I’m delighted to be here in Assam for the first time and to be hosted by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).
I’m particularly pleased because the British government is working closely with the CII as this year’s partner nation for the TECH Summit that will take place in Delhi next month – Monday 7 to Wednesday 9 of November.
I want to talk today about the future direction of my country, and how that might be of interest to you here in Assam and North East India. I will say more about the TECH Summit. And I want to hear from you about Britain, technology and how either might help you and your businesses in the future.
Before I talk about that, let me say a few words about myself. I have been in Kolkata now for just over three months. This is my first posting in India, but I have visited before, and I was keen to spend much longer time in the country. It is at a particularly exciting juncture as it is increasingly important globally not just in economic terms, but politically.
I cover a large area of India – 13 states in total including all those in the North East. I’m already struck by the diversity of the region and the different challenges in each region.
I’m also typically British. I drink a fair amount of tea. Unlike most of my fellow Britons, I drink less blended ‘crush/tear/curl’ tea and more orthodox leaf tea.
I have been surprised to find that Britain isn’t the largest importer of Indian tea, despite being still the country with the highest consumption of tea per head. While I’m glad that Assam tea is still part of the blend of teas we tend to drink, English breakfast teas, I know that much of the rest of the breakfast tea blends comes from other countries.
I didn’t come to talk exclusively about tea. I came because I wanted to talk about the changes that are happening in my country.
UK has voted for change. We had a referendum on 23 June when a majority of Britons voted to leave the EU.
Brexit means Brexit – that is, we will leave the European Union. But while our future relationship with the EU is still to be determined, we are not leaving Europe.
Britain will remain a close friend, ally and trading partner with our European neighbours, but we will pass our own laws and govern ourselves.
Britain is, and always has been, an outward-looking nation thriving and prospering on the world stage. Global Britain wants to look to the economic and diplomatic opportunities of the wider world.
We are ranked in the top 6 countries in the world as a place to do business. We have record employment. According to the latest labour force survey, the employment rate - the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 who were in work was 74.5%, the joint highest since comparable records began in 1971.
We can be confident about the fundamental strengths of the UK economy and optimistic about the role we will forge for the UK – building on our strength as a great trading nation.
Britain is open for business, committed to peace and security, and a leading supporter of the international rules-based system. Our commitment to our extensive security cooperation with international partners remains steadfast.
We will want the strongest possible economic links with our European neighbours, as well as our close friends in North America, the Commonwealth and other important partners around the world. We must be more active, more outward facing, more energetic on the world stage than ever before.
Brexit is a change and it is a challenge for us. But we’ve undergone major economic changes before. For India I think it is an opportunity. We will be looking to widen our global scope.
Now we have a major example of that coming up in Delhi very soon – from 7 – 9 November to be precise.
The TECH Summit is India’s flagship knowledge and technology conference and exhibition, providing a platform for promoting technology-intensive trade and investments. It is supported by the Government of India and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and has run for the past 20 years.
The technology summit’s key aim is to provide a platform to industries, institutions and government agencies from India and the partner country chosen, to forge knowledge-business partnerships for manufacturing, trade and investments.
It combines a conference with thematic sessions (on technology, innovation and entrepreneurship, education, design and intellectual property) with an exhibition of technology intensive products and services.
There will also be a programme of business-to-business and business-to-government meetings.
In effect, it comprises of five inter-related summits - technology summit as centre stage but also on
innovation and entrepreneurship, higher education, design and intellectual property.
For more details, please check the website what we have in store.
The focus of UK companies will be on tech-rich opportunities in specific sectors where we think the UK can offer most to India. These are smart cities, advanced engineering, digital, healthcare/life sciences sectors and design. There is also an extended session focussed exclusively on agro-tech with a range of UK speakers on the second day, Tuesday 8 November.
Before I came here today, I was delighted to meet Mr Agnihotri of Guwahati smart city SPV who was telling me about his recent visit to Britain.
Some of you will know that the announcement of Britain as partner nation at this year’s TECH Summit was made by the Indian Prime Minister when he visited Britain last 2015. As PM Modi noted, Britain and India are an unbeatable combination.
However, the vote in the referendum of 23 June to leave the EU has given the event an added zest. As you may be aware, British Prime Minister Theresa May will be opening the TECH Summit together with Prime Minister Modi. It will get a lot of attention in the British and international media.
It gives the collaboration between UK and India a spotlight that I don’t think it has had in recent years. This will be an opportunity to talk about a host of wider collaborations also like the Newton-Bhabha research programme and work being done by the Warwick Manufacturing Group and its Indian partners.
The summit will also be marked by G2G events – including a Joint Economic and Trade Committee: a meeting of the Indian British CEO forum; and the Bilateral Education Forum.
This is not the first TECH Summit that the CII has co-organised with the Department of Science and Technology of the Government of India and a partner nation. But we hope, of course, it will be the best.
Now let me bring the relevance to this part of India
Britain is the largest G20 investor in India. According to a KPMG/UK-India Business Council report 2015, 523 British companies have some form of permanent presence in the country.
They are largely based in the larger metro cities, with a preponderance in Mumbai, Gurgaon, Pune, Kolkata, Chennai and Bengaluru. There is relatively little in the north east, with the notable exception of tea companies.
Now this limited UK investment isn’t necessarily wrong. The investments in Pune for the automotive sector, or Bengaluru in IT make a lot of sense because of the development of the clusters of companies in those sectors.
Tea remains one of the main businesses of Assam. The tea business itself is very competitive. In some ways it resembles the Scottish whisky industry. There is increasing competition from other types of beverages – think coffee instead of vodka. Some companies are responding by moving into exclusive niche areas.
We are very conscious that India has a demographic premium – a large workforce, but that premium is sometimes a challenge as one million new workers come on to the labour market each month.
In this part of India, you are closer to new emerging markets. The proximity of Myanmar, Thailand and of course Bangladesh are great assets. I have heard of the plans to improve interconnectivity and build more infrastructure.
But this is my first time here. I haven’t yet seen much of the city or of the region. I plan to come back.
I’d very much like to hear your thoughts about:
- what are the main technologies that are needed for the development of Assam and the rest of the North East
- in which areas do you think Britain could provide the solution?
- what are the obstacles to the development of the region beyond the geographical location – or perhaps it’s no longer an obstacle and maybe an asset?
I’d be delighted to see more British companies, technology institutions and tourists come to the north east. And I will of course, be very willing to tell my fellow Britons that Assam has some of the best tea in the world and that they should drink higher quality leaf tea, and less blended teas.