It’s time to open the gates wider

There is a growing nervousness among foreign investors putting their money in India. The Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index 2012 revealed that India, Asia’s third-largest economy, ranked 74th out of 79 countries, making it an unviable country to start a business. There is a growing nervousness among foreign investors putting their money in India.

Fewer than 150 start-ups are promoted by venture capital or angel investors annually in India compared to over 60,000 angel investments in the US. In 2011, Indian angels, constrained by regulations that make both investing and exits cumbersome, invested only about Rs.100 crore in around 50 deals compared with Rs.2,000 crore angels invested in Canada.

These figures don’t surprise Indian product software start-ups. India has produced few of the world’s leading software products, has 3,400 software product start-ups, and adds 400 every year. But it needs the right environment and incentives to build a world-leading industry.

For several decades, the Indian ownership laws and the investment and business environment have not allowed a conducive setting for the brightest of minds, many of whom have migrated to California. The new Indian entrepreneurs spend significant time on product development to build patentable products with a global market. However, as soon as the product gains traction, venture investors and professionals advise entrepreneurs to move the holding structure, if not the entire business, outside India. The main reasons are as follows:


In today’s world talent and ideas are mobile. Singapore, Hong Kong, Chile and the UK are offering attractive financing (debt and equity) to Indian companies to relocate their business. They are also offering tax benefits. This is starting to result in real migration of promising companies out of India.

Maze of rules:

In India, we have foreign direct investment, VCI (venture capital investment), foreign institutional investors, Reserve Bank of India, fair valuations and draconian consequences for inadvertent slip-ups, while in most major economies there are no restrictions.


Capital gains (20%) as well as dividends (dividend distribution tax of 12.5%) even for foreign investors. In most major economies, foreign investors are not taxed on their capital gains and dividend income on their investments and owned businesses. India’s tax policy does not help a product business to attract the right kind of investors and acquirers, and is a hurdle for those interested in foreign acquisition in a stock deal as Indian paper is not an attractive currency. In the UK, for example, investors can write off any investment losses against income, and this significantly reduces their cost of failures.

Open economy:

India does not treat foreign investors on par with local investors, unlike the US, the UK, Europe, Singapore and Hong Kong, which have no restriction on ownership and company structures, and for the most part, regulatory filings (except some strategic and security related issues).

India needs to build an attractive regime to retain the software products business and its intellectual property, which is highly mobile. Incentives and special regimes for businesses that create IP and file for patents will give the industry a big boost. Among the solutions are the liberalized ownership rules with exemptions from regulatory filings and specific regimes (FDI/VCI/FII, etc.), specific exemptions from capital gains and dividend taxes for investors and tax exemption on foreign income of Indian software product companies. Why not go even further and build a fully liberalized virtual special economic zone for ownership and operation of software product companies, with India signing an iron-clad double-taxation avoidance agreement the virtual SEZ.

India needs to proactively grab opportunities, or risk driving the whole industry abroad. We have the potential to create multi-billion dollar global product companies every year, and the benefits could run into trillions of dollars over a decade or two.

This article first appeared in the LiveMint