India’s design and manufacturing capabilities provide an edge


The pandemic has triggered so much change that observers of history will refer to a pre-covid era and a post-covid era. We made deft moves with a storm of unicorns, the government fast-tracked incentives to promote indigenization, the 76,000 crore semiconductor package will give us design and manufacturing capabilities, and there have been other policies to promote the Make-in-India ecosystem, too.

While on paper, it appears we have all that it takes to seize a bigger share of the global pie, it is important to look at where trade is going lately.

Recent developments such as the war in Ukraine, climate concerns, and the US-China tussle sent some favorable tailwinds for Vietnam, allowing it to emerge as one of the most preferred destinations for electronics. US imports from Vietnam have increased by 33%, with electronics and machinery accounting for the bulk of it.

Hài Phòng grabs spotlight

Hài Phòng, Vietnam’s third largest city, is the country’s new high-tech production centre, with Samsung, Intel, LG, Panasonic, Foxconn, Pegatron, and many others moving there. The port city’s proximity to manufacturing clusters, and a 12-hour expressway to Shenzhen gives it an edge. The country’s electronics industry, today, accounts for about 40% of its exports.

Vietnam has been getting the ball rolling, moving to the Plus 1 space that strategists have been talking of. Its low labor costs, attractive tax incentive policies, location, favorable global trade conditions, and many free trade agreements (FTAs) have worked in its favor. It climbed from the 47th position in global ranking in 2001 to the 10th position in 2020, vis-a-vis exports that make up 1.8% of the total export value of electronics globally. Geopolitics has only helped this trend to gain momentum with manufacturers looking for hardy supply chains.

Globalization in question

What we have seen lately is that globalization, which suggests that the world is one family with free movement of goods and cutting services across geographies, has been in jeopardy. Former US President Donald Trump acted swiftly to checkmate China, with the CHIPS for America Act passed in January 2021 to mark a U-turn after decades of expansion into Asia.

China’s zero-covid policy halted factory work, and broke global supply chains. Several major Taiwanese computer manufacturers with factories in Shanghai, including Quanta Computer, Compal Electronics, Wistron, Inventec and Pegatron, reported double-digit declines due to the lockdowns. Vietnam played its cards well, fitting into the space created by China’s stiff stance.

India’s edge

The same factors that have propelled Vietnam can also put India in the sweet spot. India’s biggest advantage in the Plus 1 space is its end-to-end design and manufacturing capabilities. Vietnam is known for strong midstream activities, and local companies focus mainly on assembly. Upstream activities, involving design and production, are mostly done overseas.

Vietnam does not have the engineering talent that India has. Not only is India considered to be the most digitally dexterous country in the world due to the largest Gen Z workforce, we have a huge domestic market. And we are closer to Africa, the Middle East and European markets.

However, the process of setting up business needs to be swift, the logistics and transshipment needs to be buckled up for sustainable competitive advantage. Although India has created a lot of production-linked incentive (PLI) schemes that address some disability factors, having stronger supply chains is crucial. It is important to rein in freight and travel costs and lower the carbon footprint. Even Mexico, on account of its talented workforce and shorter supply chains, is availing near-shoring benefits of being closer to the US.

The coming era will be defined by complex disruptions queering the pitch at any time. Resilience should be seen as an important capability, instead of just focusingsing on efficacy-based manufacturing at the lowest cost possible. For the Indian market to truly arrive on the radar of global corporations, we have to build such capacities and fix the missing pieces. And fast… so that we can be the safest China Plus one.

Dr Ajai Chowdhry is the chairman of the Epic Foundation and co-founder of HCL.

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