Japan and South Korea strengthened their grip on the Indian steel market in April, supplying nearly three-fifths of the total imports, according to government data seen by Reuters .

The increasing inroads the foreign steel makers are making will add to pressure on the Indian government to take protectionist measures to support local mills. Indian steel makers have been lobbying New Delhi for such backing in recent weeks.

India, the world's second biggest steel producer, relies on imports to meet demand for high-grade steel required for automobiles and white goods.

Gaining ground

Japan and South Korea together supplied about 57 per cent of India's 6,30,000 tonnes of steel imports in April, compared with about 45 per cent in the same month a year ago, the provisional data showed.

Free-trade treaties with Japan and South Korea allow tax-free imports from the two nations, giving them an edge over others. Steel imports from Japan in April jumped 27 per cent to 1,16,000 tonnes from the same month year ago, while Korean imports rose 15 per cent to 2,45,000 tonnes, the data showed.

Overall, India's steel imports fell 6.1 per cent in April from a year earlier, but the world's second-biggest steel producer retained the net importer tag for a second month in a row as exports also slowed during the month, the data showed.

Major steel producers, such as Japan, South Korea and China, are keen to capture growing demand hubs like India after being blocked from markets in the United States and Europe by tariffs and other protectionist measures.

India's steel imports from China declined 29 per cent to 88,000 tonnes in April, but imports from Asian trading hub Singapore rose 77 per cent to 23,000 tonnes, data showed. Industry sources said that perhaps China, already locked in a trade war with the US, is shipping some of its steel to India through Singapore.

Protecting local manufactures

Government officials are already discussing injecting so-called safeguard measures to protect local steel mills from cheaper Chinese imports, sources told Reuters earlier this month.

“If this trend continues, millions of jobs will be lost. This will make operations unviable for domestic producers. A comprehensive assessment by the government is critical at this juncture,” said Abhyuday Jindal, Managing Director of Jindal Stainless, the country’s largest stainless steel producer.

India has also lost some of its global clients to cheaper steel exports from China, Japan and South Korea.

India's steel exports declined 17.8 per cent to 5,80,000 tonnes in April from a year earlier due to fewer shipments to its traditional markets of Belgium and Italy, the data showed.

India's annual steel consumption in April increased 6.4 per cent to 7.5 million tonnes, the data showed. On a monthly basis, the local demand for steel in April fell 21 per cent from March, the steepest monthly drop in three years, indicating a slump in infrastructure and industrial activity.