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How Punjab wooes investors at a time when law and order situation hits rock bottom

Saturday, October 31, 2015, 22:01
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MOHALI: Earlier this week, captains of Indian industry had their Punjab moment as they gathered for an investors’ summit in Mohali. Many in the audience gave a huge round of applause when ICICI Bank’s managing director and chief executive officer Chanda Kochhar began her speech in Punjabi to remind everyone that she is the daughter-in-law of Punjab (her husband Deepak is from the state). And then Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) chairman Mukesh Ambani let on how his father Dhirubhai Ambani often described himself as a Gujarati with a Punjabi heart. There was so much of Punjabi flavour that the state’s deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal announced on Day 2 of the summit that he would go on a mission mode to explore all Punjabi networks around the world and request each entrepreneur to have at least one investment in the state. After battling the scourge of terrorism for 15 years and then losing industries to a nearby town of Baddi in Himachal Pradesh, where the Central government doled out a massive 10-year-long tax holiday in 2003, Punjab is still in recovery mode. The state is conveniently located north of Delhi, has five airports, 24×7 electricity, a good road network — and also a plan to connect every village and town with 4G network by early next year. Yet, the state has failed to be the darling of India Inc. During the summit, industries did commit an investment of Rs 1.15 lakh crore but many bigwigs including RIL’s Ambani preferred to continue with the current investment of Rs 3,900 crore, mainly for a rollout of 4G telecom services under the Reliance Jio brand, rather than announcing any new project. Cautious Optimism Ravi Kaza, president of North American brewing company Molson Coors India which owns popular beer brands such as Thunderbolt and Cobra, is cautiously optimistic when asked about the investment climate in Punjab. “We have been in Punjab only for seven months. Till now we have not faced any industrial issue. But these are still early days to judge the investment climate here,” Kaza says candidly. The government for its part is doing its bit, the most impressive being an attempt to vest all investment-related power with one bureaucrat — the CEO of Invest Punjab, a government agency that has cleared an investment of Rs 42,000 crore in the last two years. In Punjab, setting up a new business now takes less than a month, according to government rules. A World Bank report that ranked states on the ease of doing business published in September this year gave Punjab the No. 1 rank on one parameter — setting up of a business. But overall the state fared poorly, at 16 out of 29 states. What’s a further cause of concern is the recent turbulence originating in an alleged desecration of the Sikh holy book Guru Granth Sahib. At least three chief executives who ET Magazine spoke with did not wish to talk about the recent protests in Punjab and whether it would actually vitiate the investment climate for big-ticket investments. Further, assembly elections are scheduled to be held in 2017, and the resultant uncertainty till then may well deter big-ticket investors from pouring in huge sums. Only a week ago, the state government replaced its top cop Sumedh Singh Saini with his IPS batch-mate Suresh Arora, in an attempt to mollify the Sikh agitators. Food for Thought “These (recent law-and-order situations) are temporary issues… today, we are one of the most peaceful states in India,” claims deputy chief minister Badal, discounting the possibility of any flaring up of protests. To be sure, the summit did see a couple of big-ticket announcements. The state government’s announcement that there would be no tax levied on new food processing companies brought cheer to the likes of ITC and Cargill. At the summit, ITC chairman YC Deveshwar announced his company’s decision to double investments in the food processing sector in Punjab to Rs 1,400 crore. The state government also announced the setting up of a Rs 100-crore startup fund, which did enthuse many young entrepreneurs present at the summit. But the caution was as palpable. Ashish Agrawal, director of JR Laddha Financial Services, which plans to fund startups, says the government must have the right kind of people managing the fund — people who understand the startup ecosystem. “The government should invite financial institutions, leading banks, fund of funds to become partners in the Punjab startup fund to help young entrepreneurs get the next round of funding,” he says. For now, Punjab is largely a one-trick pony — an investment hotbed for food processing, a sector that accounted for 35% of the total investments in the state in the last two years. “And why not? The deputy CM’s wife (Harsimrat Kaur Badal) is the Union minister of food processing. There will be no bottlenecks. It’s the best time for food processing firms to make a beeline for Punjab,” says an entrepreneur not wishing to be named. Captains of Indian industry at 2nd Progressive Punjab Investors Summit held at Mohali earlier this week

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