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Mind the gap between Bengal’s opportunities & British business

B for Bengal. B for Britain. B for business.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s brief but busy Calcutta visit — highlighted by his meeting with chief minster Mamata Banerjee — on November 14 has set the tone for enhanced business interface between Bengal and Britain, Scott Furssedonn-Wood told Metro.

“Lots of things came up during the visit in terms of the areas of collaboration that we want to intensify,” said the new British deputy high commissioner in Calcutta.

“Infrastructure and urban redevelopment is certainly one bit of it. Another area would be skills. There is this huge appetite in this region to develop a more skilled workforce to compete and rise to the challenges of the century, and I think British institutions and British companies are very well placed to help with that.”

He cited the success of Bournville College, which has chosen Calcutta as its hub not just for India but a wider region. “They are doing some great work in terms of skill building curriculum development…. There are other companies like Pearson. This is an area where I think we have got a lot to offer and where there is quite a clear demand here. So that’s something we certainly want to do more,” added Furssedonn-Wood.

According to the 35-year-old British envoy who has recently moved into the Calcutta office, there are opportunities across the board in terms of possible collaborations. “Some of them relatively small compared to the big-ticket opportunities and perhaps big companies that I’ve seen elsewhere. Nonetheless these are opportunities worth pursuing and the trick is making people understand that they are there.”

An area of prime focus could well be the health sector. “UK bodies like the Royal College of General Practitioners are working with institutions here to deliver professional training and qualifications. Again, this is an area where there is a lot more potential for UK expertise and UK ambition to bring that expertise here where there is a demand for it,” said Furssedonn-Wood.

The British PM’s Calcutta visit — the first in 16 years — should in some measure spark interest among British businesses looking for investment destinations overseas.

“I think it is probably fair to say that Bengal and this region have not got the attention internationally that they deserve. That they probably suffered from something of an image problem and that when British companies think of India they think of the bright lights of Mumbai and Bangalore and they don’t necessarily think beyond that. To an extent that is understandable because there are some big opportunities in those parts of India but there are opportunities here as well. And I think the fact that you’ve had a British Prime Minister come here will mean that businesses will sit up and pay attention,” said Furssedonn-Wood.

The business climate in Bengal and the Northeast today is not very well understood by British companies, pointed out the youngest British deputy high commissioner to be posted in Calcutta. And that is one gap he would strive to, well, mind and bridge.

“There are challenges that British companies would face in those regions just like they would in any other region. The trick is to completely understand the local context and that’s the role that we play in terms of the expertise that my teams have in the particular business sectors here, the local economic and political context to help people make the most of those opportunities,” said Furssedonn-Wood.

And the Cameron visit, during which he met business leaders like Sanjiv Goenka and Harsh Neotia, has renewed some British interest in Bengal. “Our UKTI [trade and investment] team is already seeing an increase in the number of enquiries that we are getting from British companies. We’ve had the biggest ever trade delegation here in June this year, with 20 companies I think. So, that interest was growing already and when a Prime Minister goes to a place, everyone pays attention,” said Furssedonn-Wood.

The deputy high commissioner intends to build on the attention generated. The big challenge on the job? To convert the interest into concrete outcomes. “It is inevitable, the increase in interest. And the role that we play is helping companies understand the context here and the atmosphere here and make sure they are making the right choices about the opportunities they pursue and the right fit for their business.”

Coming up in January is “a delegation in a range of sectors” — infrastructure, advance engineering, skills. “There’ll be more to come,” promised Furssedonn-Wood.

You can follow Scott Furssedonn-Wood on Twitter @Scott_FW