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Gary M. Comerford is president and CEO of the Canada-India Business Council.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne begins a 10-day trip to India on Tuesday to promote trade between Ontario and India. This follows her similar trip to China last November, which was a great success, by all accounts. Recent reports indicate that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is planning to visit India early in his mandate, too, and no fewer than four premiers have indicated a desire to make similar Indian trade trips this year. Is all this India-bound travel by our politicians a good idea? Should India really be getting so much of our attention?

As president and CEO of the Canada-India Business Council, it is my job to promote trade between Canada and India, and I am very encouraged by the interest our politicians are showing. But my focus here isn't the trade missions themselves, but rather the acknowledgment of the need for Canada to have a comprehensive long-term trade strategy to capitalize on Canada-India trade and investment opportunities.

While visiting the Taj Mahal provides a handy photo op, the real payback for our politicians is in walking the country's factory floors and witnessing the economic revolution that is taking place there.

Having been involved in building businesses in India for more than 20 years, I know first-hand the tremendous potential of the Indian market. I also know the impediments that can exist. To the naked eye, there are many aspects of India that are not appealing, and many investors have shied away from the market after a cursory view.

But the India I see emerging is a market that Canada cannot ignore. With a population of 1.3 billion, India's forward-looking market potential is enormous. The economy has grown at an average rate of 7.2 per cent over the past five years and at a rate of 7.7 per cent over the past 10 years. This growth rate is faster than that of most of the world's economies, and has led to the expansion of India's middle class by an additional 225 million people over the past two decades.

When I was negotiating contracts in India, the ability to negotiate in English was a major advantage, since English is the language of business. More importantly, however, business contracts are based on British common law, so there is a confidence that what you negotiate will stand up in the courts.

Each year, India graduates hundreds of thousands of engineers. Indian businesses are growing so fast that they could use even more graduates. This young, well-educated, growing middle-class population wants India to succeed; they have a work ethic second to none, and I know they will make it happen.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Canada last spring, the importance of the relationship from the Indian perspective was clearly evident. But we must not take this market and opportunity for granted. In fact, we need to be far more deliberate in our approach to capitalize on its real long-term potential. The United States, Britain, Germany, Australia and Japan each have strategic, long-term plans for India. And Canada today needs India more than India needs Canada. But will Canadians do what is required to really make India the partner that it could be, and should be, for Canada?

My experience with our trade services globally has been excellent. We have a hard-working, dedicated group of trade commissioners. The best thing our politicians can do is give a clear mandate and resources to do everything possible to expand our relationships with those markets significant to Canada's future.

Our previous government, under prime minister Stephen Harper and trade minister Ed Fast, was known for free-trade agreements. Mr. Fast often referred to the many deals signed by the Conservatives. But despite all those announcements, our international trade has not grown at an exceptional rate over the past five years.

Why? Because it is not about how many markets you enter, but about what markets are truly significant to your future. In other words, focus most on the markets with the greatest potential. It's obvious to me that India is a "must" market for Canada and that we need to begin to behave in a manner that clearly demonstrates to India that we are serious about the relationship.

This is why it's crucial for our political representatives to engage with India. I also respectfully suggest that there is a need to better co-ordinate our efforts and to build a comprehensive Canada-India trade strategy. It will not be built overnight, but the commitment to ensuring that Canada has the infrastructure, trade and immigration policies necessary to support dynamic East-West trade is essential to Canada's economic future.

Three sectors that should be part of this strategy are:

  • the information technology/nanotechnology area, building on the leading-edge capabilities in Ontario’s Waterloo and Kanata tech hubs;
  • engineering and civil engineering, including clean technology and green infrastructure, to help fight climate change; and
  • university education, promoting the exchange of students and professors, leveraging research in health care, pharma and medical equipment, to name a few.

We must stop being a fast follower in the Indian market, and instead, choose to lead.