Return to Pune: Britain, the states, and India

British High Commissioner Sir James Bevan's speech to British Business Group.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

James Bevan

I travel a lot, because I have learned that the story of India is not being written primarily in Delhi but in India’s great states and cities, including this great city of Pune.

And that’s why I am here today. This is my third visit to Pune in 18 months. I first came here in autumn 2011. Before I took office as the UK’s new High Commissioner to India, my wife and I spent two and a half months travelling around the country. Our aim was to see the real India beyond the New Delhi diplomatic bubble. The biggest mistake you can make as a diplomat is to confuse the capital of a country with the country.

So in late 2011 my wife and I spent ten weeks travelling around India. We went to all corners of the country: 20 of India’s 28 states. We travelled by trains, planes, automobiles, rickshaws and on foot. We stayed – mostly incognito – in city hotels, colonial clubs, village huts and lived for a week at home with an Indian family. We went to places High Commissioners don’t usually see, did things they don’t usually do, and met people they don’t usually meet.

It was a good test of our marriage. We have been married 30 years but this was the first time we had spent 10 weeks together in each other’s company 24/7. You will be pleased to know that not only are we still married, but we are still talking to each other.

As part of that trip, early on, we came to Pune.

Pune made a big impression on me then. I saw what a beautiful city you live in. I saw the economic growth of this city and the growing prosperity that it is generating. We experienced your pleasant climate – I understand why the British made Pune a summer capital and retreat from Mumbai.

We were impressed by the little things, like the greenery and the good roads. We saw for the first time our excellent British Trade Office here in Pune which works so hard and successfully to promote trade and investment between the UK and India. We visited the British Council library, full of young people, and talked to many older people who have fond memories of that library as children and talk fondly of borrowing the books of PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie.

During that first visit to Pune my wife and I were made welcome by the Pune chapter of the Association of British Scholars – distinguished Indians who have studied in the UK, a welcome which made me a big fan of the association. We visited Fergusson College, one of India’s oldest universities and producer of two of India’s PMs and India’s current Foreign Secretary, and saw the excellence in education that has given Pune its reputation as the Oxford of the East.

We visited the Aga Khan Palace where Gandhi was held by the British in the 1940s and where his secretary and his wife Kasturba both died – a moving and tranquil place. And we ended our first evening in Pune with a drink with members of the Pune British Business Group members.

We visited Thermax, a Pune-based engineering company, and saw an example not just of the close links between Indian and UK business but of the close links between the UK and India based on education: Meher Pudumjee, the Chair of Thermax, is an alumni of Imperial College London (as too is another famous Indian businessman, Cyrus Mistry).

We saw JCB Pune’s impressive factory and design centre, and learnt how successful UK companies can be in India. Thereafter when travelling round the country on long car journeys we would count the number of yellow diggers with JCB on the side. Answer: over 1 in 2 – and indeed JCB do have 60% of the market here.

We met the Young Presidents’ Organisation which brings young people together, and saw something of the talent and drive amongst Indian youth. And we paid a moving visit to the Commonwealth War Grave just outside Pune, which commemorates many of those killed in India in WWs I and II, and which sits in a tranquil site alongside the river, beautifully preserved and tended, as modern Pune gently envelops it.

And so Pune taught me a lot on my first visit nearly 18 months ago. In particular it taught me that this city sits in the premier league of great Indian cities, with potential for even closer partnership with Britain, and that if I want to engage with the real India (and I do), it is in Pune and places like it that I should spend much of my time. My visit today has underlined again for me the scale and pace of Pune’s development.

So this city matters to Britain. And this country, India, matters to Britain too.

PM’s visit

That is why the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, came here in February.

This was Mr Cameron’s second trip to India since becoming PM. He believes passionately that the UK-India partnership should be one of the defining bilateral relationships in the 21st century.

The PM spent three days in India. His first day was in Mumbai, and was (as you would expect in that city) mostly about business. His second day was in Delhi and was (as you would expect in that city) mostly about politics. And his third day was in Amritsar, and was mostly about showing respect for India’s culture and past, with his visits to the Golden Temple and the Jallianwala Bagh.

Throughout the visit the PM repeated three simple messages.

The first message is that we in Britain want a stronger, wider, deeper partnership between the UK and India.

That partnership is happening.

Trade between Britain and India has grown strongly since the present British government took office in 2010. In 2010 and 2011, trade grew at an average of 23%.

Investment is growing. More Indian investment now comes to the UK than to the rest of the EU combined. Tata is the largest manufacturing employer in the UK. And companies like Vodafone and BP are major investors in India.

Scientific cooperation is growing, addressing challenges critical to both India and the UK, such as energy security, climate change and healthcare: jointly funded research has grown exponentially, from £1 million to over £ 125 million in the last three years.

Our diplomatic relations are growing. The UK has opened a new Deputy High Commission in Hyderabad and will shortly open another in Chandigarh. The UK now has the largest diplomatic network in India and hopes to expand further.

Contacts are growing. Since 2010, over half the UK Cabinet has visited India, with an average of one Minister a month (39 Ministerial visits in total). Over 400,000 Indians now visit the UK each year, and 800,000 Brits come to India.

The Prime Minister’s second message was that Britain is open: for visitors (he announced UKBA’s first ever same day service for businesspeople), for students (he made clear that there are no limits on the numbers who can study in the UK, and that we in Britain want India’s best and brightest to do their studies in the UK) and for business (he made a new commitment to treat India as a privileged partner in the supply of high technology).

And the PM’s third message was that we can aspire to this partnership because there is a natural fit between our two countries. Between our economies. Between our security needs. And between our peoples.

India offers the UK things we need: some of the best talent in the world, the ability to trade with the world’s biggest developing market, inward investment, including from many of the companies represented here today, that creates jobs and growth in the UK, and a partnership with a country whose destiny will shape the 21st century.

And the UK offers India things India needs: the best educational institutions in the world, world-class goods and services that can help India thrive at home and abroad, major-league investment that can help build the new India, and a great place to do business.

So that was a brief account of the PM’s visit. The good news is that his visit was a success. You can tell this by the fact that I still have a job. But what did it produce?

We made progress on trade and investment. In 2010 the PM set us a goal: to double trade between the UK and India by 2015. We are on course to achieve that. The PM brought with him the largest ever business delegation to travel with a British PM, over a hundred top businesspeople. Their contacts helped unlock new business for Britain and India.

The PM saw the top Indian business leaders and encouraged them to invest more in the UK. And BP announced a major new investment in India: $5bn in their JV with Reliance in the oil and gas field. BP’s total investment here is now the single largest foreign investment in India, and by some measures Britain is now the largest investor in India.

The PM announced an initiative to help more UK companies, particularly SMEs, to get business in India and other emerging markets. We will do this by supporting existing UK businesses in India to help new businesses seeking to establish themselves or expand here. Business helping businesses to do business.

India is leading the way in this initiative. We announced last month that we will support the opening of a network of six British Business Centres across India, led by the UK India Business Council, with the support of the BBGs.

I am particularly grateful for BBG Pune’s leading role in developing our plans. And we hope for your continued support in delivering them. Pune perfectly illustrates the natural fit. There are huge opportunities here for UK business to get more business. With your help, they will get it.

The PM’s visit also made progress on something else of interest to you here in Pune, the development of the proposed Bangalore Mumbai Economic Corridor, which the PM and PM Singh agreed could form the basis for a possible partnership between the UK and India.

We made progress on security, with agreement to strengthen the already close cooperation between the UK and India to fight terrorism – which I know has struck this city too, and to tackle together the other threats that we face like cyber attack and organised crime.

We made progress on people to people links. The PM and his team met many of those young Indians who will lead this country in future. And the British Council announced their intention to offer support for English language teaching to all the states of India: our goal is that every single Indian should have the opportunity to learn English, which is one of the most important ways to unlock a person’s economic future, and to ensure that the ties between our two countries remain strong.

And we agreed to cooperate in a range of other important areas that will make our citizens richer or safer or both: healthcare, science and innovation, R+D, energy, education, culture.

Conclusion: why I am an India optimist

So I have great confidence in the future of the UK/India relationship. And I have great confidence in the future of this great country. So in conclusion, let me tell you why I am an India optimist. The reason for that confidence is what I saw on that first visit I made to Pune and the rest of the Real India 18 months ago.

I saw then, and have seen since, the challenges that face this country. You know them much better than I do. But I am confident India will overcome them all.

And that is because India has strengths that most other countries don’t. History: thousands of years of civilisation has given India a strong sense of itself. Resilience: India’s ability to accommodate its many conflicting interest groups has proved wrong all those Western political scientists who predicted, post-independence, that India’s inbuilt tensions would kill democracy and/or break the country up. Culture: India’s deep tradition of tolerance and respect helps cushion the inherent tensions of a large and diverse country. Scale: if you want to increase output ten or a hundredfold, India can get you the people to do it immediately. Education: Indians, as you all know, have a profound commitment to improving the lot of their children and will make huge sacrifices to do so – the best possible investment in the future of a country. Creativity: the ingenuity and zest with which Indians go round an obstacle or solve a problem by redefining it has to be seen to be believed. Ambition: Indian companies and Indian talent are not seeking to be the best in India - they aim to be the best in the world, and in many cases they already are. Growth: India is visibly getting richer, and the wealth is spreading. Unity in diversity, the achievement of which Nehru spoke, is a powerful economic driver. The reverse brain drain: everywhere I go, I meet young and talented Indians who have built a successful career abroad, but are now returning to India because they see even better opportunities for themselves here. And optimism: every Indian believes that while today is good, tomorrow will be better.

These are all reasons to believe in a strong future for this country.

Let me share with you one final impression that I had during my tour of India in late 201, and that I also have now, here tonight in Pune: for the British, India is welcoming. To us Brits, it feels like a place we know, and it feels quite like home.

Of course, on the surface the differences are huge: there’s no UK parallel for the size, geography and diversity of this country. But underneath it feels deeply familiar. We speak the same language. We share the same sense of humour. We believe in the same values. We both like cricket. We like the same food. We have the same bureaucracies, so we know that Yes Minister is not a comedy programme but a documentary. We understand each other, and we feel at home with each other.

And I feel at home here in Pune. So thank you for your welcome and your hospitality. I look forward to returning, and to continuing to develop a strong partnership: between us here tonight, between the UK and Pune, and between the UK and this great country of India.

Published 24 April 2013