Walmart after the Mexico US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act investigation identified India operations as a high risk. It commenced an internal investigation with the help of KPMG India and law firm Greenberg Traurig. Recently CFO and five officers of legal team were suspended. The legal team’s job entailed procuring licenses required for stores and other real estate approvals, taxation etc. Bharti Walmart has opened 18 stores till date. Hence, the suspicion is that these officers paid bribes to get the licenses.
According to the Economic Times article, multiple government permissions are required from the government. The Retail Association of India lists 51 different approvals from 32 different agencies. Seeing the corruption index of India and the way government departments’ function, I would be very surprised if an organization manages to obtain all the relevant licenses without any grease payments. Hence, the question is how will the organizations manage to function without paying bribes?
1. Dubious Dealings
Considering the huge operations of Bharti group, I would be very surprised if the bribes were paid without senior management approval. Most of the liaisons work has senior managers’ tacit or explicit approval. Therefore, is it right to suspend some after obtaining licenses. What happens in such a case to the license? Will the license be revoked, cancelled, or returned? If not, what is stopping the organizations from first taking the licenses by paying bribes and then doing a clean-up exercise to show their commitment to ethics?
2. Joint Venture Liabilities
The second issue that crops up is the working of the joint venture in such circumstances. Let us assume the investigation reveals bribes were paid. In such a situation, will Bharti group be expected to pay back the bribe money? Secondly, if the US authorities under a civil case fine Walmart for FCPA contravention, will Bharti be expected to pay the fine. Seeing the trend the fine could be huge and would wipe out profitability of the company. Moreover, US Department of Justice can pursue criminal liabilities. Then will the Indian officers be implicated for the same.
3. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Retail Industry
The government has recently allowed FDI in retail industry. The challenge is that in India, most of the retail operations operate by paying bribes at different levels. Hence, a foreign investor will not get a level playing field as the anti-corruption laws of their country bind them. The situation is serious. For instance, the next stage after obtaining licenses would require importing goods. The FCPA strictly prohibits paying bribes to custom officers whereas in India this is a common business practice. Can an organization wait for months to get its stock cleared by the custom officers? Now the foreign investors will analyse the reward versus risk scenario of their business plans for investing in retail industry in India.
The case opens up interesting aspects of risks of doing business in India. Corruption poses serious obstacles in doing fair business dealings. The FCPA and laws of various countries strictly prohibit paying bribes to foreign officials. The US government has followed some stringent measures against companies contravening the laws. Under such circumstances will the joint ventures between foreign investors and Indian counterparts work? India cannot change overnight, so what is the solution? Share your thoughts with me on this.