Karan Bilimoria: The First Parsi in Britain's House of Lords
Even though he is one of the youngest members in the Britain’s House of Lords, yet India-born Karan Bilimoria stands out among his peers. This young Indian Lord wears many hats. His credentials as an eminent educationist are simply impeccable; he is the first ever Indian Chancellor of the University of Birmingham and also chairs the advisory board of the Cambridge Judge Business School. As president of the UK Council for International Student Affairs that represents nearly 450,000 international students, he plays a significant role vis-à-vis foreign students.
Born into a family of army veterans, his schooling was scattered across quite a few cantonments across the country where his father was posted from time to time. Not only that, he also has had part of his schooling in England when his father was a military attaché at the Indian High Commission. In a way, his upbringing in that multi-cultural milieu had given him a certain catholic persona.
When Karan was appointed in 2006 as a cross-bench peer in the House of Lords, he was just about 44 and almost like a “Baby” in that august assembly where the average age is 69. He is really proud of having become a Lord without any political support or a godfather.
Over the past 11 years, he has spoken in the House on numerous occasions with an intense passion on issues that were dear to his heart. Among those was his strong advocacy for Remaining in the European Union as against Leaving it. Unfortunately, the June 2016 referendum decided by 51.89% votes to Leave the European Union. But Bilimoria is still unconvinced and calls the Brexit’s decision a big blunder.
Another o favourite issue that he passionately and successfully advocated was the grant of two-year post graduate work visas to foreign graduates. Happily, this was agreed to and introduced in 2007. One more important issue that he had fervently pleaded was “to stop the practice of categorizing international students as immigrants”. He has also been instrumental in getting ex-Gorkha servicemen from the British Army the right to permanently remain in the United Kingdom; it was an emotional issue with him since he grew up with Gorkhas as his father was with one of the Gorkha regiments in the Indian Army.
In an email interview with RAJ KANWAR, veteran journalist and columnist, Lord Karan speaks about his contribution in the House of Lords towards making the debates more productive and enriching. He talks about the long-term and short-term impact of British economy in general in the wake of Brexit decision.
Q. Now that you have been a Peer at the House of Lords for nearly 11 years, what do you consider as your major achievement or contribution to making the debates more productive and enriching?
I am the first Zoroastrian Parsi to take a seat in the House of Lords and it is a privilege to represent the Zoroastrian community in Parliament. In 1987, there were just three ethnic minority MPs and one ethnic minority peer in Parliament. Soon, we will be approaching 100 in numbers, making a huge and diverse contribution to Parliament and British life.
I have been able to contribute in debates that brought about changes in many areas. These include (i) secured for foreign graduates two-year post-graduation work visas, (ii) strongly pleaded that the international students must not be categorized as immigrants, (iii) helped Gorkha ex-servicemen to successfully claim the right to remain in the United Kingdom, (iv) spoke on defence and security related issues, (v) actively participated in debates on India, the Britain’s economy, financial budget, higher education and about the reform of the House of Lords. It is a wonderful feeling how one can challenge the government, scrutinize legislation, initiate change and really make a difference.
Q.What will be short-term and long-term impact on British economy in general after its exit from the European Union?
It is a big blunder and would cause a long term adverse impact on British economy in general. In the short-term, we will be driving away bright talent and investors from the booming economy we have available in the UK. The number of foreign students coming into UK will substantially fall, and our economy and society thus will be denied the benefits that would have accrued by the presence of some of the brightest and the best students. We will be worse off without the jobs and the wealth that international students support and bring. It needs to be noted that all this add up to £25.8 billion in value to the UK economy and support over 220,000 jobs. In April, a poll in The Times found that a greater proportion, 45 per cent of the British public, think the decision to trigger Article 50 and leave the European Union was a mistake. I sincerely believe, as the negotiations evolve over the coming two years that it will become increasingly apparent to the British public that we would be far better off in every way staying in the EU, being in the Single Market, being in the Customs Union, having access to the very valuable EU workforce with skills at all levels, as well as membership of the EU adding to the security of the country together with our membership of NATO.
Q.At age 44 in 2006, you were considered a ‘Baby’ in the House of Lords where the average age is 69. Do you still retain that distinction?
I have a close relationship with other Peers in the House of Lords. Fortunately, there are no age distinctions in the House and my role over the past few years is fully recognized. Though I am still one of the younger members, we are all equal as Peers and I have friends across all age groups – from Peers younger than me to those who are nonagenarians. The House of Lords has the greatest depth and breadth of experience of any chamber in the world. There is a combination of wisdom from years of experience and the Peers bring to bear upon their real-world understanding in discussing numerous issues.
Q.How do you apportion and divide your time among your obligations as a member of the House of Lords, Chancellor of Birmingham University, head honcho and co-founder at Cobra Beer? It must be a difficult juggling exercise! Say something about your wife Heather and children. How much time do you spend with them?
I am so privileged to have the opportunity which Britain has given me to establish a business from scratch which has huge growth potential, and also to be able to play a role in the UK as the first Indian Chancellor of a university in Britain. I am also passionate about UK-India relations in my role as founding Chairman of the UK-India Business Council.
What always comes first is my family, which is a top priority, spending time with my wife, Heather, and our children including our son Kai, who is an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge. I am proud to see him often in Cambridge where I often visit to chair advisory board meetings at the Judge Business School and where I am also an Honorary Fellow at Sidney Sussex College, my own alma mater.
Our older daughter Zara will be starting at university soon, though we do not yet know where. our younger son is at Eton and it is good to watch his progress. Our youngest daughter is starting at senior school; at this stage, we are not sure which. We travel around the world together including India, where my Mother and brother live in Dehra Dun. We also spend time visiting the family in South Africa from where my wife comes.
(Raj Kanwar is a Dehra Dun-based writer and author).