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FDI in the Retailing Sector- Pros and Cons

Most Countries of the World which embarked on the road to economic development had to depend on foreign capital to some extent. But until the early 1990s India’s approach towards foreign capital as an instrument of growth and development in an overall sense was rigid, restrictive and selective. Things, however, changed with the Industrial Policy 1991.Coming on the heels of the macro –economic and balance
of payment crisis of late 1980s, it ushered in a paradigm shift in the Indian economy and over bent to cajole foreign capital to come to India. The beginning made by the Industrial Policy 1991 in the direction of inviting foreign capital has increasingly been gaining momentum with new sectors especially retail being made eligible, with almost each subsequent year, for foreign capital writes Hemant Batra.


The most important channel through which foreign capital flows into the country is Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). FDI as defined in Dictionary of Economics (Graham Bannock et.al) is “investment in a foreign country through the acquisition of a local company or the establishment there of an operation on a new (Greenfield) site.  International Monetary Organization (IMF) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) define FDI as  a category of cross border investment made by a resident in one economy (the direct investor) with the objective of establishing a ‘lasting interest’ in an enterprise (the direct investment enterprise) that is resident in an economy other than that of the direct investor. The motive of the direct investor is a strategic long term relationship with the direct investment enterprise to ensure significant degree of influence in the management of the direct investment enterprise .Besides, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) also provide definition of Foreign Direct Investment. To put in simple words, FDI refers to capital inflows from abroad that is invested in or to enhance the production capacity of the economy. It is preferred over other source of foreign capital because it is non-volatile, non-debt creating and results in economic development, modernization and employment generation in the economy.

Foreign Direct Investment under the Industrial Policy 1991 and thereafter under different Foreign Trade Policies is being allowed in different sectors of the economy in different proportion under either the Government route or Automatic Route.  In Retailing, presently 51 per cent FDI is allowed in single brand retail through the Government Approval route while 100 per cent FDI is allowed in the cash-and-carry (wholesale) formats under the Automatic route. Under the Government Approval route, proposal for FDI in ‘Single Brand Product Retailing’ are received in the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, Ministry of Commerce & Industry. Automatic route dispenses with the need of multiple approvals from Government and/or regulatory agencies (Government of India or the RBI). Investors are required only to notify the concerned Regional offices of RBI within 30 days of receipt of inward remittances and file required documents with that office within 30 days of the issue of shares to foreign investors

The legal regimes that controls FDI in India and to that extent FDI in retailing includes Press Notes by Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, Foreign Exchange Management Act 1999, Guidelines  of Reserve Bank of India(RBI) and Security and Exchange Board of India, besides, of course, the Constitution of India. India’s large and ever growing population coupled with a paucity of profitable economic opportunities make “labor intensive” activities like Agriculture and Retailing a major source of subsistence for the teeming millions especially the poor unskilled labor, superfluous labor and the educated unemployed. Therefore, any change that tend to disturb the existing configuration of these two sectors have a bearing on the lives of millions of these people and raises sharp public outcry and to that extent FDI in Agriculture and Retailing has always been a contentious issue. Of late, the Government of India has expressed its desire to bring the Multi-Brand retailing within the ambit of FDI, and in the process has put in train a debate on its possible outcome. This short paper proposes to examine the conflicting view points of this debate so as to arrive at a balanced conclusion.

FDI in the retailing sector in India

Retailing in India as also elsewhere in the world is divided into organized and unorganized retailing. Organized retailing refers to trade activities undertaken by the licensed retailers i,e,  those who are registered for sales tax, income tax etc. These include the corporate backed hypermarket, retail chains and also the privately owned large retail business. Unorganized retailing, on the other hand, refers to traditional format of low cost retailing, for example the corner store (kirana i.e. grocery shops),owner manned general stores, Cigarette shops, convenience store, hand cart, pavement vendor etc. Unorganized retailing is the most prolific and visible form of retailing in India while the organized retailing constitutes only a very small percentage (3-4%). The reasons as to why Indian retailing is so fragmented or unorganized in nature lies in her entrenched poverty and the fact that a large number of educated unemployed and superfluous labor takes refuge in retailing in the face of joblessness and glaring poverty.

Retailing in unorganized sector is thus not a profit oriented vocation but a mere source of livelihood. Naturally, the capital investment is very low and the infrastructure is rudimentary. It is estimated that less than 4% of Indian retailers have shops larger than 500 square feet. Given this rickety state of Indian unorganized retailing, there are serious apprehensions that the flow of organized foreign capital with its associated baggage of humungous infrastructure, bulging financial power professional managerial staffs etc, would sound the death knell for the Indian retailing industry. As against most Indian retailers’ less than 500 square feet premises, the average size of a store of Wall-mart (American Retailing Giant)   is 85000 square feet and has an average annual turnover of $51 million as opposed to an average Indian retailer’s paltry turnover of Rs.186, 000. Further, it is feared that the international retailing giants will resort to predatory pricing to acquire monopolies. These retailing giants with their sprawling business cutting across different continents and deep pockets will be able to sustain loss till their competitors are wiped out.

As has been mentioned earlier retailing “disguises” the abysmal nature of unemployment in the country. Indian agriculture has long been a source of livelihood for the teeming millions of the country (provides employment to more than 50% of India’s labor force)   so much so that it is massively over-crowded now. Besides, during the lean season even the productive farmer find themselves unemployed. Although the manufacturing is a labor absorbing sector, its true potential has not been harnessed as yet and it has been stagnating since the tenth five year plan. Retailing helps in absorbing these shocks providing safety-net and opportunities to the superfluous labor to eke out a living where all other sectors have not been able to. Critics fear that the inflow of FDI in retailing will restrict the labor absorbing capacity of the retailing sector since the international retailing giants employ labor saving machinery and knowhow both to add value to their service as well as to enhance their profit. And given the fact that the manufacturing is not in a vibrating state to absorb those who are displaced from the retailing by the advent of FDI, the poor and the unemployed will find the going very difficult for them. There will be a hike in the rate of both unemployment and underemployment.

It has also been said that the domestic organized retailing is underdeveloped and in a nascent stage. Therefore, it is important that the domestic retailing sector is allowed to grow and consolidate first before the sector is opened to FDI. FDI in retailing may also widen the rural -urban divide in the sense that most of the retailing centers would be set up in the cities where both the density of population and level of income of the people are high. These retail centers would also attract cheap labor from the rural areas and thereby deplete the hinterland of its workforce. In addition, organized retailing with FDI would result in bevy of buildings and multiplexes. Unless their constructions are regulated, they will also add to the chaotic muddle of urbanscape.

After having expatiated on the possible pitfalls of allowing FDI in retailing, it is also necessary to understand the distinction between appearance and reality. Much of the prognostication of gloom is based on a theoretical understanding of the situation. In reality, the research conducted by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) has revealed that there is no evidence of overall decline in the employment of the Unorganized retailing sector as a result of the advent of FDI in organized retailing and that the rate of closure of small shops for the same reason is very minimal.

One needs to be holistic in his assessment of the outcome of introducing FDI in Retailing. One of the reasons as to why a vast swath of India’s population is suffering poverty and depravation is that Agricultural sector of the country has not developed appropriately, and the main stumbling block in this regard has been that of inadequate logistics and direct access for farmers to vast markets. FDI in retailing can to a large extent ameliorate these deficiencies. If FDI in front end retailing is allowed, the international retailing giants will be motivated to invest capital, bring in  knowhow and global capacity on a colossal scale and as a result a world class back end infrastructure would be built the like of which may take the government years to make (Though FDI is permitted in backend infrastructure to the extent of 100% through the automatic route, in the absence of FDI in retailing, investment in backend infrastructure has not been so forthcoming) . The foremost beneficiary of such a development would be the farmers, especially those engaged in Horticulture.

Though India is the second largest producer of fruits and vegetables, lack of storage facilities cause heavy losses to farmers. Availability of adequate post harvest and cold chain infrastructure would enable the farmers to avoid wastage and distress sales. The retailers would engage the farmers directly through the contract farming programmes as also resort to direct buying from the farmers which will dilute the role of profit siphoning intermediaries, enhance the income of the farmers and give them direct access to markets. The resultant rural prosperity may open up market for other industrial goods and help bring about a more balanced regional development. 

The Medium and Small Enterprise that plays a critical role in country’s overall manufacturing scenario has lagged and suffered due to lack of branding and avenues to reach out to the vast world market. The international retailers can buy from them not only for the domestic market but for their stores outside the country also and in the process provide the small and medium enterprises of the country a brand name and a window to the international market. In fact, it is estimated that FDI in retailing can significantly increase export from the country. If the domestic organized retailers are allowed to grow to the exclusion of FDI, it may bring about other above mentioned developments but not increase the exports.

FDI can, in fact, spur competition among the organized retailers. The ultimate beneficiary of these competitions would be the consumers. An example of how the consumer benefit from the competition is the automobile industry in India. The intense competition among the automobile industries has resulted in a situation where the consumer has been able to purchase cars for as low a price as rupees one lakh. CRIER in its research has found that all income groups save through organized retail purchase, but the lower income groups save more. Thus, organized retail is relatively more beneficial to the less well-off consumers. A growing and mushrooming retail sector means that its contribution to GDP would grow. It would thus help in expanding the economy, generate employment and result in more tax income.    

In the light of all that have been discussed above it can be said without any dispute that the time for allowing FDI in Multi –Brand Retailing has come and as Victor Hugo has said “Nothing can stop an idea whose time has come”. FDI in Retailing started with FDI in cash and carry wholesale trading first permitted in 1997 to the extent of 100% under the Government approval route and thereafter in 2006 brought under the automatic route. In 2006 again FDI in Single Brand Retailing was permitted to the extent of 51%. From here it is but natural and logical that FDI would now proliferate to multi-brand retailing. But the progression to FDI in multi-brand retailing cannot take place at the cost of vital concerns raised in connection with this possible change by different groups; viz, the question of adaptability of the retailers in the unorganized sector, the question as to how the FDI in retailing can be harnessed for the benefits of Indian agriculture and Medium and Small Enterprise and above all how to impart into the economy a degree of resilience to withstand the changes that would be ushered  in the wake of introduction of FDI in retailing. All these concerns have to be addressed not because the Left wing political parties and the media through their campaign have necessitated such attention but because we are constitutionally bound to do so.

The Preamble of the Constitution resolves to constitute India into a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic, Republic and to secure to all its citizens JUSTICE, social, economic and political …..EQUALITY of status and opportunity. Directive Principles of State Policy similarly exhorts the state to establish just, equitable and fair order. Article 39(c) states that the state should ensure that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment. Though both these features are not enforceable, the Executive and the Apex Court in particular have time and again reiterated the sacrosanct nature of these features [ Kesavananda Bharti v.State of Kerala, AIR 1973 SC1461,1973(4) SCC225; Minerva Mills v. Union  of India,1980 AIR 1789,1981 SCR(1) 2061]

Unlike FDI in single brand retailing which pertains to brand loyal and a relatively small high income clientele, FDI in multi-brand retailing would have direct impact on a vast spectrum of population and thus a sensitive issue. Left alone foreign capital will seek ways through which it can only multiply itself, and unthinking application of capital for profit, given our peculiar socio-economic conditions, may spell doom and deepen the hiatus between the rich and the poor. Thus the proliferation of foreign capital into multi-brand retailing needs to be anchored in such a way that it results in a win-win situation for India. This can be done by integrating into the rules and regulations for FDI in multi-brand retailing certain inbuilt safety valves.

For example FDI in multi –brand retailing can be allowed in a calibrated manner with social safeguards so that the effect of possible labor dislocation can be analyzed and policy fine tuned accordingly. To ensure that the foreign investors make a genuine contribution to the development of infrastructure and logistics, it can be stipulated that a percentage of FDI should be spent towards building up of back end infrastructure, logistics or agro processing units. One of the justifications for introducing FDI in multi-brand retailing is to transform the poverty stricken and stagnating rural sphere into a forward moving and prosperous rural sphere. To actualize this goal it can be stipulated that at least 50% of the jobs in the retail outlet should be reserved for rural youth and that a certain amount of farm produce be procured from the poor farmers.

Similarly to develop our small and medium enterprise, it can also be stipulated that a minimum percentage of manufactured products be sourced from the SME sector in India. Public Distribution System is still in many ways the life line of the people living below the poverty line. To ensure that the system is not weakened the government may reserve the right to procure a certain amount of food grains for replenishing the buffer. The government may also put in place an exclusive regulatory framework to protect the interest of small retailers. It will ensure that the retailing giants do resort to predatory pricing or acquire monopolistic tendencies. Besides, the government and RBI need to evolve suitable policies to enable the retailers in the unorganized sector to expand and improve their efficiencies


The Industrial policy 1991 had crafted a trajectory of change whereby every sectors of Indian economy at one point of time or the other would be embraced by liberalization, privatization and globalization. FDI in multi-brand retailing is in that sense a steady progression of that trajectory. But the government has by far cushioned the adverse impact of the change that has ensued in the wake of the implementation of Industrial Policy 1991 through safety nets and social safeguards. But the change that the movement of retailing sector into the FDI regime would bring about will require more involved and informed support from the government. One hopes that the government would stand up to its responsibility, because what is at stake is the stability of the vital pillars of the economy- retailing, agriculture, and manufacturing. In short, the socio economic equilibrium of the entire country.
HEMANT K. BATRA is the Lead partner of Kaden Boriss Legal LLP and the Vice-President of SAARCLAW. He is also the Chairperson of IICLAM and an Advisory Board Member of OIC USA and India Law Journal.
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