Abbott time, say Indian business leaders Down Under
Tony Abbott’s whirlwind two-day trip to India to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi had India watchers in Australia on the edge of their seats in September.
This visit had everything: a signed nuclear deal, new Colombo plan for students, the promise of free trade on the horizon, collaboration on sports universities; Australian mining applications gathering dust on the creaking bureaucratic conveyer belt were graciously tossed into the fast-track chute and ancient religious idols were emotionally returned.
Media commentators in both countries spoke positively of the visit, (although the nuclear spectre had some biting their nails) and the overall outlook for the Australia-India relationship was deemed sunny—a Hindustan Times commentator even lumped together Abbott with Modi and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe as “a coalition of the like-minded”.
“As Modi does diplomacy with Obama and the Chinese, he’s obviously at greater ease working with those attuned to his centre-right vision, as with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and Australian PM Tony Abbott… There are plenty of areas where they can achieve fusion, nuclear or otherwise,” the commentator said.
Commentators were impressed but what did the business community think of the big announcements stemming from the trip?
The Indian Sun sat down with Tajinda Pal Singh of the Australia New Zealand India Business Association (ANZIBA) in Delhi, to get his take.
“This visit was very important because nothing has actually moved [in the relationship] in the last 20 years except for cricket, a little bit of agro business,” said Mr Singh, who studied and worked in Sydney for many years and now heads the migration law firm Network Law Offices, based in Delhi.
“For the first time I must say that India has become more Australia focused. It used to be more United States focused, so this is a new development,” said Singh.
But Singh said he felt the visit should have been longer with more industry players involved.
“I think the delegation should have much bigger and they should have at least stayed here for three, four days. They should have more interacted with more industries than with only the top selected industries. There are small businesses people who would love to invest in Australia but there was a gap between these meetings. So I think next visit, may not be by the PM, but whosoever comes here, has to be more mid-segment focused,” he said.
Mr Singh said while India required a lot of uranium to power its energy needs, the signing of the civil nuclear cooperation deal would not have much impact in the short term. But it would strengthen relations between the two countries and may boost business sentiment in the Australia-India space.
“It has broken the ice between the countries for sure. It was more of a mental block that till the time we don’t get uranium how will we make things happen in India? Although still I say it won’t contribute much initially, maybe in the next 10 to 15 years, when India is geared up to handle the uranium waste,” said Singh.
Singh sees the biggest opportunities for Australia in exporting sports infrastructure know-how, management systems for railways, expertise in solar energy, sustainable agriculture and water management systems.
He said the free trade deal, which Abbott wants clinched by the end of 2016, would take some time to nut out.
“There’s a lot of spark amongst Indians and Australians to extend the trade relationship. But it will take a little bit more longer because both the countries need to understand the quarantine laws, the trade laws, the customs laws and figure out how to minimize the bureaucratic red-tape prevalent in both the countries.
“For example there are a lot of agro products and engineering products that need to be exchanged between India and Australia. For that there has to be very clear-cut quarantine policies,” he said.
But he is enthusiastic about Abbott’s new Colombo plan, a spin-off of the 1950s deal that saw Asia Pacific governments strengthening ties by encouraging students to study overseas. The 21st century plan will see Australian students studying in India, reversing the trend of Indians coming Down Under.
“It’s a good move because if we are to move forward in business we need to understand each other’s culture… so that we are able to assimilate faster. These students will be able to relate to the people they’re going to do business with in the future,” he said.
Abbott reportedly confessed during the visit that Australia had not invested enough time and energy in India compared to markets in North Asia.
Australia’s two-way trade with India is worth $15 billion—about a tenth of that conducted with the country’s top trading partner China, at $150 billion. China is also India’s biggest trading partner, with trade reaching $49 billion in India’s last fiscal year.
India’s Minister of State for Corporate Affairs Nirmala Sitharaman said Indians invested $US1 billion in Australia over the last decade, while Australians only put $US600 million in India in the past 14 years.
Singh believes other foreign markets were taking a more proactive approach to India, with companies sending private contractors to scope out the environment.
“I’ve personally been associated with two companies from US and Canada who actually identify three, four business every year and then approach the government to help them in getting all the permissions done,” he said.
He said Australia needed to put more resources into researching the market and companies should rely less on government trade offices in India.
“Private people will have a more commercial angle involved than a state-run agency because they have to work on budgets, and they actually understand how much investment will go, what will be the possible returns, is it worth investing in this sector or not? State commissions are asked to file their reports on 10 different business sectors. You need area specialists, you need professionals,” said Singh.