On 15 December 2021, government of India announced new incentive schemes for development of semiconductor and display manufacturing ecosystem in India and earmarked Rs 76,000 crore as initial overlay, mainly as incentives for those willing to set up commercial display fabs, silicon and other types of fabs and chip design companies in India.
The same press release also said: "In order to drive the long-term strategies for developing a sustainable semiconductors and display ecosystem, a specialized and independent 'India Semiconductor Mission (ISM)' will be set up. The India Semiconductor Mission will be led by global experts in semiconductor and display industry. It will act as the nodal agency for efficient and smooth implementation of the schemes on Semiconductors and Display ecosystem".
By the end of December 2021, ISM launched its website which had details of the incentive schemes, application and approval process.
For example, for the silicon fab approval process, the notification states that "The applicant(s) will be evaluated by the Nodal Agency based on Quality and Cost Based Selection (QCBS) criteria. This will include technical parameters such as process technologies, project implementation capacity, operation capability, etc. This will also include financial parameters such as fiscal support sought from the government. The QCBS evaluation criteria shall be decided by Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology in consultation with Nodal Agency and approved by the Minister of Electronics and Information Technology".
Clearly, expertise in the semiconductor domain in general and fabs in particular will be helpful to judge parameters like process technologies, capacity and operational capability of the applicants.
Perhaps, keeping this in mind, ISM opened CEO, CTO and CFO positions and posted them on 19 January 2022. The CEO position for example demanded a minimum of 25 years of industry experience of which at least 10 years has to be global experience.
CTO and CFO positions also have such requirements, details of which can be found in this report in Swarajya published in February 2022. It is said that the government did not want "retirees", and the ideal age group that was being considered was "in the 50s" so that he or she can serve a reasonably long period to be able to make an impact in a field that takes time to establish. Though not an exact parallel, the hope was (is) a Vikram Sarabhai kind of personality and an ISRO kind of organisation.
Clearly the intentions were (are) good, but six months after opening the position, there is no sign of the government having identified such a person with industry experience for any of the three positions.
It is said that the Joint Secretary in MEITY responsible for semiconductor fabs is the de-facto CEO of ISM and as per a notification on 30 May 2022, it is Amitesh Kumar Sinha. Despite reports in end-April that appointing an industry experienced CEO is imminent, so far there is no such indication.
In early April, the government constituted a 17-member advisory committee for ISM. There has been some criticism ever since that in the 17 member committee, only one member (Ajit Manocha) has industry experience in semiconductor fabs and one member (Vinod Dham) in semiconductor design.
Subsequently, the government has added three more members to the advisory committee of which two have industry experience in semiconductor fabs — Cyril Patrick Fernandez and Rajesh Nair.
It is not clear if the government is still in the pursuit of industry experienced CEO/CTO/CFO for ISM. It may be difficult to find the kind of people that the government is hoping for — someone in their 50s with 25 years of industry experience is likely to be either at the peak of their career or aspiring to be.
Quitting their industry job to work for a government decision making body "guided" by a 20-member advisory committee may not be a lucrative consideration. Among NRIs, the prospect of having to relocate family to India is another challenge. Indications are that the government has already interviewed or contacted many and nothing has worked out so far.
What will be interesting to see is whether this will impact the timeline of the review and approval process. In countries like Japan where similar incentives were announced around the same time as India as per a report in Focus Taiwan "the construction of a wafer fab to be run by Japan Advanced Semiconductor Manufacturing, Inc. (JASM), a joint venture with TSMC, began in April, with shipments from the plant scheduled to start in December 2024".
In the US too, despite the CHIPS Act not being finalised companies like TSMC and Intel have gone ahead and started construction of new fabs — perhaps the trust that the incentives will eventually come through is higher.
Indications are that the ISM initiated a review process and the negotiations with the applicants have been going on for the past few months, despite the lack of industry experienced CEO/CTO. It is likely that both the techno savvy ministers who just completed one year in office are also doing what they can.
The policy does not mention a timeline for approval. Slow progress have been a worrying factor for the applicants as equipment wait times are increasing and rupee is sliding against the dollar.
As per the policy, the final approving authority is the Minister for Electronics and IT.
According to statements by Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw in end-June, "We are in a very advanced stage of evaluation of the applications, which were received in February" and "we believe that in the coming few months, we should have the first agreement signed this year". Another report in early July said "ministry squints at operational factors as industry hopes for speedy approval".
In his Independence Day speech last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had rightly pointed out the need to have capabilities in "world-class manufacturing, cutting-edge innovations and new-age technology".
As India completes 75 years of Independence, one wonders if the Prime Minister will have something to boast on semiconductor fabrication in this year's much awaited Independence Day address.
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