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Exclusive: Who was (and wasn’t) on the govt e-commerce think tank

The government has provided MediaNama a detailed breakdown of the membership of the National E-commerce Think Tank in response to an RTI application. The members of the think tank are:

  • From e-commerce companies, the CEOs of Flipkart, Ola, MakeMyTrip, Urban Clap, Snapdeal, PepperFry, Shopclues, Practo, Naukri and Justdial, among others;
  • IT for Change’s Parminder Jeet Singh;
  • From payments companies, only Paytm and Jio;
  • Industry associations like NASSCOM, FICCI and IAMAI;
  • iSPIRT’s policy director Nakul Saxena;
  • Telecom and IT companies (from telecoms, only Airtel was included aside from Jio, represented by Sunil Bharti Mittal. Infosys, Wipro, Zoho, and TCS etc were represented from IT companies);
  • From e-commerce companies, the CEOs of Flipkart, Ola, MakeMyTrip, Urban Clap, Snapdeal, PepperFry, Shopclues, Practo, Naukri and Justdial, among others;
  • India’s ambassador to the World Trade Organisation;
  • RBI deputy governor BP Kanungo;
  • Joint secretaries from several government departments;
  • Praveen Khandelwal, the national secretary general of the brick-and-mortar union CAIT.

The think tank also has subcommittees consisting mostly of these members, on topics such as

  • Data protection,
  • Net neutrality & interconnection issues,
  • Data localisation & cross-border data transfer,
  • Taxation,
  • Logistics,
  • Consumer confidence,
  • Intellectual property,
  • Future technologies (like blockchain),
  • Fintech, FDI, and competition.

The think tank met twice, according to the government’s reply: once in April, and once in July. Suresh Prabhu led both meetings, which were held by the Ministry of Commerce.

Read the full RTI response here

The leaked draft national e-commerce policy primarily created from inputs by this think tank has drawn concerns from both e-commerce players as well as from brick-and-mortar store unions. Offline vendors were concerned that provisions like 49% FDI for portals that sold only Indian-made ware went too far, while e-commerce companies slammed restrictions on discounts, and mandating data sharing with the government. There have also been civil rights concerns, such as ‘keeping the policy space’ for demanding source code from companies and mandating an extensive amount of data localisation. The outcome of the consultation — if one happens — will have far-reaching consequences for e-commerce as well as the digital ecosystem in India. The government has formed a committee of secretaries to further discuss the policy further, an official told PTI.

Subcommittees and their recommendations

The subcommittees under the e-commerce think tank were:

  • On data protection, cross-border data transfer, and location of computing facilities (data localisation)

    • Members: Data Security Council of India, CII, FICCI, Reliance Jio, Infosys, Wipro, TCS, Tech Mahindra, MakeMyTrip, MapMyIndia, IT for Change, Paytm, iSPIRT, Centre for WTO Studies, Department of Telecommunication, MeitY, Ministry of Home Affairs, TRAI, CCI, National Cyber Security Secretariat, RBI, and IAMAI
    • Some of their recommendations: Make localisation of data mandatory and provide incentives for it, restrict cross-border data flow for some categories, and let government have access to data stored in India for ‘national security and public policy objectives’
  • On digital product and custom duties, and taxation

    • Members: NASSCOM, ESC, Urban Clap, Snapdeal, IndiaMART, iSPIRT, Department of Revenue, Department of Posts, Department of Telecommunications, MeitY, TRAI and NCSS
    • Some of their ecommendations: Facilitative environment to angel investors by amending tax laws, increasing the number of taxable companies by implementing the ‘significant economic presence’ concept, reducing burden of taxation on SMEs, and adding more categories of digital services in digital GST (OIDAR).
  • On trade facilitation measures and logistics

    • Members: CII, FICCI, FIEO, FISME, Department of Revenue, Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion, Department of Posts, Directorate General of Foreign Trade, Delhivery, Ecom Express Pvt Ltd, Pepperfry
    • Some of their recommendations: The existing limit of Rs. 25,000, under the Courier Imports and Exports (Clearance) Regulation 1998, would be enhanced, Capping samples or gifts to a certain value per shipper per month
  • On measures enhancing consumer confidence

    • Members: Ola, MakeMyTrip, Pepperfry, Portea, CWTOS, Department of Consumer Affairs, MeitY, Paytm, Shopclues
    • Some of their recommendations: Data portability for consumers, finalizing e-commerce rules under Consumer Protection Bill 2018, setting up Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA)
  • On Protection of IP/Innovation/Standards and contours of future technology (such as AI and blockchain)

    • Members: NASSCOM, DSCI, Jio, Infosys, Wipro, TCS, Tech Mahindra, IT for Change, iSPIRT, CWTOS, Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion, Department of Telecommunication, MeitY, TRAI, CCI, NCSS, RBI
    • Some of their recommendations: Legislation to protect domain name owners from lookalikes of trademarks, using blockchain to further financial inclusion
  • On payments systems, payment instruments for electronic transactions, and fintech

    • Members: CII, FICCI, Jio, Paytm, NPCI, Department of Financial Services, Department of Economic Affairs, and RBI
    • Some of their recommendations: Make RuPay mandatory on e-commerce sites, adopt AI-based authentication mechanisms such as biometric transaction authorisation
  • On net neutrality and interconnection & infrastructure issues

    • Members: IAMAI, Jio, IT for Change, DoT, MeitY, TRAI, Paytm
    • Related recommendations: None.
  • On skills, education and training, and SME issues

    • Members: NASSCOM, SEPC, FIEO, FISME, Urban Clap, Shopclues, Portea, Infoedge
    • Some of their recommendations: Establish e-commerce retail platform for MSMEs, pilot initiatives for MSME clusters, incentivise aggregators and online platforms to ‘engage’ MSME vendors
  • On FDI and competition issues

    • Members: FISME, Ola, Urbanclap, Bharat Matrimony, Snapdeal, Portea, Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion, Ministry of Corporate Affairs, MeitY, CCI, IAMAI, Pepperfry
    • Some of their recommendationsRestriction on e-commerce marketplaces to avoid influencing sale prices to be extended to ‘group companies’, sunset clause on discounts, and increasing ambit of mergers and deals that would attract antitrust scrutiny

Who was not represented

The committee — and subcommittees — largely consist of companies incorporated in India and founded by Indians. It’s unclear why the government composed the committee this way, since many competitors of the think tank’s members — such as Amazon and Uber — are led and operated in India by Indians. Even if one goes by source of capital, the startups included in the think tank are largely funded by investors and VCs from countries like Singapore, China, Japan, and the US. Effectively, brands of Indian origin are the only ones that seem to have made the cut. Even in that fold, there are many that did not make it, like Zomato and Oyo. Even fast-growing hyperlocal delivery companies like Grofers, Bigbasket, and Dunzo are excluded.

There is also sectoral exclusion. In payments, Paytm seems to be the only dedicated payments company present. The subcommittee for fintech comprises regulators, industry associations, the government, the NPCI, and Paytm — Reliance Jio is also included, probably owing to its JioMoney app. Its competitors like Mobikwik and Freecharge are not included (though PhonePe’s parent Flipkart was on the think tank, it was not in the fintech subcommittee). Payments majors like Visa, Mastercard and PayPal were also not on the committee.

These are some glaring omissions, considering that relatively small players like Pepperfry and Urban Clap are represented.

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