The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (Cepa) with Korea and Japan is turning out to be the latest trouble for the Indian steel industry, already grappling with mining and land issues.
Imports of hot rolled coil (HRC), a benchmark product, from Korea surged 125 per cent and from Japan, 72 per cent, in 2011-12 over the previous year. While the flood is likely to continue further, experts say this is not just hurting the domestic steel industry in a weak market, but, in the short term, could be a disincentive for foreign direct investment (FDI).
A slew of Japanese companies — Kobe, JFE, Sumitomo and Nippon — are either a part of the India story, in some way or other, or are actively looking at it, while South Korea’s Posco is still waiting in the wings. All these companies are in a way incentivised to sell the steel produce in their country and flood the Indian market. It will act as disincentive for these global steel majors to invest in producing steel in India.
“The trade pacts are not helping India, while affecting the industry adversely. Production and employment are taking place in those countries. We should encourage FDI instead,” said Jayant Acharya, director, commercial & marketing, JSW Steel.
Consider this: Maruti Suzuki India Ltd (MSIL) has been importing steel from Japan and Korea much before the bilateral agreement came into existence. But it would stand to lose significantly if steel is moved to the sensitive list for exclusion under the CEPA, as is being demanded by the steel companies. The impact of withdrawal from Korea would be Rs 7.7 crore and from Japan, Rs 10 crore.
“We have imported over 190,000 tonnes in 2010-11 and over 200,000 tonnes in 2011-12, which are about 29 per cent and 28 per cent of our total requirements. Import quantity is dependent on demand changes and not on the bilateral agreement,” said S Maitra, chief operating officer (supply chain), MSIL.
Steel industry representatives feel the onslaught of imports could lead to loss of jobs for Indians. “It might lead to idling of steel capacity. Most of the plants without captive iron ore are operating at much less than full capacity,” they pointed out.
In view of the pressure the industry is facing, the government had increased the import duty on most steel products from five per cent to seven per cent in the budget. However, it doesn’t quite affect the imports from Korea and Japan since under the provisions of Cepa the rate is subsidised at 3.125 per cent for Korea, while Japan attracts 3.3 per cent for 2012-13. The rate will reduce to zero by the beginning of 2017.
“I don’t understand why these countries should enjoy concessional rates,” asked Nittin Johri, director (finance) Bhushan Steel. Johri’s sentiments were echoed by Essar Steel Executive Director (strategy & business development) Vikram Amin. “There is a definite case to exclude steel products from the ambit of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Korea and Japan. Considering the high value addition in the steel industry and employment generation potential, it makes immense sense to export steel rather than exporting iron ore and importing steel,” Amin said.
Though cumulative imports from these countries constitute more than 40 per cent of all flat steel imports into India, during November-December, the rise was as high as 400-600 per cent.
Industry representatives said, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) has already taken up the matter with the government.
According to Acharya, it should be a level playing field. While cost of production in India is more or less at par with Korea or Japan, the financing cost is more conducive in those countries.