The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has initiated discussions with banks to address financial stress in the telecom sector, particularly Vodafone Idea Ltd (VIL) that urgently requires fund infusion to stay afloat.
There was a meeting of DOT officials and senior bankers on Friday on the issue of Vodafone, sources said, adding that banks have been asked to look for a solution within the prudential guidelines.
According to sources, senior officials from the country's biggest lenders State Bank of India and Bank of Baroda were also present among others in the meeting.
More such meetings are expected to take place in the coming days, they said.
Meanwhile, the finance ministry has asked public sector banks to collate and submit data related to their debt exposure to the telecom sector in general and VIL in particular.
Lenders, both public and private, stare at a loss of Rs 1.8 lakh crore in case VIL collapses.
A large part of the loans to the lender is in the form of guarantees with public sector banks having a lion's share of the debt.
Among the private sector lenders, Yes Bank and IDFC First Bank may be impacted the most.
As a precursor, some private lenders with a funded exposure have already started making provisions.
For example, IDFC First Bank has marked the account of VIL as stressed and has made provisions of 15 per cent (Rs 487 crore) against the outstanding exposure of Rs 3,244 crore (funded and non-funded).
"This provision translates to 24 per cent of the funded exposure on this account.
"The said account is current and has no overdues as of June 30, 2021," the lender said in its Q1 FY'22 investor presentation, referring to the account as "one large telecom account".
According to official data, VIL had an adjusted gross revenue (AGR) liability of Rs 58,254 crore out of which the company has paid Rs 7,854.37 crore and Rs 50,399.63 crore is outstanding.
The company's gross debt, excluding lease liabilities, stood at Rs 1,80,310 crore as of March 31, 2021.
The amount included deferred spectrum payment obligations of Rs 96,270 crore and debt from banks and financial institutions of Rs 23,080 crore apart from the AGR liability.
In a backdrop of such large liabilities, both the promoter Vodafone Plc (45 per cent stake) and Aditya Birla Group (27 per cent stake) expressed their inability to bring in additional capital.
Writing a letter to Cabinet secretary Rajiv Gauba in June, Aditya Birla Group Chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla said investors are not willing to invest in the company in the absence of clarity on AGR liability, adequate moratorium on spectrum payments and most importantly floor pricing regime being above the cost of service.
"It is with a sense of duty towards the 27 crore Indians connected by VIL, I am more than willing to hand over my stake in the company to any entity-public sector/government /domestic financial entity or any other that the government may consider worthy of keeping the company as a going concern," Birla said in the letter.
Birla has quit the post of non-executive chairman post of the floundering telecom giant last week.
Giving relief to Vodafone on one front, the government has proposed to withdraw all back tax demands on companies with passage of 'The Taxation Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021'.
The 2012 legislation, commonly referred to as the retrospective tax law, was enacted after the Supreme Court in January that year rejected proceedings brought by tax authorities against Vodafone International Holdings BV for its failure to deduct withholding tax from $11.1 billion paid to Hutchison Telecommunications in 2007 for buying out its 67 per cent stake in a wholly-owned Cayman Island incorporated subsidiary that indirectly held interests in Vodafone India Ltd.
The Finance Act 2012, which amended various provisions of the Income Tax Act, 1961 with retrospective effect, contained provisions intended to tax any gain on transfer of shares in a non-Indian company, which derives substantial value from underlying Indian assets, such as Vodafone's transaction with Hutchison in 2007 or the internal reorganisation of the India business that Cairn Energy did in 2006-07 before listing it on local bourses.
Using that law, tax authorities in January 2013 slapped Vodafone with a tax demand of Rs 14,200 crore, including principal tax of Rs 7,990 crore and interest.
This was in February 2016 updated to Rs 22,100 crore plus interest.
A similar demand was also slapped on Vedanta Ltd, which bought Cairn's India business in 2011.
Both Cairn and Vodafone challenged the demand under bilateral investment treaties India has with UK and the Netherlands, and they both got favourable rulings recently.
Vedanta, from whom no tax recovery was made, too initiated arbitration to challenge the tax demand under the India-UK treaty.
That arbitration award has not come yet.
Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters