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Emulating Reliance amidst Covid? Top corporates 'refusing' to invest in big projects

By NS Venkataraman* 
With the Covid-19 pandemic causing severe setbacks to the national economy and upsetting the Government of India’s proactive and forward looking programmes, and the Government of India seeking to retrieve the economy and restore it on the way forward, there is the need to boost consumption in the country.
This can happen only by ensuring large scale investments in new projects and expansion of existing ones, both in the manufacturing and services sector, that would boost job opportunities and increase per capita income and buying power of the people.
It is necessary that manufacturing capacities should be built up in medium and large scale sectors in diversified fields, that will inevitably lead to the setting up of several small scale and mini scale units and ancillary industries. It is a pre-condition that employment oriented small and medium scale units can come up, only if manufacturing capacity would be built up in large and medium scale sector.
In spite of financial constraints and fiscal deficits, the Government of India has taken some measures to give a boost to infrastructure projects such as road and bridge constructions etc. Many reform measures have been introduced to encourage investment by private sector companies. There have been efforts to respond to suggestions and criticisms from the industry to remove bottlenecks.
It is making profit making public sector companies in the manufacturing sector to invest in new projects and expansion of capacities. In the last few years, most of the big projects that have been announced and are being implemented in the country are largely by the public sector organisations and the government initiated infrastructure projects.
Revival of five ,large closed urea fertiliser projects and coal based methanol projects are among those, which are being planned and set up in the public sector now. But what role is the private sector playing? It is conspicuous that there is sort of lack of enthusiasm for making investments by private sector companies.
While it is true that a number of private sector units in the medium and small scale sector have incurred losses due to Covid-19 pandemic, it is also true that quite a number of them, particularly in the petrochemical, agrochemical, pharmaceutical and software sectors, have shown good performance, and profit generation has been reasonable in the last few years. Quite a number of them have not suffered losses even during Covid-19 period.
There are a number of such cash rich companies in the private sector today, yet unfortunately, they are waiting and watching without coming out with investment proposals. A number of proposals that have been announced are largely on paper with little dynamism shown by private companies to accelerate the pace of progress.
Reliance Industries, a large petrochemical company, diverting its attention to the communications sector and retail marketing, instead of making big investments in the manufacturing sector. It reflects the attitude of the private sector managements to some extent. Until recently, Reliance Industries had been projecting itself as a game changer and model company for dynamism in setting up manufacturing projects of globally competitive size.
After building an image of itself as a company focused in the manufacturing sector, Reliance Industries has, in fact, taken a U turn and is focusing heavily on non-manufacturing activity. This volteface of Reliance Industry has contributed to shake the confidence of the private sector project promoters. To this extent, Reliance Industries has been responsible for upsetting the investment mood in the private manufacturing sector.
These days, we see a number of profit making manufacturing companies in the private sector diversifying into the real estate business and hospitality sector and even mutual fund business. A good model for them from Reliance Industries!
In recent years, the country has also seen a few large domestic manufacturing units stopping the production completely and importing the same product for trading in the Indian market. By way of explanation, such companies argue that they make more money by importing and trading rather than manufacturing and this is a pragmatic management decision to boost the income and profit. 
Obviously, the superior option of optimizing the process parameters, reducing the production cost and adopting strategic marketing exercise to improve the performance do not seem to appeal to these units. 
There are certainly enormous investment opportunities in India today in several fields including in the chemical, petrochemical , agrochemical sector as well as in the active pharma ingredients (API). These opportunities are not being availed and exploited by the private sector companies.
Facing constraints, China invited overseas technology and investment in a big way few decades back. It can be a good model for India
India is now becoming a net importer of several chemicals and allied products as well as pharmaceuticals, electronic products and consumer goods where domestic demand is increasing steadily and domestic capacities are not being built. For example, India is importing more than two million tonne of methanol per annum and more than 1.8 million tonne per annum of polyvinyl chloride. (PVC).
Many other similar examples can readily be shown. In all such cases, there are certainly possibilities of adopting suitable strategies in tune with the prevailing conditions in India to boost investment and capacity expansion.
In all such cases, what is clearly seen is the failure of the private sector to develop innovative schemes appropriate to Indian conditions and set up internationally competitive projects.

Investment constraint?

It is certainly not true that constraints in the investment capability of the private sector is the basic reason for their lack of interest in forging ahead with new investment projects. Certainly, resource mobilisation is not an unmanageable issue for appropriate projects.
The recent public issues of a number of private companies have received overwhelming response for viable and attractive projects. Further, overseas investments can be tapped for projects that are relevant to the present and futuristic conditions, if such projects can be competently identified and proposed for participation as joint ventures by private sector companies.
A number of multinational companies are willing to invest in India, particularly after the uncertainty with regard to investment possibilities in China due to the present global scenario. In such conditions, the initiatives have to be taken by the private sector managements to identify the investment opportunities in diversified fields and invite multinational companies to join as joint venture partners.  Private sector companies are not doing this adequately and are letting go of the opportunities.
It is also true that in the technology front, Indian R&D efforts have been poor and disappointing. Several thousands of crore of rupees spent by the Government of India over the years in supporting research activities in public and private sector research institutes , in universities etc. have shown dismal results. Indian project promoters are not in a position to depend on Indian technology to set up medium and large scale projects.
In the field of design and detailed engineering too , the capability of Indian companies are not adequate and does not create confidence. For example, India has around 30 operating urea fertilizer projects for several years now but India still has to import technology from abroad for setting up new urea projects.
In the case of medium and large scale projects, India has to seek technology support from abroad. One cannot point out a single case of Indian companies setting up large capacity projects with domestic technology and engineering expertise.
While such are the conditions, there is no constraint in acquiring technology from abroad and lack of domestic technologies need not be a constraint in setting up new projects in several cases.
In fact, there seems to be a mindset issue and attitudinal problem amongst the private sector managements in the country. Many discerning observers are of the view that the private project promoters seem to be more focused on finding reasons for advancing excuses rather than finding solutions for the problems with national pride in mind and determination to forge ahead.
On the other hand, they seem to be looking for easy options, which is costing the country dearly.
It is high time that industry associations need to recognize the inadequate role of the private sector in boosting investments in recent years. Industry associations should clearly bring to the attention of the members about the fact that private sector companies are not playing their role adequately to meet the expectations of the country.
A few decades back, the investment climate in China by the private sector was similar to what is now prevailing in India. China adopted the policy of inviting overseas technologies and investments in a big way a few decades back and the private sector in China responded with enthusiasm and co operated with the overseas companies by way of technology acquisition and joint venture projects. The impressive e results are seen today. China’s strategies can be good model for India.
It has to be recognized that the corporate planning functions are not given due importance even by medium and large scale companies in India and “dedicated think tanks” have not been set up to constantly look for new opportunities, keeping track of domestic and global developments and suggesting appropriate strategies from time to time to forge ahead.
As such dedicated think tanks have not been constituted by many companies, identification of new project opportunities in tune with the technology developments and marketing practices have become a difficult exercise for many Indian companies.
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*Director, Nandini Consultancy Centre, Chennai

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