India – Question for Short Debate
Asked By Lord Parekh
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of economic, political and cultural relations between the United Kingdom and India.
Lord Parekh: It is a great privilege to initiate this debate. Since it is a common practice to declare an interest, I begin by saying that I have close ties with India, I actively participate in the public life of India, I have been a recipient of two of its highest honours and I am a member of the Indian Prime Minister’s global advisory committee.
For us in the UK, relations with India are of the utmost importance. Britain shaped the cultural and political physiognomy of modern India. Indians are a significant presence in the UK: in your Lordships’ House alone, they number about 15. India is also an emerging economic power, destined to play an important global role in the decades to come. It is therefore important that we should periodically take a careful look at relations between the two countries and ask how they can be strengthened yet further.
At the political level, there is considerable co-operation and mutual respect between the two countries. The UK is greatly admired for its good sense and maturity. However, there are important areas of disagreement. Given India’s colonial past and view of the world, it does not share our enthusiasm for high-minded so-called liberal intervention in the affairs of other countries. It is also critical of our fluctuating policy in Afghanistan. India has also felt, both in public and parliamentary debate, that we misused the United Nations resolution in Libya to justify action that the resolution did not justify, and undertook actions such as equipping the rebel army that the resolution did not permit. This is why India voted, and continues to vote, in a different way from us in the United Nations, though it has not been openly critical of us. We should appreciate this difference of view and not allow it to stand in the way of good relations. This is what most successive British Governments have often done.
India’s ambition to secure a permanent seat on the Security Council is legitimate. It has more than 1 billion people and represents a distinct voice in the global conversation. Its claim is no less weighty than China’s, and perhaps weightier than our own or that of France. It is only a matter of time before India’s claim is met, since about 120 members of the General Assembly have indicated their consent. We can expedite this and earn ourselves good will by, for example, moving a resolution in the General Assembly, on our own or with France, as we did in the case of Libya and as we have done in other cases.
For years, India has been a victim of cross-border terrorism and has repeatedly complained about it —but we did not take it seriously until it began to affect us at home. Even now, we have not shown sufficient sensitivity to India’s deepest concerns. I am not suggesting, even for a moment, that India’s policy on, say, Kashmir is right. Like many in your Lordships’ House, and many in India itself, I have been greatly critical of it, and I wish that it had been different. However, that cannot justify the horrendous acts of terrorism that we have seen in Delhi, Mumbai and other parts of India. We in Britain could give India greater active support and enable it to sustain its open and democratic society.
At the economic level, our ties with India are strong but could be stronger. India is the second largest investor in the UK after the United States. More than 500 Indian companies are based in the UK, and their businesses generate more than £14 billion. Our visa regime stands in the way of intracompany transfers, and some Indian companies have begun to move to Belgium. That cannot be in our interest. We are the fourth largest investor in India, but our investment is about 5 per cent of its total foreign direct investment. That is a very small amount for a country of our size and stature.
India is expanding its infrastructure in a very big way, involving nearly 1 trillion rupees. We ought to be involved in a much more active way than we are. India does not need to raise money in the UK market: it has enough indigenous resources. What it needs is equipment, expertise, consultants, efficient organisation and experience. That is what we are ideally equipped to provide. I am sorry to see that we have not been involved as actively and comprehensively as we should have been in India’s programme for the development of its infrastructure, such as roads, airports and energy plants.Of course, India needs to do more itself. It needs to improve its bureaucracy and carry through its programme of reform to make itself a more attractive destination for foreign investment. However, that has not stopped other countries such as Malaysia, France and the United States from stepping up their investment. There is no reason why we should not do the same. Sometimes I have a feeling that we—or at least our companies—tend to be averse to risk and seek a guaranteed return before we consider investing. That attitude needs to change. It is only when we seek active engagement with India that we will have a moral right to put pressure on it to reform its policies.
I now turn briefly to an area that matters a great deal to me and to India: the field of higher education. India is expanding its higher education at an unprecedented rate. Nearly 700 to 800 new universities are expected, along with new Indian institutes of technology and central universities. There is enormous scope for Britain. The UK India Education and Research Initiative has made a significant contribution but we need to do much more. I welcome the announcement of UKIERI stage 2, but it will need significantly enhanced financial support from public and private sources. It also needs to be given a new direction and greater depth. For example, British universities should be encouraged to set up campuses in India. I assume that the Indian Government’s attitude will be a little clearer than it is at present. There is no reason why our great universities cannot adapt academic departments in Indian universities and build up their teaching and research capacities.
India badly needs highly qualified faculty staff, and here too Britain can do much. For several years I have been urging a scheme. We have a large number of professors who either have come to the end of their career and retired or wish to take early retirement. There is no reason why they cannot be persuaded or incentivised to spend a lot of time in India. They have their occupational pension guaranteed here, and the Indian Government could be asked to top it up and make it attractive for them to spend either a few years in India, or part of every year teaching and guiding research in Indian universities. A rough calculation suggests that there are at least 3,500 university professors in the natural and social sciences who, I am told, would find it attractive to go and teach and do research in Indian universities. We ought to tap into that resource.University education is not the only area of co-operation. Much can and should be done at the level of secondary education. There could be sizeable exchanges of teachers. That would benefit both teachers and students in the two countries, and would build strong and lasting intellectual and cultural bonds. If I may digress for a moment: I have a family foundation, and it has been arranging exchanges of teachers between a top school here and a top school in India. During the three years that the scheme has been going, I have been struck by the enormous enthusiasm that the English teachers have aroused in Indian schools. A teacher of English from a top school here teaching Shakespeare in an Indian school has been a remarkable experience for Indian students, and I know from my close contact with that school that many students are immensely excited and have turned to literature as their special field of interest. If one school can do that, imagine hundreds of schools being able to do that.
Finally, I think the Government have made a great mistake in restricting post-study work visas. Under the current scheme, students coming here can work for two years after graduating. This allows them to recoup part of their expenses and to contribute their skills to this country. It benefits both sides. The restrictions that the Government are proposing are very rigid. Last year, 39,000 students were guaranteed a visa to work for up to two years. The Government want to reduce that by half, which is extraordinary. Germany has decided that students who have graduated will be allowed to stay up to a year to look for an appropriate job if they have sufficient maintenance funds. New Zealand and Canada have done the same. I am really sorry that we seem to be creating a situation in which we are discouraging Indian students from coming here.
Lord Bhikhu Parekh is Vice-President of the Gandhi Foundation and a Professor at the Centre for the Study of Democracy in the University of Westminster.