E-Commerce & Retail
Regulatory Framework on FDI in E-Commerce
Regulatory Framework on FDI in E-Commerce
With the stated aim of clarifying the foreign direct investment (‘FDI’) regime for e-commerce activities, the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (‘DIPP’) has issued Press Note No. 3 (2016 Series) on March 29, 2016 (‘Press Note’). Prior to the Press Note, the Consolidated Foreign Direct Investment Policy issued by DIPP (‘FDI Policy’) allowed 100% FDI under the automatic route (i.e. without requiring prior approval of the Government of India) in business to business (B2B) e-commerce activities, but did not permit FDI in multi-brand retail trade activity through online e-commerce. In such a regulatory landscape, the ‘marketplace’ model became popular; under the marketplace model, the marketplace entity provided a technology platform to connect buyers and sellers and did not itself undertake any trading activity. Such entities received FDI without any prior approvals from the Government of India. The regulatory framework for e-commerce has now been altered by the Press Note in the manner discussed below.
- Salient Features
i. FDI up to 100% under the automatic route is now permitted in the ‘marketplace’ model (definition discussed below in paragraph (iv) of the section on New Definitions), subject to certain conditions, including those described below.
ii. FDI is not permitted in the ‘inventory-based’ model (definition discussed below in paragraph (iii) of the section on New Definitions).
iii. Subject to the conditions in the FDI Policy applicable to the services sector and applicable laws / regulations, security and other conditionalities, FDI up to 100% is also permitted, under the automatic route, in entities engaged in the sale of services through e-commerce.
iv. Other noteworthy aspects of the new framework for e-commerce include:
a. the inclusion of goods coupled with services within the purview of e-commerce;
b. the clarification that marketplace entities are permitted to provide ancillary services such as delivery, logistics etc.;
c. marketplace entities not being permitted to have sales of more than 25% from one seller / vendor; and
d. marketplace entities being restricted from directly or indirectly influencing the sale price of goods/ services and being required to maintain a level playing field.
- New Definitions
The Press Note has introduced the following new definitions:
i. E-commerce: E-commerce means “buying and selling of goods and services including digital products over digital & electronic network”.1 The definition of e-commerce includes buying and selling of goods and services (including digital products) within its purview. At the same time, paragraph 3.0 of the Press Note suggests that the services sector is outside the purview of the Press Note and continues to remain eligible for 100% FDI under the automatic route. The interplay of the definition of e-commerce read with paragraph 3.0 of the Press Note suggests that the Press Note may not apply to entities merely providing services including digital products, except where they are buying and selling both, goods and services.
ii. E-commerce Entity: An e-commerce entity has been defined to mean “a company incorporated under the Companies Act, 1956 or the Companies Act, 2013 or a foreign company covered under section 2(42) of the Companies Act, 2013 or an office, branch or agency in India as provided in section 2(v)(iii) of the Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1999, owned or controlled by a person resident outside India and conducting the e-commerce business.”
It is not clear why the Government felt the need to include, within the definition of e-commerce entity, a foreign company or a branch or agency in India, when the conditions in the Press Note are applicable only to FDI investment, which is a very specific route of investment in an Indian incorporated entity under the Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1999 and the rules and regulations notified thereunder ( ‘FEMA Regulations’).
An office or branch of a foreign company is merely a form of presence of the foreign company itself, the establishment and operation of which is separately regulated under FEMA Regulations. This kind of presence i.e. a foreign company or an office, branch or agency of a foreign company in India does not actually receive FDI, and therefore inclusion of these kinds of entities in the Press Note (which is intended to govern conditions for FDI in the e-commerce sector) is unclear. Also, given that the definition is restricted to companies and does not specifically include limited liability partnerships (‘LLP’), it is not clear if it is intended to exclude LLPs from the purview of the Press Note, implying that an LLP cannot conduct permissible e-commerce activities.
iii. Inventory Based Model of E-commerce: This model has been defined under the Press Note to mean “an e-commerce activity where inventory of goods and services is owned by e-commerce entity and is sold to the consumers directly”. The Press Note does not permit FDI in entities that operate under an inventory based model of e-commerce.
iv. Marketplace Based Model of E-commerce: The Press Note defines this model as “providing of an information technology platform by an e-commerce entity on a digital & electronic network to act as a facilitator between buyer and seller.” This is the model that is popular in the market and which has been adopted by various aggregation platforms, more prominently for online hotel / room reservations, taxi booking services and online shopping.
- Relaxations Provided for the Marketplace Model
i. Marketplace entity allowed to provide support services to sellers in respect of warehousing, logistics, order fulfillment, call centre, payment collection and other services: This clarification is very welcome. Even before the Press Note was issued, a marketplace entity could have engaged in all these activities. However, the specific clarification included in the Press Note brings in more transparency in implementing the policy. The ability for e-commerce entities to provide these kinds of services could result in greater efficiencies as services ancillary to marketplace operations are commonly housed in different legal entities. We expect marketplace entities to be more optimistic about consolidating these functions within a single entity in light of this clarification.
ii. Express Recognition of Marketplace Model: There has been an increasing trend amongst investors to be a little more cautious about investing or increasing their investments in the Indian e-commerce space. While profitability has been a commercial issue and may continue to be an issue in the foreseeable future, there has also been some circumspection that has resulted from the absence of an express policy statement regarding FDI in the e-commerce sector, negative publicity around FDI in e-commerce and queries that have previously been raised by the regulators.
As the Government’s policy is now expressly stated, it will address concerns raised by various trade associations in their petitions before multiple judicial forums, where it is being argued that the marketplace model is not recognized under the FDI Policy and therefore not eligible for FDI. In our view, this argument was flawed since the FDI Policy cannot be expected to positively list every business model or opportunity that emerges in this fast moving technology rich environment. On the contrary, paragraph 6.2 of the FDI Policy specifically clarifies that FDI is allowed up to 100% under the automatic route in sectors and activities not listed in the FDI Policy. Hence, merely because the marketplace model was not expressly mentioned in the FDI Policy, did not imply that such activity was not eligible to receive FDI prior to the Press Note. If each of its ingredients were eligible for FDI investment, such sector/activity was always eligible to receive FDI.
- Restrictions on the Marketplace Model
i. Marketplace entity cannot exercise ownership over the inventory (goods purported to be sold), as ownership of the goods would result in an inventory based model: While it is clear that ownership of goods by a marketplace entity is not permitted under the Press Note, the scope of the term ‘exercise ownership’ used in paragraph 2.3(iv) of the Press Note is unclear.
ii. Not more than 25% of the sales from one vendor/ its group companies: This condition may affect the business model of certain e-commerce entities, where a significant percentage of sales are often made by one large reseller. Marketplace operators may now have to limit sales made by these resellers to ensure compliance with the Press Note. Such large resellers are therefore impacted despite the Press Note not being applicable to them. While the Press Note does not expressly clarify as to how and when the 25% limit on sales is to be computed, we expect that such compliance will be reviewed on an annual basis. Similar annual checks at the end of the financial year are prescribed in the FDI Policy on wholesale trading where the wholesale entity cannot sell more than 25% of its wholesale turnover to a group company.
iii. Post sales, delivery of goods and customer satisfaction to be seller’s responsibility: There seems to be an inconsistency between this obligation of the seller and the ability of the marketplace entity to provide ancillary support services. On the one hand, the Press Note permits a marketplace entity to provide logistics and ancillary services, while on the other it requires that following the sale, delivery of goods will be the seller’s responsibility. It is likely that the Press Note intended to clarify that the responsibility for all post-sale obligations is that of the seller, and not the marketplace entity. However, contractually, the seller should be free to provide such services in the manner it deems fit (including through an agreement with the marketplace entity, in which case the marketplace entity would be contractually liable to the seller for such services).
iv. Warranty/ guarantee of goods and services sold to be seller’s responsibility: This condition appears to stem from the requirement that goods/ services not be owned by the marketplace entity. This condition seems more in the nature of a clarification rather than a change in the legal position given that a marketplace entity would not usually provide any warranty / guarantee in respect of goods/ services; which warranties / guarantees are usually extended by the manufacturer / service provider.
v. Marketplace entity will not directly or indirectly influence the sale price of goods/ services and will maintain a level playing field: This condition is one of the key changes introduced by the Press Note and is likely to have a significant impact on marketplace entities and their business models. Popular marketplaces invest meaningfully to promote their platform to make it attractive for customers and sellers. Unlike brick and mortar stores which are able to promote their marketplace / shops in numerous ways that can be seen and felt by a customer, there are only a limited number of ways in which an online marketplace entity can promote its virtual presence. The broad language of the Press Note makes it even more difficult for a marketplace entity to promote its platform.
With regard to the obligation to maintain a ‘level playing field’, more than one interpretation may be possible. One school of thought is that this requirement is intended to apply to the sellers on the e-commerce platforms inter-se, such that the marketplace is not built around a single large / dominant seller, which seller is then accorded preferential treatment over other sellers by the marketplace entity. Another reading of this provision could be that the requirement is intended to apply to sellers on the e-commerce platforms vis-à-vis brick and mortar stores, such that brick and mortar stores are not unduly disadvantaged by e-commerce platforms through the actions of such e-commerce platforms, such as through offering discounts / incentives / promotional pricing on goods sold through such platforms. It is however difficult for a marketplace entity to ensure a level playing field with respect to brick and mortar stores, particularly given the inherent differences between the two mediums.
The Press Note is a step in the right direction by the Government and has introduced much needed and anticipated clarity on FDI in the e-commerce sector.
The conditionalities and restrictions imposed by the Press Note (which states that it shall take immediate effect) are prospective in nature and are not stated to apply to FDI already received by entities engaged in e-commerce activities. Any marketplace e-commerce entities which now intend to receive FDI would need to ensure that such FDI is received in compliance with all conditions of the Press Note. Likewise, any entities with existing FDI (received prior to the issuance of the Press Note) but which intend to receive additional FDI, would need to ensure that the conditions prescribed by the Press Note are complied with going forward. To this end, it may serve well for all existing e-commerce companies to revisit their business models and ensure that their business models are aligned to the Press Note as soon as possible.
Amendments to FEMA 20
RBI has, by way of a series of notifications, amended the Foreign Exchange Management (Transfer or Issue of Security by a Person Resident outside India) Regulations, 2000 (‘FEMA 20’). The key amendments pursuant to these notifications have been summarized below.
i. Issuance of Convertible Notes by Startups: RBI notification dated January 10, 2017 (‘January Notification’) provides for the issuance of convertible notes by Indian startup companies (‘startups’). A ‘convertible note’ has been defined to mean “an instrument issued by a startup company evidencing receipt of money initially as debt, which is repayable at the option of the holder, or which is convertible into such number of equity shares of such startup company, within a period not exceeding five years from the date of issue of the convertible note, upon occurrence of specified events as per the other terms and conditions agreed to and indicated in the instrument”.
The newly introduced Regulation 6D of FEMA 20 sets out the relevant provisions, which provide that:
a. A person resident outside India (other than an individual who is a citizen of, or an entity registered / incorporated in, Pakistan or Bangladesh), may purchase convertible notes issued by startups for an amount of Rs. 2,500,000 (approximately US$ 39,000) or more in a single tranche;
b. Startups engaged in a sector where foreign investment requires Government approval may issue convertible notes to a non-resident only with Government approval;
c. Issue of shares against convertible notes will be as per Schedule 1 of FEMA 20;
d. Startups issuing convertible notes to a non-resident must receive the consideration by inward remittance through banking channels or by debit to the NRE / FCNR (B) / escrow account maintained as per the Foreign Exchange Management (Deposit) Regulations, 2016 and closed upon the earlier of the requirements having been completed or within a period of six months;
e. Non-resident Indians may acquire convertible notes on non-repatriation basis as per Schedule 4 of FEMA 20;
f. A person resident outside India may acquire or transfer, by way of sale, convertible notes, from or to, a person resident in or outside India, provided the transfer takes place in accordance with the pricing guidelines as prescribed by RBI; and
g. Startup issuing convertible notes are required to furnish reports as prescribed by RBI.
ii. Foreign Investment in Infrastructure Companies: The January Notification also amends conditions relating to foreign direct investment (‘FDI’) under Schedule 1 of FEMA 20 in commodity exchanges, which have been combined with those relating to infrastructure companies in the securities market (namely stock exchanges, commodity derivative exchanges, depositories and clearing corporations). The key revisions introduced by the January Notification are:
a. FDI, including by foreign portfolio investors (‘FPI’), in commodity exchanges will now be subject to guidelines prescribed by RBI in addition to those issued by the Central Government (‘GoI’) and SEBI;
b. FDI in other infrastructure companies in securities market will now be subject to guidelines by GoI and RBI, in addition to those issued by SEBI;
c. the earlier condition permitting FIIs / FPIs to invest in commodity exchanges or infrastructure companies only through the secondary market has been removed; and
d. the restriction on investment by a non-resident in commodity exchanges to a maximum of 5% of its equity shares has been removed.
The Consolidated Foreign Direct Investment Policy dated June 7, 2016 (‘FDI Policy’) has also been amended, by way Press Note 1 of 2017 dated February 20, 2017, to align it with the January Notification.
iii. FDI in LLPs: Pursuant to notification dated March 3, 2017, RBI has amended Regulation 5(9) and Schedule 9 of FEMA 20 to further liberalize FDI in Limited Liability Partnerships (‘LLPs’). Companies having FDI can now be converted into LLPs under the automatic route provided that the concerned company is engaged in a sector where: (a) 100% FDI is permitted under the automatic route; and (b) no FDI linked performance conditions exist. Previously, conversion of companies with foreign investment was only permitted under the approval route. The erstwhile ‘Other Conditions’ stipulated under Schedule 9 of FEMA 20 have been completely omitted resulting in the following key changes:
a. Previously, the designated partner of a LLP having FDI had to satisfy the condition of being “a person resident in India”. Also, a body corporate other than a company registered in India under CA 2013 was not permitted to be a designated partner of a LLP with FDI. These conditions have been removed. Consequently, a LLP having FDI will have to comply only with the provisions of the LLP Act, 2008 for appointment of designated partners;
b. Earlier, designated partners were responsible for compliance with FDI conditions for LLPs and liable for all penalties imposed on a LLP for any contraventions. This condition has now been deleted from Schedule 9 but no corresponding provision has been included in the revised Schedule 9; and
c. Express prohibition on LLPs availing External Commercial Borrowings (‘ECB’) has been removed. However, the extant ECB guidelines have not yet been amended to permit LLPs to avail ECBs. Therefore, LLPs will not be able to avail ECBs until the extant ECB guidelines are amended.
iv. FDI in E-commerce: The Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion had, by way of Press Note 3 of 2016 dated March 29, 2016 (‘Press Note 3’), prescribed that no FDI is permitted in an inventory based model of e-commerce and 100% FDI under the automatic route is permitted in the marketplace model of e-commerce subject to compliance with the guidelines prescribed thereunder. A summary of the key changes introduced through Press Note 3 have been captured in the April 2016 edition of Inter Alia. RBI has, by way of a notification dated March 9, 2017, amended FEMA 20 in line with the changes introduced through Press Note 3. However, RBI has introduced a minor change to Press Note 3 by clarifying that the threshold of 25% of sales emanating from one vendor or their group companies will be computed based on the sale value during the relevant financial year.
 Being a private company incorporated under CA 2013 and recognized as such as per Notification G.S.R. 180(E) dated February 17, 2016 issued by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion.
Foreign Direct Investment Policy, 2017
On August 28, 2017, the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (‘DIPP’) issued the consolidated foreign direct investment policy circular of 2017 (‘FDI Policy 2017’), which replaces the consolidated foreign direct investment policy circular of 2016, dated June 7, 2016 (‘FDI Policy 2016’). The FDI Policy 2017 also consolidates press notes issued by the DIPP since June 7, 2016.
Set out below are the key changes introduced in the foreign direct investment (‘FDI’) regime through the FDI Policy 2017.
i. Conversion of companies and LLPs: The FDI Policy 2016 did not cover or prescribe any rules for conversion of companies into Limited Liability Partnerships (‘LLPs’) and vice versa. The FDI Policy 2017 now provides that conversion of LLPs with foreign investment into a company and vice-versa is permitted under the automatic route, if the converting LLP / company is operating in sectors/activities in which: (a) 100% FDI is allowed through the automatic route; and (b) there are no FDI linked performance conditions. The term ‘FDI linked performance conditions’ has been clarified to mean “sector specific conditions for companies receiving foreign investment”.
ii. Retail trading by wholesale companies: Per FDI Policy 2016, a wholesale / cash & carry trade was permitted to undertake ‘single brand retail trading’. FDI Policy 2017 provides that wholesale/cash & carry traders may undertake ‘retail trading’, i.e., both single brand retail trading and multi brand retail trading (subject to applicable conditions).
iii. ‘State of the Art’ and ‘Cutting Edge’ single brand product retail trading:
a. Press Note 5 (2016 series) dated June 24, 2016 issued by the DIPP did away with local sourcing norms for a period of three years from commencement of business (being, opening of the first store) for entities undertaking single brand retail trading of products having ‘state-of-art’ and ‘cutting-edge’ technology and where local sourcing is not possible.
b. FDI Policy 2017 provides that a committee under the chairmanship of Secretary, DIPP, with representatives from NITI Aayog, concerned administrative ministry and independent technical expert(s) on the subject will examine the claim of applicants on the issue of the products being in the nature of ‘state-of-art’ and ‘cutting-edge’ technology where local sourcing is not possible and give recommendations for such relaxation.
iv. E-commerce: Under the FDI Policy 2016, an e-commerce entity with foreign investment was not permitted to effect more than 25% of sales through its market place by one vendor or its group companies. FDI Policy 2017 clarifies that the 25% threshold applies to sales value on a financial year basis.
v. Government approval for additional FDI: Per FDI Policy 2016, additional FDI into the same entity within the approved foreign equity percentage or into a wholly owned subsidiary did not require fresh Government approval. FDI Policy 2017 provides that Government approval will be required for additional FDI within the approved foreign equity percentage or into a wholly owned subsidiary beyond a cumulative amount of Rs. 5,000 crores (approx. US$ 764 million).
vi. Downstream investment intimation: FDI Policy 2017 requires intimation of downstream investments by foreign owned and/or controlled Indian companies to be made to the Reserve Bank of India (‘RBI’) and the Foreign Investment Facilitation Portal within 30 days of the investment (instead of the Secretariat of Industrial Assistance, DIPP and the Foreign Investment Promotion Board, as prescribed earlier).
 This article does not cover changes introduced through press notes and other amendments since June 7, 2016 (which have only been consolidated and introduced in the FDI Policy 2017).
 Incorporated in Note (iii) of Paragraph 220.127.116.11 of FDI Policy 2017
Revisions to FDI Policy
The Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (‘DIPP’) has, by way of Press Note No. 5 dated June 24, 2016 (‘Press Note 5’), introduced the following notable amendments to the FDI Policy:
i. 100% foreign direct investment (‘FDI’) is permitted under the approval route for trading, including through e-commerce, in respect of food products manufactured or produced in India;
ii. In the defence sector, FDI beyond 49% is permitted through the approval route, where the investment results in Indian access to modern technology or for other reasons. The erstwhile condition for such FDI, requiring such investment to result in access to ‘state-of-art’ technology, has been dispensed with;
iii. Foreign investment in the civil aviation sector has been liberalised, whereby: (a) 100% FDI is permitted under the automatic route in brownfield and greenfield airport projects; and (b) FDI has been raised to 100% (with up to 49% under the automatic route and 100% through the automatic route for non-resident Indians (‘NRIs’)) for scheduled air transport services, domestic scheduled passenger airlines and regional air transport services. Foreign airlines continue to be allowed to invest in the capital of Indian companies operating scheduled and non-scheduled air-transport services up to 49%;
iv. FDI in brownfield pharmaceutical projects has been permitted up to 100%, with 74% under the automatic route. However, a non-compete clause is not permitted in transactions, except in certain special circumstances with the prior approval of the Foreign Investment Promotion Board;
v. Local sourcing norms have been relaxed for three years for entities engaged in single brand retail trading of products having ‘state-of-art’ and ‘cutting edge’ technology, and where local sourcing is not possible;
vi. FDI in private security agencies has been raised to 74%, with 49% permitted under automatic route. It is clarified that the terms ‘private security agencies’, ‘private security’, and ‘armoured car service’ will have the same meaning as ascribed to such terms under the Private Security Agencies (Regulation) Act, 2005. Accordingly, private security agencies would include any person (other than any governmental agency) providing private security services including training of private security guards and deployment of armoured cars;
vii. FDI in animal husbandry (including breeding of dogs), pisciculture, aquaculture and apiculture was permitted up to 100% under the automatic route under controlled conditions. The requirement of ‘controlled conditions’ for FDI in these activities has now been removed; and
viii. 100% FDI in broadcasting carriage services, including teleports, direct to home, cable networks, mobile TV and headend-in-the-sky broadcasting services, has been permitted under the automatic route.
Amendments to FEMA 2017
The RBI has, by its notification dated March 26, 2018 introduced the following amendments to the sector specific policy for foreign investment, under FEMA 2017:
i. Foreign investment in investing companies: (a) Foreign investments in investing companies not registered as non-banking financial companies (‘NBFCs’) with the RBI and in core investment companies, both engaged in the activity of investing in the capital of other Indian entities, will require prior Government approval; and (b) foreign investment in investing companies registered as NBFCs with the RBI, will not require any prior approval and will be permissible under 100% automatic route.
ii. Single brand product retail trading: In case of entities undertaking single brand retail trading of products having ‘state-of-art’ and ‘cutting-edge’ technology and where local sourcing is not possible, a committee under the chairmanship of the Secretary, DIPP, with representatives from Niti Aayog, concerned Administrative Ministry and independent technical expert(s) on the subject will examine the claim on the issue of the products being in the nature of ‘state-of-art’ and ‘cutting-edge’ technology, and give recommendations for such relaxation.
iii. Issuance of capital instruments to persons resident outside India: No prior Government approval will now be required for issuance of capital instruments to persons resident outside India against: (a) import of capital goods / machinery / equipment (excluding second hand machinery); or (b) pre-operative / pre-incorporation expenses, unless the Indian investee company is engaged in a sector under the Government route.
As set out in our January 2018 edition of the Inter Alia, the Union Cabinet had approved certain amendments to the foreign direct investment regime in India on January 10, 2018, which have now been incorporated in FEMA 2017.
Abolition of the Foreign Investment Promotion Board
The Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance (‘DEA’), has, by way of an office memorandum dated June 5, 2017, notified the Government’s approval to abolish the Foreign Investment Promotion Board (‘FIPB’). 11 sectors (including telecom, broadcasting, defence and banking) would continue to require Government approval for foreign investments, while the responsibility to grant such approvals would now vest with the concerned administrative ministries / departments. Applications for investment in core investment companies or Indian investing companies, and investments in financial services sectors not regulated by any financial services regulator, will be processed by DEA.
Further, the following foreign investment proposals requiring Government approval, will be dealt with by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (‘DIPP’):
i. Trading (Single, Multi brand and Food Product Retail Trading);
ii. Proposals by non-resident Indians / export oriented units;
iii. Issue of equity shares under the Government route for import of capital goods / machinery / equipment (including second hand machinery); and
iv. Issue of equity shares for pre-operative / pre-incorporation expenses.
The DIPP will identify the relevant ministry in respect of applications where there is doubt about the administrative ministry concerned. The office memorandum also specifies that all applications pending with the FIPB portal as on the date of abolition of FIPB, will be transferred immediately by the DIPP to the relevant administrative ministry / department.
The DIPP has also issued a detailed standard operating procedure (‘SOP’) on June 29, 2017, which outlines the guidelines to the relevant administrative ministries / departments for processing of the FDI proposals. The SOP inter alia prescribes the process of inter-ministerial consultations as well as indicative timelines within which the proposals are to be assessed and disposed off. The applications will continue to be filed on the current online FIPB portal (now renamed as the ‘Foreign Investment Facilitation Portal’).
The SOP further prescribes that proposals involving a total foreign equity inflow of more than INR 5,000 crores (approx. USD 772 million) will additionally require the approval of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (Ministry of Finance), and that the concerned ministry will also seek DIPP concurrence where a proposal is being rejected or being granted subject to conditions not specified in the relevant laws.