In 2014, the Narendra Modi-led Government came to power with an objective of ‘minimum Government, maximum governance, aimed at showcasing the country as an investment-friendly destination. Thereafter, on various occasions, the Government announced measures to boost private sector investment in the country. To its credit, several high-level policy decisions, like the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code were enacted to improve the business and investment environment. However, the major test for the Modi-led Government is yet to come.
India is on the cusp of laying the foundation stone for the next digital revolution (Industry 4.0). Industry 4.0, synonymous with the digital economy, is expected to contribute one trillion dollar to national output by 2022-23. Given the undeniable potential of the digital economy to contribute outsize growth, it is incumbent on the Government to adopt a delicate, evidence-based approach to put in place an appropriate regulatory architecture that ensures the country reaps full dividends from Industry 4.0.
However, emergent policy recommendations in the past few weeks indicate that the Government is handling the nascent digital economy with a 20th century mindset. These include recommendations of the Committee of Experts, led by Justice (retd) BN Srikrishna, the draft e-commerce ‘policy’ and the draft report of the Working Group on Cloud Computing — the latter two, as reported by the media, amply illustrate the perils of a dated mindset.
For starters, the decision-making process of all the three have remained opaque and had negligible representation from private organisation, let alone investors. Therefore, the final outcome of these groups has been skewed towards one direction, while ignoring the consideration of other stakeholders, in particular investors. For instance, despite highlighting the economic cost and concomitant adverse impact on the start-up ecosystem associated with data localisation in a white paper, the final recommendation of the BN Srikrishna committee endorses the same. Similar provisions for localisation have found their way in Cloud computing recommendations as well as the draft e-commerce policy. It is important to note that storage of data in India would not mean access to that data by local entities. Additionally, such measures can exacerbate cyber-security risks by compelling enterprises to invest in increasing data storage capacity, while apportioning fewer resources to ensure adequate security controls.
Furthermore, voices for protectionism, which are reminiscent of the discourse during the 1991 reforms, are getting louder. Particularly with respect to the draft e-commerce policy, a document, which besides guiding India’s position at the international trade fora, is aimed at promoting the domestic e-commerce ecosystem. This policy will implicate all aspects of the digital economy, and have a key role to play in India’s preparation for the emergent digital revolution.
However, protectionist voices have argued that the Government should formulate different rules for foreign and domestic companies, citing that availability of abundant capital with foreign companies could kill domestic entrepreneurship.
India has come a long way from considering investments as a bail out to solve external payment crises, to recognising that investments bring with them growth and employment, and consequently make a significant contribution to the economy at large. Constant liberalisation of the foreign investment regime in the country is an example of this approach.
Nonetheless, while dealing with digital economy, a constant international best practice which is cited by protectionist voices is that of China. The question to ask is: Can India afford to adopt the Chinese approach? Currently, India’s share in global value chains (GVC) is estimated to be less than two per cent, while China’s share is in double digits. Importantly, China’s peculiar political and economic outlook makes its policies inimitable. For instance, most Chinese players in the digital economy have been supported by state-led investments.
Unlike China, India neither has the economic footprint to deter other countries from taking restrictive reciprocal measures, nor are our entrepreneurs and businesses supported by public sector finance. On the contrary, foreign capital has played a vital role in providing India’s home-grown digital companies like, Ola and Paytm, a global stage. Introducing onerous regulatory conditions and uncertainty could impact the trust of the investors in India as a promising and stable digital market, consequently damaging the image of the country as an investment-friendly destination.
Therefore, it is important that future policy-making is based on economic considerations and on evidence rather than myopic political considerations. Additionally, the need of the hour is to take a nuanced approach with respect to policies which are expected to impact India’s economic aspirations in the coming decade. Given that the 2019 Lok Sabha election are around the corner, the Modi Government will be under pressure to succumb to various protectionist demands. It should take care to avoid such pitfalls if it is to reap economic dividends in its second-term in power which it projects to win.
(The writer is Legal Associate, Koan Advisory Group)