'We have so much that connects us with India'
Antra Bhargava argues that Ireland is falling behind its EU competitors and should take advantage of its ties with a country boasting a €450bn food import market. By Mark Keenan
MARCH last year saw India's cities erupt with beeping car horns, dancing and hugging in the streets -- the sort of public joy last seen here around Italia 90. As it happens tens of millions of Indians were also celebrating an Irish world cup victory. This time it was in cricket. India hosted and we actually beat England, in the process massively elevating our nation's esteem there.
"For a time, the Irish team, Kevin O'Brien and his record century were all that Calcutta's taxi drivers wanted to talk about," says Antra Bhargava, international trade expert and head of Grant Thornton's South Asia Group and leading member of the Irish Asia Trade Forum.
Come September, she will be among those taking a delegation of 50 Irish exporters to India in the hope of cracking one of the world's fastest- growing markets. As Ireland attempts to pull itself up by its exporting bootstraps amid recession in Europe, the massive BRIC economy will be a most vital new target.
Loreto-educated Ms Bhargava's own heroes include Sister Cyril Mooney -- the Bray-born nun who achieved one of India's highest civil honours in 2007 for her 50-plus years of work bringing education and a future to Indian street children. Because aside from family in modern India, if there's one thing more important than cricket, it's education, and Irish orders have been at the centre of education in India since the foundation of the state. In India, Ireland stands for nuns and cricket, which isn't at all a bad thing.
"The problem is that Ireland is near the bottom of the table in Europe when it comes to trade ties with India," says Ms Bhargava.
This particularly vexes Ms Bhargava, who believes Ireland's export profile is perfect for India and exporters would be moving into the world's 10th largest importer. In India, the consuming middle class has exploded to 250 million and is expected to double again within 15 years, while growth has averaged 7pc for four years.
"It's a robust democracy with a growing consumer class and everyone speaks English. What more does Ireland want? Unfortunately, every day we are falling behind our European competitors."
The daughter of a conservative and hard-working middle-class business couple from Calcutta, Ms Bhargava was educated by the Loreto nuns and did her final school year at the science-driven Calcutta International School, taking her British O and A-levels simultaneously and emerging with five A-levels and becoming west Bengal's first female taekwondo black belt in the process.
At this point, she expected to go to a US Ivy League college or to Oxbridge, but an unexpected phone call from Trinity changed her future. The college sent Dr Ivan Filby, head of international student affairs, to Calcutta specifically to meet her and persuade her to enrol. The Bhargava family were quickly convinced and so she arrived in Ireland in 1999, on her own, and aged just 19.
"My first impressions of Ireland were 'Oh my God, this is like toytown! So small, clean, petite and neat compared to Calcutta. Everybody was good looking and presented themselves so well. The other thing I noticed was how cold the toilet seats were."
She lived at the college and ventured out only occasionally to Cafe en Seine to read her books. Reading led her to her husband Anoop Haridasan, a senior engineer with Hewlett Packard, who approached her there, and to Cauvery Madhavan's novel 'Paddy Indian', the tale of a young doctor from India who moves to Dublin.
"There it was -- in the very first sentence -- the cold toilet seat. I love that book and it's perfect for anyone who wants to understand what happens when Indian and Irish cultures meet.
"Like the Irish, businesses are based on personal relationships; the Indians also like a drink and they love to read. If there's a difference, it's that India's regions have quite a degree of local autonomy and identity and it is useful to learn about these. Bombay is the centre of financial services and Bollywood while Bangalore is a centre of IT and life sciences.
"Irish exporters need to understand what type of Indian consumer their product might appeal to. You need a proper business plan in place before you go. Most important is finding a good local partner who fits you and your profile. This is absolutely essential in India where personal relationships are so important in business.
"Know that Irish exporters can have a tendency to price too high. Be aware of local tax obligations and compliances -- you can be taxed twice in both countries. If you discover that you haven't fulfilled your tax obligations -- you will end up in trouble and with a tainted reputation. Reputation is important in Indian business."
Ms Bhargava herself has been involved in some of Ireland's Indian break-ins. "My father took a liking to Connemara whiskey and I'd send boxes of it back to him at home where a lot of people liked it. I picked up the phone to John Teeling at the Cooley Distillery and my family became agents for Connemara whiskey in India."
Ms Bhargava says the Indian palette is often similar to ours ("my mother can't get enough of Ballymaloe relish") and is definitely ready for Irish foods and beverages, importing €450bn worth of food products last year.
"The middle classes want to sample new tastes and the cafe scene is huge there because it's acceptable for young boys and girls to meet and socialise in cafes. Anything that fits into it will do well.
"We love chocolates and Ireland makes some of the nicest you can find (her family also represented Lily O'Brien's chocolates). Until recently, cheese was something we made at home with milk and lemon juice. Now Indians are buying cheeses from around the world and Ireland has some great cheeses.
"There is a massive demand for butter in India but other countries are already in there, ahead of Ireland. There are opportunities for more than just food and beverages. Newbridge Silverware, for example, is a product that would probably sell really well -- both with its cutlery and its jewellery.
"Indians love shiny and costume bracelets and would buy the cutlery too. And for the film sector, there are opportunities in Bollywood, which is of course huge in India."
At Ms Bhargava's recommendation, read 'Paddy Indian', if only at least "to ensure you know how to give visiting Indian delegations that extra warm welcome."