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Is Modi govt weakening HAL?

January 16, 2019 19:17 IST

With no payments coming in, HAL for the first time ever taken a bank loan of Rs 7.81 billion.
Ajai Shukla reports.

IMAGE: In 2016, then Indian Air Force chief, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, flew a trainer version of the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft at HAL airport in Bengaluru. Photograph: Press Information Bureau

By the end of this financial year, the Indian Air Force will soon owe Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd dues of Rs 200 billion (Rs 20,000 crore), says its chairman, R Madhavan, including Rs 70 billion (Rs 7,000 crore) carried forward from last year.

While the IAF has held back HAL's payments during this two-year period, it has paid foreign vendors on schedule.

MoD sources say Dassault Aerospace has got close to Rs 200 billion (Rs 20,000 crore) towards 36 Rafale fighters contracted in September 2016.

Smaller sums, in the region of Rs 20 billion (Rs 2,000 crore) annually, have been paid to Boeing for contracts signed in 2015 for Apache and Chinook helicopters.

Dassault deliveries of the Rafale fighter are due to start later this year.

The same is true of Boeing.

On the other hand, as Madhavan points out: "The IAF owes the HAL money for aircraft, helicopters and services that we have already delivered. Current dues are Rs 15,700 crore (Rs 157 billion)and will rise to Rs 20,000 crore by March 31."

With no payments coming in, HAL had an unprecedented negative cash balance at the end of the year.

The company's 29,000 employees -- already hurting from Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman's statement in September that HAL was incapable of building the Rafale -- entered New Year 2019 without their December salaries credited to their accounts.

Consequently, to meet the monthly salary bill of Rs 3.58 billion (Rs 358 crore), and to keep HAL's production lines running, which requires Rs 13 billion to Rs 14 billion (Rs 1,300 crore to Rs 1,400 crore) per month, the firm has -- for the first time ever -- taken a bank loan of Rs 7.81 billion (Rs 781 crore) in January.

HAL, traditionally a cash-rich firm, has steadily transferred Rs 110.24 billion (Rs 11,024 crore) of its cash reserves to the government.

In 2015-2016, the MoD ordered an 'equity buy back scheme' that required HAL to transfer Rs 63.93 billion (Rs 6,393 crore) to the government.

The firm made payment in two tranches -- Rs 52.65 billion (Rs 5,265 crore) in 2015-2016 and another Rs 11.28 billion (Rs 1,128 crore) in 2017-2018.

In addition, over the past five years, the HAL paid the government dividend and taxes worth Rs 46.31 billion (Rs 4,631 crore).

Madhavan says he will request the defence secretary to ask the IAF to pay at least part of its dues immediately.

The army and navy have always paid on time.

The IAF's non-payment illustrates how foreign buys have strained its finances.

Despite receiving the lion's share of the defence capital budget -- Rs 355.76 billion (Rs 35,756 crore) compared to the army's Rs 266.88 billion (Rs 26,688 crore) and the navy's Rs 208.48 billion (Rs 20,848 crore) -- payments to overseas vendors have left the IAF with no money to pay HAL for the equipment it has received.

This includes Sukhoi-30MKI and Tejas fighters, upgrades to the Mirage 2000 and Jaguar fighter fleet, and large supplies of indigenous Dhruv and Rudra helicopters.

With little hope of getting payment soon, HAL has instituted austerity measures.

A letter from the company's finance director, which this correspondent reviewed, states: '(The) current cash flow situation of the company is very critical. Against our annual budget requirements of Rs 19,334 crore (Rs 193.34 billion) during 2018-2019, so far only Rs 6,415 crore (Rs 64.15 billion) has been allocated and the money collected.'

'This has necessitated HAL to borrow funds from banks, which is Rs 781 crore (Rs 7.81 billion) as on 31.12.2018.'

'It has also been understood during the discussions held with the MoD last week that further allocation of budget from the IAF and other defence customers may not be forthcoming up to March 31.'

'This would result in a cash deficit of around Rs 6,000 crore (Rs 60 billion) up to March 31, even after considering postponement of major expenditure including certain procurements. Further the order book position of the company is not comfortable for long term sustainability.'

HAL's chairman admits that the IAF's inability to pay its bills would affect the company's share price.

"Effectively, HAL's shareholders are taking a hit on their share prices because the government is not paying its bills," says a senior HAL official, speaking anonymously.

Asked whether HAL's mandatory public statements reflected this decline, Madhavan stated: "Outstanding dues are reflected in HAL's quarterly statements and reports. Until the last quarter, we had a cash balance of Rs 700 crore (Rs 7 billion). But that has been steadily run down and the report for this quarter will reflect a negative cash balance."

Even more worrisome is the impact on HAL's work of the funds shortfall.

"We have been maintaining the serviceability of the IAF's aircraft fleet, but next year this may be affected badly. If we are unable to pay for raw materials and spares, how will we keep the fleet going?" wonders Madhavan.

Also affected will be a range of HAL-funded projects.

The enhancement of Tejas production capacity from 8 to 16 fighters per month requires HAL and the IAF to share the Rs 13.81 billion (Rs 1,381 crore) cost.

There will be no money for this.

Separately, HAL is funding the Rs 5 billion (Rs 500 crore) development of the HTT-40 basic trainer, which is nearing completion but could grind to a halt.

HAL is also putting in Rs billion (Rs 200 crore) towards the development of the Light Combat Helicopter, until the IAF places an order.

The vitally important Light Utility Helicopter project also requires HAL funding.

A key question that remains is how a publicly listed company, which includes seven independent directors -- former Indian Railway Accounts Service officer Dipali Khanna; former IAS officer Siddharth (who goes by a single name); chartered accountant Neelakanta Iyer; former Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers chief, Rear Admiral K C Sekhar (retd); Centre for Policy Studies chief Jatinder Kumar Bajaj, former Bharat Electronics Ltd executive Anil Kumar and former banker Dr S Malla Reddy -- on its board, has entered a negative cash balance position without any evident protest from on the board.

In the winter session of Parliament, Sitharaman said HAL already had orders worth Rs 1 trillion in the pipeline.

While HAL has already rebutted that statement, the revelations about the IAF's non-payment indicates that the current crisis is not only about a shortage of orders, but even more about non-payment for orders received and fully discharged.

Ajai Shukla
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