Blame game as wheels come off India’s auto sector

A security guard patrols a holding area for new vehicles near a godown on the outskirts of Hyderabad. (AFP)
Updated 16 September 2019

Blame game as wheels come off India’s auto sector

NEW DELHI: When India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman claimed that a preference by millennials for ride-hailing apps was contributing to a painful slump in car sales, it sparked an online backlash from furious youngsters.

They started a campaign using ironic hashtags such as #BoycottMillennials and #SayItLikeNirmalaTai last week to push back against older generations blaming them for today’s problems in society.

While data shows firms such as Uber and Ola are popular with younger consumers more comfortable with shared mobility and digital trends, analysts say the auto industry’s problems run deeper than that — and it is facing more serious bumps in the road.

With a population of 1.3 billion people, India is the world’s fourth-largest car market and one where owning a vehicle is as much a status symbol as a means of transport.

But the country’s once-booming auto sector — seen as an important barometer of overall economic health — is in the slow lane, with sales slumping for the 10th-straight month in August.

“The minimum (priced) car that you can get nowadays starts from six to seven lakhs ($8,500 — $9,800),” university student Somya Saluja told AFP.

“So it’s much easier to pool-in rather than to buy a new car.”

Even India’s richest banker, Uday Kotak, recently said that his son was more comfortable using ride-sharing apps than owning a car.

Uber and Ola reportedly facilitate some 3.65 million daily rides.

Still, Avanteum Advisers managing partner VG Ramakrishnan told AFP the key reason for the drop in car purchases was economic.

“I think the slowdown is primarily because consumer confidence is low and income growth has really been impacted in the last couple of years,” he told AFP.

India’s economic growth slowed for the fifth-straight quarter in April-June to reach its weakest pace in five years.

Banks are also more reluctant to lend owing to a liquidity crunch caused by the near-collapse a year ago of IL&FS, one of India’s biggest shadow banks — finance houses responsible for significant consumer lending.

There are also extra production costs caused by new rules requiring cars to be compliant with emissions and safety standards, while a 28 percent goods and services tax (GST) introduced in 2017 has dampened demand, analysts said.

“Cars are increasingly becoming unaffordable now because of so many taxes,” Karvy Stock Broking auto analyst Mahesh Bendre told AFP.

“To put things in perspective, if you buy a car in India, at least 40-45 percent of costs go to the government in terms of taxes and registration charges and so on.”

A year ago, India displaced Germany to become the world’s fourth biggest car market, having clocked up annual sales growth above seven percent for several years.

But the promising growth ride is screeching to a halt, with passenger car sales tumbling this year, including a 41 percent drop last month — the worst since records began more than 20 years ago.

Aside from passenger cars, sales of commercial vehicles, motorcycles and scooters have also been hammered.

With the industry — a major employer in India — contributing more than seven percent to total GDP and almost half of manufacturing GDP, the potential fallout from an extended slowdown is sending shockwaves through the economy.

Manufacturers are reducing production and cutting jobs, which is also affecting related industries such as auto component manufacturing and at dealerships, totaling about seven percent of India’s total workforce, Bendre said.


India probes Flipkart, Amazon discounts after retailers complain

Updated 15 October 2019

India probes Flipkart, Amazon discounts after retailers complain

  • Products on Amazon, Flipkart listed at steep discounts in sale
  • Trader groups allege firms violating foreign investment rules

NEW DELHI: The Indian government is looking into whether hefty discounts offered on Walmart-owned Flipkart and Amazon.com during their online festive sales violate foreign investment rules, a commerce ministry official told Reuters.
India introduced new rules in February aimed at protecting the 130 million people dependent on small-scale retail by deterring big online discounts. The rules forced e-commerce firms to tweak their business structures and drew criticism from the United States, straining trade ties between New Delhi and Washington.
While Amazon and Flipkart say they’ve complied with the federal rules, local trader groups say the two companies are violating them by burning money to offer discounts — of more than 50 percent in some cases — during the ongoing festive sales.
Reuters reviewed emails and internal training material from Flipkart showing the company is in some cases offering to reduce, or forfeit, its sales commission from sellers that offer discounts.
The commerce ministry official said the government was reviewing complaints and evidence filed by the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT), a group representing some 70 million brick-and-mortar retailers, alleging Amazon and Flipkart were violating the foreign investment rules.
The official declined to comment on possible action, but executives from Amazon and Flipkart were summoned to meet commerce ministry officials last week to discuss the matter.
Flipkart in a statement said it had a “good meeting” with government officials and it was “deeply committed to doing business the right way in India.”
Amazon said it had an “open & transparent discussion” with officials and has a high bar for compliance.
Seeking to attract shoppers around the key Hindu festival of Diwali, both retailers have placed full-page advertisements in top national daily the Times of India to showcase discount offerings stretching from Samsung and Apple phones to clothing and diapers.
“Customers are going online because of the unbelievable discounts. Because of this sales at offline businesses are down 30 percent to 40 percent this month,” CAIT’s secretary general Praveen Khandelwal said.
Two emails received by Flipkart sellers in September, just days ahead of the inaugural phase of the festive sales, showed it offering to partly fund discounts.
The company would “burn” 3 percent of the discount if a seller lowered a product price by 15 percent, or 9 percent if the seller discounted by 30 percent, said one of the emails.
In training material posted on Flipkart’s restricted website for its sellers, seen by Reuters, the company asks them to prepare for the festive season by saying “nothing is bigger than this” and explaining how they can benefit by discounting products for Flipkart’s premium customers.
“We want to ensure that you fetch as much profit from it as possible ... whatever the discount you are offering, half of that will be reimbursed to you by Flipkart,” a post said.
A Flipkart source said the incentives were compliant with Indian regulations and were aimed at promoting sellers’ earnings by effectively reducing the commission they pay.
All India Online Vendors Association, whose 3,500 members sell products on various online platforms including Flipkart, in a statement said fewer than 100 of its members benefitted from Flipkart’s partial discount funding, giving some sellers an unfair advantage.