It is to be hoped that clothing and textiles made it onto the agenda for David Cameron’s trade mission to India last week.
Whereas British high-tech exports like IT and telecommunications were always discussed in pre-visit press briefings, there seemed to be no mention of other areas in which we excel, such as fine woollen fabrics.
It is recognised that India is one of the toughest countries to sell into. Indians themselves acknowledge that they have one of the most bureaucratic systems on the planet. In their efforts to control everything, the country’s civil servants - known disparagingly as ‘babus’ - have devised a network of laws, regulations, licences, permits and government edicts that foreigners find virtually impossible to negotiate. And beyond the red tape, high import tariffs on the sort of premium goods in which the UK outdoes the competition make the retail price of these imports ridiculously high, especially when many of the target audience can travel to Dubai and Europe to buy at more sensible prices.
Yet there are millions of increasingly prosperous middle-class Indians who might like to see British-made products in their shops. Talk of a ‘special relationship’ between India and its former Raj rulers is almost certainly misplaced. In the league of importers to India, the UK, which used to be fourth, is now 18th.
We need a transparent system and a level playing field on which to compete. UK retailers would also welcome an easier route into Indian ventures. At present, few think it’s worth the effort of trying to get a foothold.
Ambitious a hope as it might be, we need India to open its doors to two-way trade. Let’s hope the Prime Minister and his sizable band of industrialists and sports stars were in persuasive mood.
Peter Lucas is chairman of the UK Fashion and Textile Association