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Weird as it may sound, despite the rhetoric around innovation and private entrepreneurship being key for growth, this is not the consistent message emanating from government policy and regulations. Here are three examples.
Ideological neutrality versus enlarging access to the internet
First, consider that TRAI caved-in, in February 2016 to the “shrill voices” demanding that Facebook/Internet.org be stopped from offering free basic (limited) internet. The wooly thinking behind this decision was that Facebook- a deep pocket player- could thereby lure users to the Free Basics site- dubbed by activists as a walled garden, from which there would be no escape. Customers would be so entranced by the scented garden, that they would never wish to explore anything beyond the limited products on display within. This may have pleased Facebook- the description of Free Basics closely matching what heaven must be like- but they upped stakes and left.
Foreign companies make easy targets
Most likely Free Basics, a foreign venture, was just an easy target. TRAI probably played to the home grown, software industry – represented by NASSCOM- which was up in arms against the foreign interloper. But it is the consumer who lost out- particularly those at the margin of attaining internet access. These millions could have been in a free walled garden. Today they continue to wander through the dust of an internet less but limitless, real desert.
The economic cost of banning access to free basic internet
ICRIER, a Delhi based think tank, is assessing the economic cost of not providing internet access through a nineteen state survey. Preliminary assessments show that there is a significant increase in GDP by adding more users to the internet. The, un-confirmed, upper-bound assessment could be an astounding additional GDP growth of around 2.5% if the number of internet users are increased by 16%. This is exactly what Free Basics would have done. But they have been thwarted by rules, which adversely impact competition, jobs and wealth creation via innovation.
Restraining private equity funds from attracting customers to e-market platforms
Sadly, this is not the only example. Yet another instance of rules which increase the transaction cost of doing business for innovators, rather than reducing it is the new FDI regulations permitting 100% foreign equity in e-commerce market platforms. Whilst the relaxed FDI limit is progressive, the additional constraints it comes with are not. One condition is that no supplier should have more than a 25% share in sales on the platform. Another condition is that the market platform must not influence retail prices.
e-market platforms are not stock exchanges
The government’s conception of an e-commerce platform seems to closely resemble a stock exchange, which is hands off aggregator and facilitator for matching demand and supply. Why then would we need more than one such e- commerce platform – since profits lie in scaling up operations? God forbid if the next step is to specify that the market platform must be co-operatively owned by all the suppliers.
Lip sympathy for bricks and mortar retailers
The underlying concern behind the restrictive concerns seem be that e-commerce market places should not disrupt the business of stand-alone bricks and mortar retailers by offering deep discounts, using private equity funds, to grab market share. True private equity driven scaling up can bankrupt inefficient and under- funded retailers. But isn’t it in the nature of business to remain efficient via disruption? Government needs to concern itself not with the fortunes of individual businesses but the aggregate health of the retail sector- employment and customer services provided. Instead of protecting individual jobs, government must grow the total number of jobs recognizing that innovation- by definition, is disruptive of the status quo.
In any case rules to artificially maintain the status quo are rarely effective. They can be undermined and evaded. That is not the concern. The real concern is the adverse impact, that impractical rules have on the innovation eco-system. Innovators and their financiers, expose themselves to enormous business risk. The last thing they need, as an add-on transaction cost, is the risk from uncertain regulation.
Why extend the broken business eco-system of legacy industries?
There is also the issue of the attracting the wrong kind of innovators and private equity- those who are adept at working within a tightly regulated regime using the nod-wink approach to compliance with rules. This was a key qualification for doing business in India earlier. It should not be allowed to become the norm in e-commerce also.
We acclaim IIT/IIM graduates who are courageous enough to start their own e-business. But why tie their hands behind their backs from the start by forcing them to be dishonest; by requiring them to innovate a business model which will hood wink the law. And what about the potential risk that these illogical regulations may be tightened further. For example, prescription of rigorous tests for a Chinese wall between the e-market platform and the suppliers with respect to shareholding; a ban on inter-company loans from cash rich platform developers to suppliers to avoid the short circuiting of the discount ban by setting up shadow, intermediate whole-sellers between the market platform and the actual suppliers.
Most importantly, the desire to tick the box on allowing 100% FDI in marketing platforms whilst mollifying the lobby of bricks and mortar retailers, has derailed the existing eco-system for innovation in e-commerce. Rather than getting out of their way, the government has ended up increasing the potential nuisance from the new regulations. This is not a healthy environment for promoting innovation.
Remember the boom in private IT and telecom business?
The spectacular IT growth since the 1990s was the result of facilitation rather than intrusive regulation. Similarly, the telecom industry grew exponentially post-2000, because the quality of regulation was light handed and promoted competition rather than intrusive regulation of business processes and pricing of retail services.
Electricity – the limitations of intrusive regulation
In sharp contrast, the electricity supply industry has intrusive cost of service based retail price regulation. The results are before us. Despite three separate schemes, since 2000, to restructure the stressed loans of electricity distribution companies, they still comprise a quarter of the non-performing assets of public sector banks. Whether privatization of electricity distribution in 2000- as was envisaged then- along with liberalization of the energy supply chain, could have had happier results, is in the realm of speculation. But intrusive regulation has not helped one bit in restoring the sectors health.
The consistent lesson is that less government is better governance. This was PM Modi’s rallying principle. One only wishes that he would make someone, who has his ear, responsible for alerting him every time government departs from this golden rule.