On reducing tariffs for smartphone components | Explained

Why is the industry body calling for tariff cuts if it wants to expand domestic production?

Updated - July 10, 2024 01:20 pm IST

Published - July 10, 2024 08:30 am IST

Employees work at the assembly line inside TMB’s mobile phone battery manufacturing plant in Noida, in 2018.

Employees work at the assembly line inside TMB’s mobile phone battery manufacturing plant in Noida, in 2018. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

The story so far: The India Cellular and Electronics Association (ICEA), an industry body representing mobile and other electronics assembly and manufacturing units, has called for a reduction of tariffs on certain components for smartphones. The demand appears, at first blush, to be at odds with the goal of the government — and domestic players — to expand the domestic industrial base for components. However, the ICEA, whose members have included Apple and Foxconn, has argued that it opposes tariff cuts for components that are widely manufactured in India, such as open cells and LED light parts.

Why impose tariff cuts?

Reducing input costs for smartphone assembly units is the obvious reason for these demands. However, a principal justification makers cite for reduced tariffs on components is the saturation of the domestic market: nearly every phone made in India is assembled domestically, and the surplus is exported. By units, smartphones were the fifth largest classifiable commodity exported in the financial year 2022–23, compared to 2015–16, when the rank was 178. The implication goes, now that domestic demand is fulfilled, the need for high component tariffs has dimmed.

The second justification, the industry cites, is the nature of the specific components that it is seeking duty cuts for: Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) and sub-assemblies, which are highly complex, and miniaturised inputs for smartphones, are not close to being made in India, increasing costs for local assembly operations. Domestic manufacturing of these components’ could take around eight years, Pankaj Mohindroo, ICEA’s chairman estimated.

In addition, the ICEA said in a report last year, “the overall aggregate demand necessary for domestic investment in some inputs is much larger than the demand created by the prevailing production level.” This effectively means that current tariff levels on PCBs (20%) and other inputs are not resulting in increased domestic production of these components; rather, they are increasing the costs of assembly, as the components have to be assembled anyway.

The tariffs are also leading to a strange consequence: domestic component makers are jacking up prices they quote to assembly units to a “just noticeable difference” below the net cost of an imported component. Cutting tariffs would force domestic component makers to cut their prices and relieve operating expense pressure for assembly units.

What about foreign competitors?

The industry is casting these proposed changes as a “competitive re-alignment” to keep up with other main electronics manufacturing giants in China, Vietnam, Thailand and Mexico. Vietnam’s “bonded zones,” which have special exemptions on duties, allow assembly and manufacturing units based there to enjoy much lower tariffs on component imports. “If Indian companies such as Micromax and Lava want their phone to be competitive in the global market, they should not think of import substitution when selecting parts and components,” ICEA argues. “They should use the best available technologies to make their phones, regardless of the fact the technologies are made in India or not.”

“When China started to assemble smartphones 15 years ago, Chinese firms’ only contribution was labour intensive assembly, accounting for about 3.6% of the total manufacturing value addition,” the ICEA report says. “But, today, Chinese firms have captured about 25 per cent of the manufacturing value added by providing battery, camera filter, glass back-cover, stainless frame, printed circuit board assembly, and other parts, which are technology intensive and offer higher value added than pure assembly service,” the ICEA points out. “[T]here is a need to scale up production of smartphones. At this stage this can only be done by increasing exports. To increase exports, smartphones have to be competitive vis a vis China and Vietnam. This would require reducing tariffs and most importantly maintaining a stability in the tariff regime.”

Smartphone assembly units have been buoyed by the production linked incentive scheme for mobile manufacturing, which subsidises phones which are domestically assembled.

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