Joint Venture companies are the most preferred form of corporate entities for investment in India. There are no separate laws for joint ventures in India. The companies incorporated in India, even with up to 100% foreign equity, are treated the same as domestic companies. Foreign companies are also free to open branch offices in India. However, a branch of a foreign company attracts a higher rate of tax than a subsidiary or a joint venture company. The liability of the parent company is also greater in case of a branch office.
The Government has outlined 37 high priority areas covering most of the industrial sectors. Investment proposals involving up to 74% foreign equity in these areas receive automatic approval within two weeks. An application to the Reserve Bank of India in the form FC (RBI) is required. The application can be made either by the Indian party or the foreign party. Existing companies having foreign equity holding and desiring to increase it to 74% can also obtain automatic approval if they are in priority areas. Besides the 37 high priority areas, automatic approval is available for 74% foreign equity holdings setting up international trading companies engaged primarily in export activities.
Approval of foreign equity is not limited to 74% and to high priority industries. Greater than 74% of equity and areas outside the high priority list are open to investment, but government approval is required. For these greater equity investments or for areas of investment outside of high priority an application in the form FC (SIA) has to be filed with the Secretariat for Industrial Approvals. A response is given within 6 weeks. Full foreign ownership (100% equity) is readily allowed in power generation, coal washeries, electronics, Export Oriented Unit (EOU) or a unit in one of the Export Processing Zones ("EPZ's").
For major investment proposals or for those that do not fit within the existing policy parameters, there is the high-powered Foreign Investment Promotion Board ("FIPB"). The FIPB is located in the office of the Prime Minister and can provide single-window clearance to proposals in their totality without being restricted by any predetermined parameters.
Foreign investment is also welcomed in many of infrastructure areas such as power, steel, coal washeries, luxury railways, and telecommunications. The entire hydrocarbon sector, including exploration, producing, refining and marketing of petroleum products has now been opened to foreign participation. The Government had recently allowed foreign investment up to 51% in mining for commercial purposes and up to 49% in telecommunication sector. The government is also examining a proposal to do away with the stipulation that foreign equity should cover the foreign exchange needs for import of capital goods. In view of the country's improved balance of payments position, this requirement may be eliminated.
Selection of a good local partner is the key to the success of any joint venture. Personal interviews with a prospective joint venture partner should be supplemented with proper due diligence. Once a partner is selected generally a memorandum of understanding or a letter of intent is signed by the parties highlighting the basis of the future joint venture agreement. Before signing the joint venture agreement, the terms should be thoroughly discussed to avoid any misunderstanding at a later stage. Negotiations require an understanding of the cultural and legal background of the parties.