iSPIRT’s response to Union Budget 2023

Budget 2023 – Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) the ‘Mantra’ for New India

iSPIRT Foundation, a technology think-and-do tank, believes that India’s hard problems can be solved only by leveraging public technology for private innovation. iSPIRT as a think tank pioneered the Digital Public infrastructure (DPIs)

India is at the cusp of what could be the most exciting quarter century of its post-independence existence, referred to as ‘Amrit Kaal’ by the Economic Survey yesterday and today in the Budget speech. The Economic Survey also mentioned that GDP could be boosted by 1% by Digital Public Infrastructure (DPIs), where India is stealing a March on the world for sure. 

The second testimony to the important contribution of DPIs to the economy comes in the budget speech today when the finance minister stated, “India’s rising global profile is because of several accomplishments: unique world class digital public infrastructure, e.g., Aadhaar, Co-Win and UPI” in the forefront. 

Development of DPIs, Stay-in-India Checklist (for Ease of Doing business of Startups), and a ‘jugalbandi’ between public technology and private innovation, through techno-legal regulations, are central to iSPIRT’s work in an attempt to build Product Nation. 

The union budget 2023, brings in cheer to see attempts on the following:

  • Digital Public Infrastructure: The resolve to deepen the DPI and the belief in their role in economic growth. India Stack to build the DPIs has become central to the thought process. Taking the queue ahead the budget 2023 announced the development of DPI for Agriculture, which will be an open source, OpenAPI digital public good, to build inclusive farmer-centric solutions, credit & insurance, farm inputs market intelligence. An Agriculture Accelerator Fund has been announced to promote Agritech start-ups.
  1. Vigyan Infrastructure: efforts to boost R&D, though limited to some sectors right now. Notable among these are – It encourages private sector R&D teams for encouraging collaborative research and innovation in select ICMR labs in the PPP model
  2. One hundred labs for developing applications using 5G services will be set up in engineering institutions. 
  3. Center of Excellence for AI for “Make AI in India and Make AI work for India
  • MSMEs funding & growth is part of the budget thought process, which may lead to the use of another DPI called Open Credit Enablement Networks (OCEN) for enabling MSME funding.
  • The importance of Ease of doing business is reflected in some announcements like using PAN as a Common digital identifier and entity DigiLocker for MSMEs.
  • Wanting to keep the startup revolution going is reflected in the intent to use Startups to build technology in multiple sectors and also use the policy for a new India.

However, beneath all the euphoria, some chronic issues remained to be addressed. The disappointment is on the Stay-in-India checklist (a list of Ease of doing business issues for Startups) to stop startups from slipping from India, which has not been addressed. The checklist is being continuously pursued by iSPIRT and is much needed to provide a competitive edge for India to refrain startups from leaving her jurisdiction.  

Overall it’s heartening to see the vision statement in budget, “Our vision for the Amrit Kaal includes technology-driven and knowledge-based economy”.   

About iSPIRT Foundation – We are a non-profit think-and-do tank that builds public goods for Indian product startups to thrive and grow. iSPIRT aims to do for Indian startups what DARPA or Stanford did in Silicon Valley. iSPIRT builds four types of public goods – technology building blocks (aka India stack), startup-friendly policies, market access programs like M&A Connect and Playbooks that codify scarce tacit knowledge for product entrepreneurs of India.

For more, visit further queries, reach out to Email:  [email protected] or [email protected].

RBI Rationalized Reporting Process for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)

iSPIRT is pursuing the Stay-in-India Checklist 2.0 with DPIIT, Government of India targeted to bring Ease of Doing Business for start-ups.

Our efforts gained momentum with DPIIT’s Regulatory Roundtables since August 2022. RBI has further eased the reporting of FDI on the FIRMS portal.  The item was on the list of issues that were taken up with RBI through DPIIT.

The new announcement called “Foreign Investment in India – Rationalisation of reporting” has been announced vide circular no. RBI/2022-23/160 A.P. (DIR Series) Circular No. 22 Dated January 04, 2023. Please visit the RBI site on link here.

The announcement is expected to further ease the reporting of the foreign direct investment received.

Details of the Reform Measure

In its effort to tout India as an attractive investment destination, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has released the RBI/2022-23/160 A.P. (DIR Series) Circular No. 22 on 4 January 2023, which brings about certain reforms in the reporting process in the Single Master Form (SMF) on the FIRMS portal. The SMF is a form which integrates the reporting structure of various types of foreign investment in India. It has implemented the following changes with respect to reporting in the SMF on the FIRMS portal:

  • The forms submitted on the portal will now be auto-acknowledged with a time stamp and an auto-generated email will be sent to the applicant. The AD banks will have to verify the same within 5 (five) working days based on the documents uploaded.
  • The system would automatically identify a delay in reporting if any.
  • For forms filed with a delay of less than or equal to 3 (three) years, the AD bank will approve the same, subject to the payment of LSF.
  • The LSF will be computed by the system, and an e-mail will be sent to the applicant and the concerned Regional Office (RO) of the RBI, specifying the amount and the timeline within which the LSF is to be paid to the concerned RO.
  • Once the LSF amount is realised, the concerned RO will update the status in the FIRMS portal, and the updated status will be communicated to the applicant through a system-generated e-mail, which can also be viewed in the FIRMS portal.
  • The AD bank will approve the forms filed with a delay greater than three years, subject to the compounding of the contravention. The applicant may thereafter approach the RBI with their application for compounding.
  • The remarks of the AD Bank for rejection of forms, if any, will be communicated to the applicant through a system-generated e-mail and the same can also be viewed in the FIRMS portal.

The resulting effects of the RBI circular

1.   Auto acknowledgement of SMF

While the rationalisation of the reporting process is a welcome move, and the auto acknowledgement of forms will bring comfort to the applicants after filing the form, we are receiving mixed reactions from stakeholders with regard to the verification of the forms submitted by the applicants within the 5 (five) working day window. Given that there are no overarching guidelines on the format of documents required for filing Form FC-GPR and Form FC-TRS, and the format differs from bank to bank, it may be helpful if banks were to consider offering pre-vetting services in relation to reporting for cross-border transactions.

The likely result of an AD bank not approving the form within 5 days will be auto-approval of the form.

The circular is silent on what happens in the event an authorised dealer (Bank) isn’t satisfied with the details. It seems, in such an event, what could have been approved with a few follow-up queries will have to be rejected within the 5-day window, if the queries remain unanswered.

Separately, we also believe that a 5-day window is very short given the complexity that can arise with some filings. Banks and their regulatory teams also usually work only till 5:00 PM (and cannot, in any case, be expected to work 24×7), so if a form is submitted close to or after 5:00 PM, an applicant may already have lost close to a day.

2.   Online calculation of late submission fee.

Auto-identification of a delay in reporting and calculation of the late submission fee (LSF) by the system will likely be greatly appreciated by stakeholders. Prior to this reform, if an applicant received an email from the RBI regarding the LSF, the applicant would have to draw a demand draft in favour of the RBI, which would have to be acknowledged by the RBI through email. While the process was efficient and hasn’t changed post the amendment, there have been multiple instances of applicants not having a record of the acknowledgement with them after a few years, either due to: (a) IT policies of the organisation which delete older emails; or (b) due to a change in employees. Now that the concerned RO of the RBI will update the status on the FIRM’s portal (along with the standard email process), the amount will be reconciled and the LSF can be viewed on the portal as well.


This blog is to cover the new announcement by the regulator and should not be construed as an advice, in any manner on the subject matter.

The Blog is Authored by Tanuvi Thakur of iSPIRT and Sanjay Khan, Khaitan & Co.

38% of India’s Unicorns Are Not “Indian”

India currently has 90 unicorns – startup companies that are valued at over $1b – and will likely soon have 100 unicorns, becoming the third such country after the USA and China. Since January 2016 when the “Startup India” program was launched, the startup ecosystem of India including infrastructure for startups, be it incubators, mentorship, funding, corporate initiatives, media coverage, or even patent filing, has improved substantially making life easier for entrepreneurs. 

However, it is still not as smooth a ride for the Indian start-ups as it is for startups in the advanced economies of say, the USA, Singapore, and China. Our “ease of doing business” is yet to be on par with the developed world, especially given the high taxation, onerous compliance requirements, inadequate and cumbersome legal protection of IP, as well as time-consuming and expensive processes to access capital and secure exits. It isn’t a surprise therefore that many companies are shifting their primary legal location to foreign jurisdictions like the USA, and Singapore. 

How do the numbers stand?

As per a study by Venture Intelligence, of the presently known 90 “Indian” unicorns), 56 are based in India, 25 in the USA, 8 in Singapore, and 1 in the Netherlands spanning sectors from e-Commerce to fintech to gaming and more. In other words,  38% of “Indian” unicorns are not quite Indian as they are domiciled outside of India. Moreover, these 34 unicorns have raised approximately $30B ie, this large money could have been but hasn’t been invested into an India domiciled entity. 

Sector Wise break-up of the Unicorns 

Source: Venture Intelligence

Chart: Sector-wise domicile of unicorns as on 31st March 2022.

The reasons for incorporating in the USA are different from incorporating in say,  Singapore. SaaS founders find it easier to reach out to the large market for SaaS “Software as a Service” based offerings in the USA by incorporating there. Companies incorporated in Singapore for high “ease of doing business”, low taxation, quality infrastructure, and quality of life while remaining close to India.  

Out of 12 Indian unicorns in the SaaS category, all except Zoho and Darwinbox are based in the USA. SaaS offerings are expected to be a $1 trillion opportunity and India will lose wealth creation, tax revenues, listing, and related income, by not having these companies domiciled in India. 

Of the three unicorns in a frontier technology area like Artificial Intelligence, namely – Glance, Fractal, and Mindtickle, one is registered in Singapore while the other two are in the USA. Of the 3 unicorns in Gaming, Mobile Premier League and  Dream 11 are based in Singapore and New Jersey respectively while Games 24×7 is registered in India. 

Flipkart, India’s greatest startup success story and the poster boy for Indian e-commerce, which was acquired by Walmart at a valuation of over $20B, was domiciled in Singapore.  That set the trend of e-commerce companies having their HQs in the island country. There are many Singapore shell companies set up by VC funds to become holding companies for Indian subsidiaries. Singapore is today the hottest destination for the registration of Indian e-commerce players.

Even more worrying than this trend of registering the parent company outside India is the migration of startup founders to UAE and Singapore.  Lower taxes, easier access to capital, government support, simple compliance, and better quality of life while being just a short flight away from India make the UAE and Singapore rather attractive to founders. 

Whichever country our startups chose to register or our founders chose to migrate to, the ultimate loser is India with intellectual property ownership and funds being vested in non-Indian jurisdictions. 

Stay in India Mission

In order to retain the economic value added by the start-up ecosystem, it is important that India urgently puts in place policies that ensure that founders and startups ‘Stay-in-India”.  This will require the coming together of various ministries, particularly DPIIT/Min of Commerce, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, and regulators like the Reserve Bank of India and Securities and Exchange Board of India to address the Stay-in-India Checklist. 

Stay-in-India is an evolving checklist of issues that need to be solved to contain the exodus of startups from India. These issues fall under four categories: a) Ease of doing business and making it easy to raise funds; b) harmonization of coding of digital economy c) Reducing overall tax anomalies and d) Increased DTA and foreign markets access. 

The issues are comprehensively listed in the Stay-in-India checklist

As an example, let’s consider the anomalies in the taxation of dividends. Dividend received from overseas subsidiaries, that has been already taxed, is taxed once again in India as income in the hands of the company. Also, while the rate of tax on such dividends for certain companies is 15% (as against 30%), the same exemption is not provided to limited-liability partnerships and individuals. It amounts to double taxation of income and discourages a model where overseas subsidiaries of Indian startups can pay dividends at lower tax rates to Indian shareholders. Removal of this dividend tax will directly encourage start-ups to remain domiciled in India and receive dividend income from subsidiaries abroad. 

Similarly, there are regulatory frictions e.g. TDS on the sale of software products which reduces the working capital in hands of Software product companies, or the need for filling the Softex form (which was relevant in the early days of IT services exports), and which is now redundant as GSTN Invoices already have the required and sufficient data. All that is required is for different departments of the Govt and regulators to connect digitally and share information. The unfavourable tax regime for IPR protection, such as subjection to minimum alternate tax, IPRs being subject to income tax, and not capital gains even when they are held for more than a year is another big irritant. Technology-heavy startups, therefore, tend to relocate to jurisdictions like Singapore and the USA that have a smoother and lower-cost approach. Founders relocating to overseas jurisdictions are typically seen around the time of M&A. One of the reasons relates to taxation: typically, a portion of the financial proceeds arising from an M&A transaction is held in escrow and released to the founders after some time and/or completion of certain contractual obligations. The escrow payments are treated as income by the Indian tax authorities rather than capital gains as other jurisdictions do – this needs resolution.

India is emerging as a global startup hub, with the support of the Govt, with our startups attracting capital and talent while being at the forefront of innovation, jobs, wealth, and intellectual property creation. Brand India is enhanced globally by the success of Indian startups.  With more support from the Government by way of removal of regulatory friction and by providing incentives – fiscal and regulatory –  the ecosystem required to create, enable and grow Indian startups will dramatically accelerate. 

The Ease of Doing Business must be tackled in mission mode with the Stay-in-India Mission (SIIM) being an integral part of India is to secure its rightful place around the global innovation table. 

The blog post is co-authored by our volunteers Sanjay Anandram and Amit Agrahari. You can reach out to Amit at [email protected]

Disclaimer: The article depends upon various pubic data sources apart from credible data sources that are relevant at the current date and time. Readers may like to read this accordingly. 

Data Sources Courtesy: 1. Venture Intelligence. 2. Invest India

The cause of ‘SaaS’ Industry is top priority on iSPIRT’s policy radar

‘SaaS’ can drive the future of Indian IT Industry both in International trade as well as domestic front. With changing dynamics in Software sector globally, ‘SaaS’ can help India remain a Software power house. iSPIRT has been following ‘SaaS’ industry growth from this perspective. The realization that there are several policy hurdles for ‘SaaS’ industry was very early conceived at iSPIRT.

Accordingly, iSPIRT made several attempts to ease the problems of ‘SaaS’ industry. One of the belief at iSPIRT is that ‘SaaS’ is basically about ‘product’ first and then a ‘service’. With this belief iSPIRT has been continuously taking up the case of clear distinction of Software product within the larger framework of Digital economy consisting of “Digital goods” and “Digital services”.

In order to stop the exodus of Startups, which constitutes a large number of ‘SaaS’ based startups, a Stay-in-India checklist was taken up with Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP). There have been a number of items cleared by DIPP such as Angle Tax, Fair market Value, ESOPs provisions made better, Company incorporation rules simplified, Domestic venture debt made easy, Convertible notes, FVCI norms relaxed and External Commercial borrowing (ECB) eased by RBI etc. Some of these announcements under the shadow of StartupIndia policy. However, iSPIRT has been continuously pushing policy makers to relax all these norms for all start-ups. iSPIRT covered most of these announcements in PolicyHacks blogs given here.

A major problem area for ‘SaaS’ startups is also the payment gateway systems. ‘SaaS’ industry has to resort to either relocate to a foreign geography, or open a subsidiary abroad or seek expensive international payment gateway services. On domestic front the ‘SaaS’ industry suffers from recurring billing problems. Both these issues were taken up in PolicyHacks sessions given here. iSPIRT believes Indian ‘SaaS’ companies should be able to carry of out international trade of digital goods without moving out of India seamlessly and using Indian payment Gateway systems.

The belief at iSPIRT that a futuristic industrial policy at Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) is required to meet the challenge of Indian IT industry was followed up with a National Policy on Software Product (NPSP) at MeitY. Being the administrative ministry for this Industry MeitY has in past played highly catalytic role in making of IT industry that India is proud today. A similar renewed thrust is required to push the Indian Software Product Industry.

One of the main emphasis in NPSP draft being followed up at MeitY is the ‘‘SaaS’’ segment. iSPIRT team is continuously engaging with the MeitY officials to educate them and influence on the importance and the need to focus on ‘SaaS’ segment.

There is recognition in Government system for need of this strategic shift. Honourable Prime Minister’s speech at Germany (Link here see 12th Minutes segment) is the evident of this realization of need for change that can lead to companies like Google to be born out of India.

iSPIRT is striving hard in this direction to see the ‘SaaS’ as the next big leap by India.

External Commercial Borrowing norms for Startup (ECB)

What is ECB?

External commercial borrowings(ECB) imply borrowing (debt) from a foreign (non-resident) lender. ECB is an attractive financing route as it generally offers access to finance with low rate of interest available from overseas low interest markets.

ECBs have been in use by many corporations, PSUS and especially by MNCs setting up operations in India. Who can raise an ECB, from where and under what conditions, rate, maturity period etc. are all governed by Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in India.  Startups till now did not have access to the ECB route of funding.

RBI announcement on ECB for Startups

Announcement was made by the Reserve Bank in the Fourth Bi-monthly Monetary Policy Statement for the year 2016-17 released on October 04, 2016, for permitting Startup enterprises to access loans under ECB framework.

Sanjay Khan Nagra, iSPIRT volunteer talks about this announcement in the video embedded. Below.

As such RBI circular is self-explanatory attached here. However, for ready reference, some salient features of the RBI announcement are covered in the text given below.

What are the key announcements?

What is a Startups as per circular?

The above circular covers Startups as defined by the Official Gazette of Government of India dated February 18, 2016 (i.e. Startup Policy of DIPP) given here.

How much can a startup borrow and in what currency?

A startup can borrow up to US$ 3 million or equivalent per financial year either in Indian rupee or any convertible foreign currency or a combination of both. In case of borrowing in INR, the non-resident lender, should mobilise INR through swaps/outright sale undertaken through an AD Category-I bank in India.

What is minimum maturity period?

Minimum average maturity period will be 3 years.

For what end-use can startups use ECB?

Usually there are end-use direction for an ECB. However, for startups under the above said circular of RBI, ECB can be used for any expenditure in connection with the business of the Startup.

What is all-in-cost of ECB?

There are no limits. The RBI circular says, this shall be mutually agreed between the borrower and the lender

In what forms can one receive the lending?

It can be in the form of loans or non-convertible, optionally convertible or partially convertible preference shares and the minimum average maturity period will be 3 years.

Can this be converted in to equity?

Yes, conversion into equity is freely permitted, subject to Regulations applicable for foreign investment in Startups.

Who can lend?

Previously, ECB regime inter alia set out various conditions for Indian companies raising loan from external borrowings including conditions relating to (i) eligible borrowers (ii) eligible lenders (iii) permitted end uses etc.

After this circular, the lender / investor shall be a resident of a country who is either a member of Financial Action Task Force (FATF) or a member of a FATF-Style Regional Bodies; and shall not be from a country identified in the public statement of the FATF. (Please see RBI Circular for detail)

However, overseas branches and subsidiaries of Indian banks and overseas wholly-owned subsidiary or joint venture of an Indian company will not be considered as recognized lenders.

What are security norms?

Foreign lenders or Investors are allowed to request security for any collateral in the nature of movable, immovable, intangible assets (including patents, IP rights etc.) but shall comply with foreign direct investment norms applicable for foreign lenders holding such securities.

Issuance of corporate or personal guarantee is allowed. Guarantee issued by non-resident(s) is allowed only if such parties qualify as lender under paragraph 2(c) above. Exclusion: Issuance of guarantee, standby letter of credit, letter of undertaking or letter of comfort by Indian banks, all India Financial Institutions and NBFCs is not permitted.

For more details you are requested to refer the RBI circular here.