Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May with her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi ahead of their meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, November 7, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May with her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi ahead of their meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, November 7, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Britain should not wait until it leaves the European Union to develop deeper trade ties with India, Prime Minister Theresa May said in New Delhi on Monday, promising to ease access for Indian business travelers but not for its students.

Making her first visit to India since taking office in July, May described the potential of the British-Indian relationship as “limitless” and announced a scheme to make it quicker and easier for Indian business travelers to clear passport control.

“I will be discussing with Prime Minister Modi how we can increase the detail and depth of our trade and investment discussions, and identify what more we can do, now, to unleash our businesses, industries, exporters and investors,” May told an India-UK Tech Summit in New Delhi at the start of a two-day trip that will take her on Tuesday to the tech hub of Bengaluru.

“This does not need to wait for us to leave the EU.”

May, who said she wants Britain to be a global leader in free trade, has said she plans to use the visit to try to reduce barriers to trade with India and pave the way for a post-Brexit free-trade deal.

But with the Indian government keen to secure more access to Britain for students and skilled workers, visa numbers are likely to be a sticking point in any talks.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said it was vital that India and Britain work together to define the knowledge economy of the 21st century, and invited UK partners to get involved in his signature policy initiatives such as his plan to develop 100 “smart” cities.

He also called for “greater mobility and participation of young people in educational and research opportunities” – an apparent reference to the sharp fall in the number of Indian nationals studying in Britain since 2010.

During that period, when May was interior minister, the number of Indian students in Britain fell to 11,864 in June 2015 from 68,238 five years earlier.

Trade and movement

Some of May’s cabinet colleagues and business leaders in both countries have urged her to exclude foreign students from Britain’s statistics on net migration, which she has vowed to bring below 100,000 a year, from 336,000 in 2015.

May said it was “crucial” that those who do need to travel between UK and India for business can do so, but she indicated earlier that she saw no reason to change the UK visa regime.

Responding, the head of the Indian government’s policy think tank said that, while India was opening up its manufacturing sector to foreign investors, its professionals faced restrictions on working in the UK and other Western countries.

“There is no such thing as selective free trade,” Amitabh Kant told the tech summit when asked about May’s emphasis on striking a free trade agreement with India.

En route to India, May said Britain already issued more work visas to Indian nationals than to those from China, Australia and the United States combined.

“We have a visa system for countries outside the European Union which ensures the brightest and the best are able to come to the United Kingdom,” she said. “We have, I believe, a good system. We will be talking about trade here.”

Britain will offer new services to improve business travel for Indian visitors, including faster clearance through UK border controls, but an aide to May said this was about speeding up the process rather than boosting numbers.

A select group of high-net-worth Indians, nominated by New Delhi, will also be offered access to a “bespoke” visa and immigration service by Britain, May’s office said.`

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