India welcomes US investors, airs concerns over barriers

Washington, July 12 (IANS) Keeping up their efforts to sell brand India amid a slow down, three top government leaders in-charge of the economy have assured potential US investors that India continued to offer huge business opportunities.

But Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma and Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia, each had a different take as they sought to address US corporate leaders' concerns about the business environment in India Thursday.

In a keynote address to at the 38th anniversary leadership summit of the US-India Business Council (USIBC), representing over 350 US companies doing business with India, Chidambaram striking an emotional note said the two countries have a great opportunity to work together.

Noting that the two way trade between India and the US had topped $100 billion, yet seemed far below potential, Chidambaram said "there is huge opportunity for US to invest in India and a good opportunity for India to invest in US".

"Today Indian companies have grown in size, stature and capacity. They work with US companies and sometimes compete with US companies," he said but they should not let "a few cases of business rivalry" stand in the way of good relations.

"Our two countries have a great opportunity to work together not only for the benefit of our people but the world," Chidmbaram said. "We are a country where we are building our economy brick by brick, and in that process we seek your help."

Calling creation of wealth as the greatest challenge faced by mankind, he said: "Poverty and prosperity cannot coexist and as long as there was poverty, the world can't live in peace and harmony."

India as the largest country with the greatest challenge of poverty advocated free trade, end of barriers and end of poverty, Chidambaram said noting that India had demonstrated its capacity to meet the challenge with high growth rates of upto 9 percent during the global financial crisis.

He also expressed concerns about discriminatory provisions in immigration legislation passed by the US Senate that would make it harder and more expensive for India's information technology workers to get H1B visas to work in the US.

"In no dictionary is immigration defined as including temporary relocation of knowledge workers. ...Yet the immigration bill has a clause that seems to erect non-tariff barriers on temporary relocation of knowledge workers," Chidambaram said.

Sharma, on the other hand, reiterating that India had a strong and abiding commitment to take the India-US relationship to greater heights dilated on a series of steps taken by the Indian government to improve the business and investment climate in India.

He spoke about a national manufacturing policy and creation of single-window clearance "self-governing" national investment and manufacturing zones to assure US businesses that India was committed to liberal policies with a welcoming environment for Foreign Direct Investment.

Ahluwalia, on his part, sought to temper expectations saying big ticket reforms like FDI in retail and insurance "can't be done as fast as you want" with national elections round the corner.

Reforms that require legislative approval "will probably slip a bit". But government was trying to resolve whatever issues it could through administrative action.

But "I would assure that there is no item on the reform agenda which the government of India had earlier said is on its agenda is now off. My expectation is that we are a little bit marking time", he said.

US Trade Representative Michael Froman, however, struck an aggressive posture asking India to reverse course on policies that he said discriminated against American companies.

"Let me stress that as a friend of India and one of the caretakers of our economic relationship, I am concerned about the investment and innovation environment in India," he said.

Expressing concern over "a growing number of localisation barriers" like preferential treatment for indigenous intellectual property he called for jointly exploring "less distortive approaches in manufacturing policy".

Similarly it is possible to promote access to medicines in India without stifling innovations that can further public health objectives as well, Froman said.

(Arun Kumar can be contacted at arun.kumar@ians.in)

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