India and the UK have agreed to set up three new bilateral working groups to tackle barriers to trade in specific sectors of food and drink, healthcare and data services as part of the Joint Economic and Trade Committee (JETCO) meeting in London on Monday.
The three new business-led working groups will be run by the UK India Business Council (UKIBC) alongside the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).
"What makes JETCO so important is that it is more than just a government to government bilateral, there is the direct involvement of business," UKIBC Chief Operation Officer (COO) Kevin McCole told PTI in an interview.
"Today saw the launch of three new bilateral business-led working groups to take deep dive into the issues, from a business perspective, and make recommendations to ministers on how to unlock remaining barriers to trade in food and drink, life sciences and healthcare, and digital and data services," he said.
The purpose of JETCO is to identify, and find solutions to, non-tariff barriers to trade.
"The Joint Trade Review, launched in November 2016, has made good progress – bilateral trade grew 22 per cent in 2018, against the average of 8.8 per cent per annum since 2002," McCole said.
The latest JETCO meeting, which included bilateral trade talks between India's commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal and UK secretary of state for international trade Liam Fox, is the 13th such meeting to take place between the two countries.
The UKIBC, a membership-based non-profit body set up to promote the UK-India economic partnership, plays the role of a Secretariat for the JETCO talks and provides a forum for UK companies to enhance their links and develop new partnerships with Indian businesses.
"The UKIBC organised what was a fascinating and open meeting for minister Goyal to meet major UK businesses that have invested significantly in India. There was positivity about the Indian economy and a sense of shared ambition that India should be a global economic superpower within the next decade. There was also recognition that reform was needed to achieve this, and a range of ideas were put forward," McCole said.
The UKIBC said in reference to the meeting that UK businesses felt encouraged that the Indian government is committed to serious higher education reform focusing on delivering world-class graduates.
UK businesses also expressed their support for transforming India's immense data cache into AI solutions, which will revolutionise sectors as diverse as healthcare, education, and agriculture.
"Certainty on a sector-agnostic, intuitive, and transparent data protection framework enforced by an independent and tech-savvy Data Protection Authority will maximise trust and lay the ground-work for a UK-India Common Data Agreement," McCole explained.
In healthcare, the UKIBC feels that the success of Ayushman Bharat will rapidly increase demand for pharmaceuticals.
In order to augment supply, India stands to benefit from building on international best practice to design a new drug pricing framework that enhances pharmaceutical quality, availability, and affordability for Indian citizens.
"Taking Ease of Doing Business reforms down to the State and District levels will be a major part of transforming the day-to-day manufacturing environment, especially for SMEs. Likewise, strengthening IP enforcement, streamlining customs approvals, delivering globally competitive taxation rates, and reforming the defense offset rules would signal India’s national determination to be a global, high-value, manufacturing hub," McCole said.
In reference to the prospects of a post-Brexit free trade agreement (FTA) between India and the UK, the UKIBC believes that such an agreement will come in time, but there is a great deal that can be done to address the barriers to trade and investment, including any sticking points around ease of movement for students and professionals.
McCole said: "It is often said that India will require more access to UK work visas as part of a trade deal. An important part of today's JETCO was a meeting between Indian businesses and the Home Office officials leading the consultation on the UK's Skills-Based Immigration White Paper.
"Although India already receives 60 per cent or all work visas the UK issues – more than the rest of the world combined, the UK is determined to engage seriously and deeply with Indian business to make sure the future legislation is right and that it is well-understood in India."
According to some latest official statistics, between 2000 and 2018, investments directly from the UK amounted to USD 26.09 billion, representing 7 per cent of total FDI into India, ahead of the US and Germany at 6 per cent and 3 per cent respectively.
The UK also prides itself at consistently being one of the top five investing countries in India over the last 18 years and is the fourth largest investor in India, having invested USD 26.09 billion after Mauritius, Singapore and Japan from April 2000 to June 2018.
"The UK and India have an incredibly close relationship…Nevertheless, from this position of strength, there is certainly more to be done to grow bilateral trade, investment and partnerships," McCole said.
Against the backdrop of the latest JETCO talks, the UKIBC has highlighted the scope to expand tech and innovation collaborations between the two countries.
It believes that more UK manufacturers could explore India, with the Indian government's Access India Programme working on helping small and medium enterprise (SME) manufacturers from the UK to the 'Make in India' initiative.