India currently faces multiple headwinds to industrial growth. These include muted private investment, protectionism emanating from OECD countries, and growing automation within production supply chains. In this context, GoI has done well to signal positive intent and political will to keep the economic engine churning by improving the business environment.
Commerce minister Suresh Prabhu’s revitalisation of the commerce agenda exemplifies this constructive approach.
India’s institutions, with their capacity deficits and coordination failures, require precisely this form of hands-on leadership where the prohibitive barriers posed by the need for inter-ministerial coordination are absent.
One area that fits squarely within the commerce ministry’s domain is FDI policy, a low-hanging fruit for Prabhu. The caveat is that some sector-specific FDI policies are jeopardised by legacy policy positions of other line ministries. Nevertheless, a large share of FDI in recent years has accrued to the services sector.
India’s economic growth seems increasingly contingent on a policy environment that supports investments at critical intersections of global value chains (GVCs) — such as services that add value to manufacturing, or those that facilitate better access to international markets.
All of this necessarily means more consultative reforms, and less idiosyncratic bureaucracy. The Single Brand Retail Trading (SBRT) policy announced earlier this year is the most visible example of the dissonance between 21st-century goals and a20th-century mindset. While this policy allows 100% FDI into singlebrand retail through the automatic route (the earlier limit was 49%), it falters on nuance.
For example, the erstwhile policy had prescribed that 30% of goods purchased by the retailer receiving FDI must be sourced domestically. While promoting local companies is a laudable goal, the means to achieve this was flawed. Little interest in new investment or manufacturing was generated.
Consequently, the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion allowed retailers to offset local sourcing norms through exports. This step allows brands retailing their own products to source locally from India and integrate with GVCs. There’s just one glitch: the policy allows this only for an arbitrary period of five years.
Why switch to domestic procurement after five years? Why not promote manufacturing-linked exports as a specific category to offset domestic procurement requirements?
Bureaucrats, in all their wisdom, have also introduced a concept of ‘incremental sourcing’, which is impossible to interpret. It suggests that the percentage of sourcing in every year will be entirely discounted in the following year. So, companies would have to grow exponentially every year just to keep up with the exports-equivalent of the sourcing requirement. More importantly, this would automatically disqualify any company that intends to invest in new facilities and begin operations at full capacity.
Why treat value-added activity the same as trading? Further, incremental sourcing may work with one sector, and not with another. This is another failure to appreciate nuance. Perhaps there is an ex ante expectation that retail brands will not make large manufacturing investments (as they would have to start operations at scale, and not incrementally). This is a flawed expectation.
The logic behind allowing FDI in SBRT is to create the right incentives for domestic manufacturing, not the conditions for policy arbitrage by firms only interested in some form of trading. There is an opportunity here to signal a preference and strategic coherence. Companies should be encouraged to make in India, and export to the world.
The policy also restricts offsetting through entities that are not directly related, or a part of, the group companies that have received FDI. Nearly all global corporations work through agents and franchisees to complete specialised functions, such as manufacturing, retailing and exports.
GVCs are replete with examples of exceptionally sophisticated, multientity supply chains. So, the fear of policy misuse should be addressed through appropriate indemnifications and penalties in case of breach, rather than guidance on how to structure compliance.
Also, the policy ostensibly links the prospects of e-commerce retail to the opening of brick-and-mortar stores first, contradicting the very basis of GoI’s ‘Digital India’ programme. Investing in online business should be encouraged, not delayed.
Prabhu expects India’s GDP to touch $5 trillion within a decade. He expects asignificant share of this growth to come from efficiencies born of better logistics and digitisation. He intends to leverage India’s growing internal market, pool of tech-savvy workers and rapid digitalisation, towards enhanced integration into GVCs. Bureaucrats in the commerce ministry would do well to support this vision. And they can begin with fixing extant FDI policies.
**Saran and Sharan are vice-president and visiting fellow, respectively, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.