by $1.87 billion between 2015 and 2016 – representing 8 per cent of all foreign direct investment (FDI) into the country. Meanwhile, India is the third-largest investor in the UK creating thousands of new jobs, employing 110,000 people in 800 Indian companies with a turnover of £47.5 billion in 2016. Such links must continue to be developed. More so, in the post-Brexit world. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock had announced a new UK-India Tech Partnership during his role as Digital, Culture, Media and Sports minister, where Indian and UK companies will collaborate on projects including artificial intelligence, fin-tech and health-tech.
Yet these close ties cannot be taken for granted. Recently, the Confederation of British Industry (CII) warned that Japan had recently overtaken the UK as the largest G20 investor in India. So what can be done to help maintain the strong UK-India commercial relationship?
A globalised world with freer movement of capital, goods and people leads to an increase in employment and GDP of the country. The pro-business Modi government, as it reaches its four-year anniversary, has been credited with a host of reforms aimed at attracting foreign investment, establishing the country into a manufacturing hub, and easing business travel through less onerous visa requirements. The UK and India should look at easing the visa rules to make it easier for professionals and investors to do business and fill the talent gaps.
Such visa reforms could have a significant effect on increasing bilateral trade. For closer and stronger ties, we need to see some easing to help migration, especially of short-term visas such as for Indians students and those coming to work for companies.
The UK has already relaxed visas for the Chinese by introducing a two-year multiple-entry visit visa. Why not do the same for Indians? Indeed, earlier this year, the Royal Commonwealth Society called for a more economical visa regime between India and the UK to reduce the cost of a two-year visa from £388 to just £89 and allow travellers to make repeat visits within two years. Access to visas is expected to be a key bargaining chip when the UK negotiates a free trade agreement (FTA) with India after Brexit.
Moreover, it has been reported that around 1,000 doctors, lawyers, engineers and entrepreneurs from countries outside the European Union (EU) on a Tier 1 (General) visa were being denied residency rights over reportedly minor, legally acceptable corrections in their tax returns. Many of these are Indians. I urge the Home Secretary to restore the work rights and access to health benefits of those affected by this crisis while they await the outcome of the review. They have been undergoing immense hardship, which needs to be addressed urgently. The UK government should encourage Indian professionals to fill crucial vacancies in medicine, engineering and start-up businesses, instead of turning them away. A welcoming immigration policy is the need of the hour, not a hostile one.
I also see the high cost of visas as a big deterrent, both for business and travel between the two countries. The visa fee for the regular visa has gone up from £30 in 2013, to £120 for any duration of up to one year. This has become a deterrent for one-time visitors and tourists who probably may visit for a couple of weeks to 30-60 days. Even though India has introduced e-visa, which costs around £53, it is no substitute for a reasonably priced regular visa.
The e-visa system has limitations that make it unsuitable for many travellers. Firstly, under the e-visa system, visitors have their biometric data such as fingerprints and retina scans checked on arrival in India and this can lead to waiting in long queues. Secondly, there are instances where some people travelling on an e-visa haven’t even made it into India at all – most notably in the case of the actor Orlando Bloom, who was told to get on a flight back to London after landing because his e-visa had not been cleared. There have been cases of websites fraudulently offering Indian e-visas to unsuspecting applicants, or charging more than the £53 fee.
If visa fees are reduced, undoubtedly, it will lead to more visitors from the UK and vice versa.
Finally, another important change that would further boost travel from the UK to India, given the high number of Indian-born population in the UK, would be the introduction of a 24-hour same-day visa turnaround service. Most countries that prioritise tourism have such an offering in place. For emergency travel or urgent business travel, India does have a 24-hour visa, but for other last-minute tourist travel – such as late invitation to a wedding, a last minute holiday or a surprise visit – no same-day service exists.
Such reforms to visas can help India be seen as efficient, modern and helpful for travellers and help cement the ever more important UK-India relationship.
Dr Mohan Kaul is President of the Indian Professionals Forum (IPF), an Indian Diaspora think tank supported by the Indian High Commission in London.