Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May pledged Monday to make it easier to do business with India, seeking to boost trade with the world's fastest growing major economy ahead of Brexit, but gave little ground on a key visa demand.
In her first bilateral trip outside Europe since taking office in July, May said Britain would not "turn its back on the world" after leaving the EU but emphasised that new economic relationships had to benefit all sides.
"On this visit alone more than one billion pounds of business deals will be signed. And there's much more we can do," said May, whose visit is an attempt to get the ball rolling for a future trade deal between the two countries.
The two nations will seek to identify what more can be done to remove barriers to trade and investment, May added after talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
However, she ceded little ground on relaxing rules for Indians seeking British visas -- a key demand of New Delhi -- saying only that Britain would consider easing the process.
"The UK will consider further improvements to our visa offer if, at the same time, we can step up the speed and volume of returns of Indians with no right to remain," said May, who as Britain's home secretary earned a reputation for being tough on immigration.
Anger at levels of immigration from both inside and outside Europe were seen as a crucial factor in the outcome of the June referendum when British voters opted to pull out of the EU.
UK PM seeks to widen India trade ties pic.twitter.com/6XbXv3DS1e— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) November 7, 2016
But there is particular unhappiness in Delhi over visa restrictions on students wanting to stay on in Britain after completing university courses that have led to a 50 percent drop in Indians enrolling.
India's commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman expressed disappointment over the lack of progress, saying Britain could not afford to appear unwelcoming to Indian talent.
"We have raised our concern very seriously," said Sitharaman after talks with her British counterpart Liam Fox.
The current visa process "discourages a lot of Indian students from going to the UK.... They prefer any other shore, whether it is (the) US, Australia or New Zealand."[caption id="attachment_29796" align="aligncenter" width="800"] This handout photograph released by the Indian Press Information Bureau (PIB) on November 7, 2016, shows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) walks with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May at Hyderabad House in New Delhi. AFP[/caption]
While the benefits to Britain of a trade deal are evident, sealing one will be no easy task in a country which has been negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU as a whole for the best part of a decade.
Despite their historical ties dating back to the colonial era, trade between the UK and India is relatively low at $14 billion last year -- smaller than the volume of trade between India and Germany.
But a British official said before the trip began that May had made India a priority, given the potential offered by its current seven percent growth and its rapidly increasing population which is expected to overtake China's within a decade.
"On trade, we really want to unlock the potential of the relationship on both sides," the official told reporters.
"That means looking at how we can lay the groundwork before we leave the EU for breaking down existing barriers to trade that there are."
India however still has a rigorous regime of tariffs and red tape which has traditionally made it one of the most complex places to do business, even if the potential market is huge.
May, who is accompanied by a delegation of around three dozen business leaders, will travel to the southern tech hub of Bangalore on Tuesday.
In Delhi, the two leaders agreed a partnership to help India develop "smart cities", which are designed to be models of urban planning -- one of Modi's pet projects.
May said Indians travelling on work visas will be allowed to join the "registered travellers scheme", which allows users to speed through immigration at some borders.
The Indian government will also be able to nominate top executives for the "Great Club" -- a bespoke visa service for business travellers first launched in 2013 -- she said.