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Theresa May drives a hard bargain on UK visa norms as India stresses on liberalisation

The depth of the differences between India and UK over the latter's immigration policy became clear on Monday as British Prime Minister Theresa May schmoozed with Narendra Modi first during a joint tech summit and later during an extensive one-on-one at New Delhi's Hyderabad House.

On Day 1 of her India visit, the first non-European outing for May since assuming office, she stuck manfully at her job of wooing Indian investors and pitching for greater trade relations between the two nations but the difficulty of her position was all too apparent.

As Firstpost wrote on Sunday, Brexit and her own hawkish immigration policy have put May in a fundamentally conflicting position when it comes to courting foreign investment, especially from India whose companies invest more in the UK than in entire EU combined and employ more than 100,00 people, and yet are at the receiving end of a regressive visa policy that has grown tougher and tougher over the years.

PM Narendra Modi and UK PM Theresa May. PTI

PM Narendra Modi and UK PM Theresa May. PTI

In particular, new changes to immigration rules announced last week were aimed specifically at making it harder for Indian IT professionals to visit UK through the Intra-Company Transfer Route (ICT) which forms the basis of 90 percent British visas issued to India.

Inevitably, as The Financial Times points out, bilateral trade has been slowing in recent years, falling from $15.7 billion in 2011-2012 to $14 billion in 2015-2016, despite India’s strong growth. The UK currently sits 13th in the list of India’s trading partners, according to figures from the Indian commerce department — behind Germany, Indonesia and Belgium.

The reason is clear. While Britain welcomes Indian investment, it abhors the skilled foreign workers that these businesses need and these already hard positions have concretised due to Brexit. So while Britain wants to become an open, throbbing global destination for trade and commerce, its immigration figures (which May has sought to bring down to an unrealistic figure of 100,000 per year, including students) sit directly at odds with its ambition.

The tension of these contradictory positions were all too clear when on Monday, May appeared ready to toe India's line on terrorism, delivered a speech high on rhetoric extolling New Delhi's eminence as an emerging world power and from advocating for a permanent seat at the UN to backing India's entry into the NSG club, she said everything that New Delhi wanted to hear from the head of a P5 nation. Yet to India's chagrin, she remained rigid on a visa liberalisation scheme and refused to commit to a greater people-to-people mobility between the two nations.

Expectedly, Narendra Modi nudged May for a regularisation of the visa norms during a joint tech summit, urging Britain to open its doors for Indian students many of whom are increasingly being denied visas despite getting enrolled in some of the best British universities.

"Education is vital for our students and will define our engagement in a shared future," Modi said at the summit alongside May. "We must, therefore, encourage greater mobility and participation of young people in education and research opportunities." He also picked up the topic of restrictions on visas for skilled workers, saying that the UK-India joint working group which was formulated on Monday "should not only focus on trade in goods but also the expansion of services trade, including greater mobility of skilled professionals," reported Daily Mail.

Prime Minister Modi's concern stems from recent figures that show that UK's new immigration policy — geared towards pushing Indian students home almost as soon as the courses are over — has led to a drastic fall in number of Indian students enrolling in British universities, from 68,238 in 2010 to 11,864 this year, according to official UK figures.

May, who had started the trip by saying that British visa norms for India are best in business and Indians to get more preferential treatment than any other nation, appeared at the end of the day to have gravitated to a more reconciliatory position. She offered a faster visa process for high net-worth Indian individuals and their family members but when it came to visas for skilled workers or students, a key Indian demand, she tied it up with illegal immigration.

She told reporters, post her talks with Modi, that "the UK will consider further improvements to our visa offer if at the same time we can step up the speed and volume of returns of Indians with no right to remain."

This "solution" also found mention in the joint statement where "2 prime ministers agreed that ensuring simple and effective visa systems depended critically on cooperation to protect the integrity of border and immigration systems. This included ensuring the timely and efficient return of individuals to their country of origin as required by their respective national laws."

While offering a fast-track visa service for Indian business travelers is a welcome step, May's position on letting more Indian students and skilled Indian professionals remain stubbornly steadfast. Both nations announced a slew of tie-ups in areas of defence and cyber security on Monday and more could be coming up on Tuesday. Yet fact remains that the talks would achieve little beyond atmospherics unless UK and India and get down to solving the single issue that has so far resisted all solution: immigration.

Updated Date: Nov 08, 2016 09:25 AM

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