New Delhi: In a move that may spell trouble for private sector utilities and Chinese makers of power generation equipment, heavy industries minister Praful Patel has called a meeting on Thursday to discuss and push for the imposition of customs duties on imports of such equipment.

The meeting will be attended by officials from the ministries of heavy industries, commerce and power, and follows demands by local manufacturers to restrict Chinese power equipment imports.

Copper bars during the manufacture of dynamo units (File photo Bloomberg)

Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (Bhel) and Larsen and Toubro Ltd (L&T) have been lobbying with the government to limit Chinese competition. According to the contours of an earlier proposal, the imported equipment will be subjected to 5% customs duty, 10% countervailing duty and a special additional duty of 4%.

State-owned Bhel has been facing competition from Chinese power generation equipment firms such as Shandong Electric Power Construction Corp., Shanghai Electric Group Co. Ltd, Dongfang Electric Corp. Ltd and Harbin Power Equipment Co. Ltd, both in domestic and overseas markets.

Power utilities have placed orders for overseas equipment largely because of the inability of local manufacturers to meet growing demand. Chinese imports are relatively cheaper because equipment makers from that country benefit from low interest rates and an undervalued currency. Undervaluing the currency makes exports cheaper and increases demand of products.

“We’re aware about the proposal about levying duties on imported equipment. This is a very sensitive issue and we’ll take some action. It’s an unfair policy," said an Indian representative of Shanghai Electric.

Patel didn’t respond to phone calls or to a message left on his cellphone on Friday. A Bhel executive, requesting anonymity, confirmed the development.

“There is a forward movement on the proposal," the official said.

The proposal being pushed by the heavy industries ministry has been in the works for some time and is aimed at creating a level-playing field for domestic companies.

The power ministry was not in favour of such a move until after the start of the 12th Five-year Plan (2012-17). A panel of senior government officials had earlier agreed to impose the taxes.

Planning Commission member Arun Maira has also recommended 14% import duty on power generation equipment to strike a balance between protecting local manufacturers and the need to import equipment to boost power production, Mint reported on 10 February 2010.

“There is an intent on the part of the government to limit Chinese imports," said another official, who did not want to be named.

Mint reported on 29 September about the government reviving a plan to scrap its so-called mega power plant policy, imposing a 5% customs duty on the import of equipment that goes into thermal projects that will generate at least 1,000 megawatts. However, the move needs to be cleared by the cabinet and the rule will apply only to new projects; firms that have already placed orders with Chinese companies will be exempt.

Power generation equipment makers having a manufacturing base in India—Bhel, Doosan Heavy Industries and Construction Co. Ltd, and the joint ventures between L&T and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd; Toshiba Corp. and JSW Group; Ansaldo Caldaie SpA of Italy and Gammon India Ltd; Alstom SA of France and Bharat Forge Ltd; BGR Energy Systems Ltd and Hitachi Power Europe GmbH, and Thermax Ltd and Babcock and Wilcox Co.—stand to benefit from such a move.

India’s move to curb Chinese power equipment imports comes at a time when the two countries have been discussing ways to double bilateral trade to $100 billion by 2015 and to plug a yawning trade gap in China’s favour.

Aggression against a significant trade partner like China will not pay in the long run, said Abhijit Das, head of the Centre for WTO Studies.

“While imposing any such import duty, we have to first of all keep in mind that it is compliant with out commitments under the World Trade Organization and within the bound tariff rates," he said. “Secondly, it has to be applicable to all countries on a non-discriminatory basis and no country can be singled out."

India has been complaining about the increasing trade imbalance with China and lack of access for Indian firms to the Chinese market. China is the second-largest trade partner of India, behind only the United Arab Emirates. Indian exports to China were valued at $19.6 billion in 2010-11 and imports from that country $43.5 billion.

Amrit Raj contributed to this story.