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Working in the Indian data centre market

Working in the Indian data centre market

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In 2020, the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology announced its draft Data Centre Policy, designed to make the country more attractive for domestic and foreign investment into the data centre sector. In this article, Ed Cooke, Founder at Conexus Law, shares some of his experiences of working on Indian projects including some of the key differences in design and construction contracts.

The vision

The government’s vision is to make India a global data hub, primarily by promoting the data centre sector to give it infrastructure status and creating a benign regulatory environment. Plans also include establishing Data Centre Economic Zones with high-quality power and connectivity infrastructure, water and other utilities, and creating financial incentives, particularly for the use of Indian-manufactured equipment and hardware. In fact, certain state governments, such as the states of Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, have already announced state-wide policies to encourage data centre development.

Over the past few years, a number of global data centre operators have announced investment partnerships focused on the Indian market. These include the recently announced joint venture between Digital Realty and Brookfield Infrastructure Partners, Yondr’s venture with Singaporean Everstone Group, AdaniConneX (a JV of EdgeConneX and Adani Group), and announcements of hyperscale data centre developments by the likes of CapitaLand, Hiranandani, NTT, and STT GDC. In fact, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bangalore and Delhi are already well advanced as important locations to serve the increasing Digital Transformation among the Indian domestic market and the global communications market.  Mumbai, in particular, has been the premier choice for hyperscale developments due to its infrastructure availability and proximate subsea landing stations.

Understanding the differences

At Conexus Law, we have recently been working for US and European based clients on the construction of hyperscale size data centre projects in India. As commercial and legal advisors specialising in technology infrastructure, one of our regular tasks is to help clients enter new markets. This includes helping them to understand the legal, commercial and cultural differences compared to operating in their ‘home’ environment. We always work with local partners and it is a part of our work that we really love doing.

The Indian legal system is fashioned on English common law, but overlayed with Indian legislation and regulatory laws. Indian court judgments set precedent and so it is important to understand both the legislative and common law context in which you are working. In our experience, most data centre construction contracts in India are either based on a bespoke form of contract or a FIDIC standard form (usually a Yellow Book). There are also other inevitable regional differences.

Areas to focus on

As an example, labour and the supply chain are a huge and complex area in India and we often get involved in advising clients on their approach to procurement, and to monitoring second and third tier suppliers. Performance security, bonds and third-party guarantees/letters of credit are extensively used on large construction projects in India and we play a role in monitoring these. Also structuring payments against milestones – in particular protections around advance payments – are, in our experience, common in India.

The quality and workmanship – and in particular compliance with local and international codes and standards – is an area of real focus and aligns with detailed staged and integrated commissioning processes. There are also a number of compulsory insurances required in India alongside those which would normally be expected by an international client.

Cultural considerations

When we are negotiating in a different country or culture, we work hard to understand how the approach of our negotiating partner might differ from your own. It is always risky to try to characterise a whole nation or culture by a set of rules and so there needs to be a lot of ‘finding your way’ with the relevant individuals. However, we find cultural frameworks such as the well-known Geert Hofstede index, can be useful as a starting point. For example, through that, we learn that Indian culture scores highly in relation to its appreciation of hierarchy. It is therefore important to establish early on where the individuals we are negotiating with fit and ensure that either negotiations on specific points are conducted at the right level. An alternative is to provide enough justification for our stance to enable the individual to take the decision back to his or her superiors and make a convincing argument. It is quite easy to cause offence by not respecting the hierarchical structure (perhaps by seeking to jump a level in order to get faster resolution of an issue). To the western negotiator who is often time pressured, negotiating can feel like a very slow process but it is important to temper frustrations for the long-term goal. Also remember, as with many Asian cultures, that the term ‘yes’ is often used to indicate understanding of the point being made, not agreement to it. In our experience, this can cause clients great difficulty when they report that an issue has been closed out, only to find it has not been.

In conclusion, investment in digital infrastructure is happening at scale in India and there is a vast amount of further potential in this market. In fact, investment in the Indian data centre market is expected to reach US$8 billion by 2026. There are inevitable challenges in meeting the demand of a very tech-enabled population and business sector quickly enough, with reliable infrastructure to overcome historic under-investment in the region, such as quality construction and availability of highly qualified labour. We are proud to be part of it.

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