Do We Really Need the “Approval” Route?
The announcement in the Budget Speech that the Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) is going to be wound down in 2017-18, has led to speculation amongst consultants, lawyers, foreign investors and the media as to what will take its place. After all, the FIPB, an institution that has been around for more than two decades, epitomises, inter alia, the “government approval” route for foreign investment in sensitive sectors and has been the bedrock of the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) Policy. It has been the “go-to” body for approvals, clarifications, waivers of conditions and post facto approvals of transgressions, etc.
After successive liberalisations, the “approval route “ now accounts for only 10% or so of the FDI inflows and, therefore, the real question to ask should not be as to how or which agency(ies) will give the required approval for FDI in the sensitive sectors, but whether approval is required at all. Following from my earlier blog piece on “FIPB – The Sunset Year”, I would like to make the case that in the sectors, currently still under the FIPB route as per the contours of the FDI policy, an FDI approval per se is not required at all.
FDI Approval an Additional Layer
First, it may be observed that in the approval route sectors, the FIPB approval forms only one layer of approval, even though the FIPB process is indeed “single window” (in the sense that it brings all the stakeholders to the table). There is another very vital approval required from the administrative ministry, the regulator or the licensor concerned, which gives the operating license/approval. This includes the allocation of the resource (spectrum/ airwaves/mine etc.) as per the laid down procedures. This is true for all the extant FIPB mandated sectors viz. mining, telecom, defence, media, etc, except single brand and multi-brand trading (this has been discussed later). The policy also prescribes follow-on FIPB approvals for changes in ownership, additional capital etc in these “licensed sectors”. The need for engagement by two separate government layers is clearly debatable.
Foreign Ownership is Not a Concern
Second, also as a result of the periodic liberalisation of the FDI Policy, the sectoral cap in nearly all the approval route sectors has gone up progressively along the usual pattern of 26% to 49% to 51% over the years and now stands at 74% or even 100% in some cases. This clearly implies that in respect of these sectors, where the FDI sectoral cap is at 51% or above, there are no real concerns as regards to foreign ownership and control of entities from a sectoral perspective. In such a situation, therefore, the exact percentage of foreign investment in an entity becomes merely a matter of record, rather than one requiring a formal approval from a high powered government inter-ministerial body.