Opinion: Every country has its contrasts, and a subcontinent of 1.4 billion people with thousands of years of history has more than most. Today’s India can reach the moon, build super-highways and next-generation technology, but, the next minute, you’re on a roughly paved road with tuk-tuks and cows jostling alongside the Mercedes. 

What is not so evident to the casual visitor is the Indian government’s success in giving millions of the poorest an online bank account, so they could receive direct payments during the pandemic, or how the “India stack” is transforming access to digital identify and online finance.

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The 50-strong New Zealand business delegation that visited Delhi at the end of August went to learn about these contrasts. We were there to see India’s accelerating development and what role New Zealand could play. We did not come with a free trade agreement in the back pocket. We tried that already. 

Though removal of market access and other barriers on both sides would undoubtedly galvanise the economic relationship, we need to try something new. “We want to get out of homilies about cricket,” one senior adviser to Prime Minister Narendra Modi told us. “We want technology, fintech, space, global standards.” An increasingly self-confident India sets its own terms. If we want to play a part, it will be up to us to work out what that will be.

The emphasis was on trade and investment in agri-food, pharmaceuticals, health-tech and technology as well as tourism and education

Some of us were old hands – including the large contingent from the Indian diaspora – and others were less frequent or first-time visitors. We were not the only guests in town – Delhi was set to welcome the world’s richest nations in the G20. Yet our hosts found time to welcome us warmly and our visit generated almost 50 stories in Indian media. It was certainly useful to have a minister (Damien O’Connor) and a mayor (Wayne Brown) in tow and to present a united business front with five business organisations co-sponsoring the visit under the leadership of the India New Zealand Business Council.

There’s little doubt the delegation helped amplify the outcomes from O’Connor’s meeting with his counterpart, Piyush Goyal. Their joint statement focused on areas of immediate improvement – a possible re-start to the log trade which had been suspended after New Zealand reduced its use of methyl bromide as a treatment; new co-operation in agriculture and horticulture; and steps towards a direct air service. 

Although the last of these is a commercial decision for airlines, an upgrade to the air services agreement also signed during the visit makes some technical amendments that hopefully improve the regulatory environment for such a move.

In two addresses to influential Indian industry groups O’Connor outlined his hope for substantial improvement in the relationship by 2026 – 100 years since the first Indian Army hockey team visited New Zealand, showing that sport is still relevant in the bilateral context after all. Moving together towards 2026 was the theme of an impressive reception hosted by High Commissioner David Pine for 200 guests at the New Zealand Residence. 

As for the delegation, it was a heavy week of meetings and presentations. The Confederation of Indian Industry brought together expert panellists to discuss the global economy, trade policy, and climate change. At the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, delegates had the opportunity to interact with small and medium enterprise counterparts. The emphasis was on trade and investment in agri-food, pharmaceuticals, health-tech and technology as well as tourism and education. 

At the end of the week at the first ever India New Zealand Business Summit held in India another bi-national audience heard about the success stories of New Zealand businesses in India including Rakon, Fisher and Paykel Healthcare, and Zespri as well as investment opportunities in both countries. 

What to make of all of this? India is every bit as dynamic as its impressive economic credentials claim. It is a country that cannot be ignored but neither can it be underestimated. Doing business in India presents an array of commercial and cultural challenges, and rewards will only come as a result of persistence and investment. 

A comprehensive free trade agreement at some point would help our largest export sectors. In the meantime there is a lot the New Zealand government can do, especially with a beefed-up presence on the ground, to smooth the way, but business has a role to play too. Only a truly joined-up effort is going to result in material difference. The organisers and members of the delegation are willing to step up.  

If India can reach the moon, and a New Zealand company such as Rakon can help them get there, surely we must be able to apply that sense of common endeavour to the relationship as a whole.

Stephen Jacobi is Executive Director of the NZ International Business Forum, one of the co-organisers of the India delegation

Stephen Jacobi is Executive Director of the NZ International Business Forum and serves as Alternate New Zealand Member for the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC)

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