Home » India’s aim to tighten e-com rules faces internal gov’t dissent

India’s aim to tighten e-com rules faces internal gov’t dissent

India’s plan to tighten rules on its fast-growing e-commerce market has run into internal government dissent, memos reviewed by Reuters news agency show, with the Ministry of Finance describing some proposals as “excessive” and “without economic rationale”.

The memos offer a rare glimpse of high-stakes policy-making governing a market already featuring global retail heavyweights from Amazon to Walmart, plus domestic players like Reliance Industries and Tata Group. The sector is forecast by Grant Thornton to be worth $188bn by 2025.

It is not clear how the objections from the finance ministry – a dozen in total – will ultimately be reflected in the proposed rule changes, first floated in June. But watchers of the influential government arm say its complaints will not fall on deaf ears in the upper echelons of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration.

“The Ministry of Finance raising such concerns would likely spur a rethink of the policy,” said Suhaan Mukerji, managing partner at India’s PLR Chambers, a law firm that specialises in public policy issues.

India in June shocked the e-commerce world with proposals from its Ministry of Consumer Affairs that sought to limit “flash sales”, rein in a push to promote private-label brands and raise scrutiny of relationships between online marketplace operators and their vendors. The government has so far not announced a timeline to implement the new rules.

Though the rules were announced after complaints from brick-and-mortar retailers about alleged unfair practices of foreign companies, they also drew protest from Tata Group, with more than $100bn in revenue, which is planning an e-commerce expansion.

But the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and the federal think-tank NITI Aayog – an active player in policy-making – have all raised objections in memos reviewed by Reuters, saying the proposals go far beyond their stated aim of protecting consumers and also lack regulatory clarity.

An August 31 memo from the finance ministry’s Department of Economic Affairs said the rules appeared “excessive” and would hit a sector that could boost job creation as well as tax revenue.

“The proposed amendments are likely to have significant implications/restrictions on a sunrise sector and ‘ease of doing business’,” said the three-page memo. “Care needs to be taken to ensure that the proposed measures remain ‘light-touch regulations’.”

The ministry did not respond to the requests for comment from Reuters.

‘Unpredictability’ in policy-making

The proposed rules push to increase scrutiny of Indian e-commerce platforms and their vendors [File: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

Voicing its objections on July 6, NITI Aayog’s Vice Chairman, Rajiv Kumar, wrote to Piyush Goyal, who is the minister for commerce as well as consumer affairs, saying the rules could hit small businesses.

“Moreover, they send the message of unpredictability and in-consistency in our policy-making,” Kumar wrote in the letter, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters.

Minister Goyal and NITI Aayog’s Kumar did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

The Ministry of Consumer Affairs, which drafted the rules, also did not respond. Its secretary, Leena Nandan, this month told Indian media that “wide and varied diverse views” had been expressed on the proposed new rules by stakeholders, but that there was no timeline for any announcement on their implementation.

The arguments put forth by the Ministry of Finance and NITI Aayog are in line with concerns raised by sector operators, and even the US government. They say New Delhi has in recent years changed e-commerce policies too often and taken a hardline regulatory approach that especially hurts American players.

But Minister Goyal and brick-and-mortar retailers disagree, and have repeatedly said big US firms have bypassed Indian laws and their practices hurt small retailers.

The Ministry of Consumer Affairs said the new rules were aimed to “further strengthen the regulatory framework” and were issued after complaints of “widespread cheating and unfair trade practices being observed in the e-commerce ecosystem”.

‘Revisit’ basic business models

But the proposals have met with resistance in more than one ministry.

In a July 22 memo, the Ministry of Corporate Affairs objected to one proposed clause to be enshrined in new rules that says e-commerce firms should not abuse their dominant position in India. The ministry said the provision was “unnecessary and superfluous”, and that the subject was best handled by India’s antitrust watchdog.

“It is undesirable to introduce a mini-competition law regime in the consumer” rules, said the memo. The Ministry of Corporate Affairs did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

The Ministry of Finance has taken a much harder stance on the proposals and raised a total of 12 objections.

Among them, it said, a proposal that makes online shopping websites liable for its sellers’ mistakes would be a “huge dampener” and could force companies “to revisit their basic business models”.

It also lodged a protest against the banning of flash sales, which see deep discounts on offer on websites like Amazon and are popular during festive seasons.

“This is a normal trade practice. The proposed restriction … seems without economic rationale,” the ministry wrote.

Leave a Reply