AFTER nearly a year in London, Shuchita Sonalika should be well settled as the Confederation of Indian Industry’s (CII) director and head of its UK office, but the Home Office has created a bizarre visa quagmire for her.
“We are quite disturbed about this,” admitted Chandrajit Banerjee, the normally mild-mannered director general of the CII. In his speech during last week’s conference, Banerjee went out of his way to thank John Cridland, director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
“I am very, very grateful to John for really flagging the issue of immigration, which is something of a huge concern. I said that the existence of the CII-UK office is also at stake because of this issue – we do not wish any dilution of that office as we go long.”
He referred at one point to “Shuchita, who is struggling to be in the UK for the past one year”. In marked contrast, there have been no problems with the CBI’s office in India. But if the CII has to close or curb its UK operation, it will be the British people who will be the losers.
As the Indian high commissioner Ranjan Mathai pointed out: “India in 2014 was the third largest investor in the UK and the Tatas remain the largest manufacturing employer in this country.”
He added that according to Grant Thornton, chartered accountants, “there are now 800 Indian companies which employ 110,000 people and have a cumulative turnover of about £20bn in this country.
They also pay £0.5bn in taxes.” “We need to tackle the issues of immigration rules and I am aware of the CII’s concerns about visa regulations and how they would affect intracompany transfers,” he said.
“I believe it would be appropriate to make representations to the UK partners through the migration advisory committee of the Home Office.”
When Gunveena Chadha returned to India after a successful five-year stint as the CII’s director and head of its UK office, Sonalika was brought from the organisation’s US office to be her replacement.
But what should have been a routine appointment has fallen victim to the regulations of the Home Office which cannot – or will not – fit Sonalika into one of its visa categories. Sonolika is currently in limbo, neither legal nor illegal, though it has been indicated to her superiors she should be withdrawn from London.
This makes sense neither to the CII nor its UK counterpart, the CBI, nor the Indian high commissioner in London, nor his opposite number in Delhi, Sir James Bevan, nor a number of British ministers.
It seems none can persuade the Home Office to resolve the problem that is of its own making. The irony is that Sonalika’s job is to boost UKIndia trade and, at least, partly to bring Indian investment into Britain, thereby creating jobs and prosperity in this country.
There has never been a problem with CII directors overstaying their term in London. Chadha’s predecessor, Supriya Banerji, also returned to CII’s headquarters in Delhi after her period in London.
A CII source explained how the Home Office saw the problem: “The problem with the visa is that the Tier 1 visa category is now phased out by the UK government (which was the primarily channel used by Sonalika’s predecessors).
The Tier 2 visa is applicable for an Intra-Company Transfer. But the CII, being a non-profit organisation, is registered as a ‘Society’ in India, rather than a company, and is unable to use Tier 2.”
“For nearly a year, we have been working with the Foreign Office here and the British High Commission in Delhi, who have been supportive and helpful, but so far, a workable solution is not in sight.
The CII leadership has raised the issue with several ministers during their visit and been promised careful consideration of the matter.” The visa issued was raised at the conference by a former president of the CII, Dhruv Sawhney, chairman and managing director of Triveni Engineering and Industries.
He gave examples of how Britain and India could set up joint manufacturing projects which would require Indian engineers to come to the UK for short periods to service customers. He predicted: “I expect 10 per cent growth to come in India in the next 18 months.”
The worry for Britain now is that the caravan might move on since India is also talking to major partners around the world, notably the United States, China, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea and Singapore.
David Cameron has been to India three times as prime minister and appears determined to strengthen the India-UK strategic relationship. “This visa issue is not a migration issue – it is a job creation issue for the UK,” Sawhney said.
“They (engineers) don’t want to stay more than two or three months.” A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have spoken to Ms Sonalika about options to regularise her immigration position and stand ready to consider any application from her.”