As India’s population continues to grow at a staggering rate, the nation’s focus turns to capitalising on its vast potential for economic prosperity, facilitated in part by enormous investment in vital infrastructure. GC talks to in-house counsel taking the lead on some of India’s most important national projects.
Building a Brighter Future
As the world’s second most populous country, India accounts for 17.5% of the world’s population. It lags behind China by just over 50 million – a hair in the grander picture. And it’s rapidly catching up: on an annual basis, India’s population growth rate of 1.2% is more than double that of China – as the latter still tries to recover from the rigours of its one-child policy.
But while population growth is largely seen as a means of economic development, so too can it signal demise. The burden on cities, services, and infrastructure must be both navigated and alleviated if a rapidly growing population is to reach its full potential. The need is such that the infrastructure question was a cornerstone of this year’s election, with impending change already apparent: the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by returning Prime Minister Narendra Modi, pledged $1.44tn towards infrastructure in stark contrast to its primary opponent, the Congress party, which instead planted a flag on the war on poverty and the battle to create jobs.
These projects – and the negotiations, deals and relationships behind them – are quite unlike anything that legal teams in other industries might face on a regular basis. Often spanning years, bordering on decades, helping guide these projects to fruition requires a different kind of legal management – and, for the teams that can thrive in this space, it provides the opportunity to play a vital role in the ongoing development of one of tomorrow’s most critical economies.
When it comes to the development of infrastructure, the work being done by legal teams takes on an added importance, especially in a country such as India, where the infrastructure question is so closely tied to the nation’s future economic prospects. According to the India Brand Equity Foundation, India requires over $777.73bn worth of investment in infrastructure by 2022 if it is to enjoy sustainable development. And there is much work to do. Despite its massive potential, in 2018, India ranked at 44 out of 160 countries ranked in the World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index, a measure of countries’ performance in categories such as trade and transport infrastructure, and competence of logistics services.
The issue of electrification, for example, is one of the foremost priorities for India’s infrastructure, not least due to the fact that India’s 263 million farmers – those least likely to be connected to the grid – represent one of the country’s most significant voting blocs. A scheme to electrify all households in India by December 2018 garnered much attention when it was announced in September 2017. This was no small undertaking: government surveys at the time counted 40 million households without power. The goal was deemed by the Prime Minister’s Office as satisfied in December 2018, though the target was trimmed to encompass only those households who had applied for the scheme – some 25 million – and millions of households remain without.
‘Most of the countries who have experienced GDP growth have been coupled, historically, with increases in electrification. You have to provide power for industries to run, and for people to be employed,’ explains Tejal Patil, general counsel for South Asia at GE. Patil has advised many areas of GE’s multifaceted business, and as such, has seen the many ways in which infrastructure affects conditions on the ground.
‘When you are working on real Indian projects, you feel like you are in the mainstream.’
‘The power sector is huge in India because of the size of the population – as is the case with industries like aviation and healthcare. A lot of what is being generated here is being consumed domestically, and that’s the enabler for GE – it plays a crucial role as enabler in critical growth sectors, which is really exciting.’
Being a critical adviser in an industry at the centre of the government’s largest concern – infrastructure – means that business is good and counsel are busy.
‘The government being interested in infrastructure is actually the best thing to happen to all construction companies and, that’s why so many international companies have come into the markets,’ explains Rashmi Kathpalia, legal head at TechnipFMC India.
‘It’s the opening of the infrastructure sector, which is very important to the growth of the country. When you are working on real Indian projects, you feel like you are in the mainstream, and contributing to the development of the country – because the country is nothing without its infrastructure.’
Grappling with Government
It is therefore critical that projects are awarded to contractors with the ability to deliver them to prescribed timelines and tightly managed budgets. In that respect, the government has its own role to play in ensuring India’s vision for the future is realised. As a contract partner, it is in the government’s interest to be as supportive as possible, something that Kathpalia has seen first hand.
For TechnipFMC, a recent example is the award of contracts for two fertiliser plants in Jharkhand. Enormous undertakings, the plants are designed to produce 2200 tonnes of ammonia and 3850 tonnes of urea per day – two products in high domestic demand. The project’s status as one of national importance has helped TechnipFMC throughout its lifecycle.
‘These fertiliser projects have been promoted by the Prime Minister’s Office. There was a public sector consortium entity that was created for the bidding, and because it comes with the promotion of the Prime Minister’s Office itself being interested in these two fertiliser complexes, the ministries work very well and very fast – negotiations are very fast,’ explains Kathpalia.
‘Government tenders can oftentimes take very long initiating and proofing and, at the end of it, the timelines that are required can become very difficult to achieve. In that case, very often what happens is that it is delayed for some reason – oftentimes leaving the contractor quite helpless. This can enact clauses included which mean you are not going to be paid any compensation for any delays, despite whether or not you are at fault.’
‘But if the Prime Minister is interested in that particular project then it becomes a lot easier for the whole process to conclude, so that the execution actually starts and concludes within the timelines – because they release the finances fast enough and, as we complete our work, the finances keep coming in with each phase.’
‘Relationships are key, and disputes must be approached carefully.’
This is echoed in Patil’s experiences at GE, particularly when it comes to energy infrastructure projects, though she admits that having over 60% of the company’s work coming from the government has its pain points to go along with the positives.
‘There are pluses and minuses. I think one part of this is the entire government process. It is a public tender process that leaves little or no room for negotiation. The terms and conditions are pretty much set in stone and must be adhered to. There is a window to attend pre-set meetings where everyone sits together and explains their deviations. It’s not really a private contract, so from a legal standpoint it’s more about managing the risk rather than negotiating a very beneficial position. If all the bidders meet the technical specifications, then the one with the lowest price wins – there’s no other negotiation,’ she explains.
‘As the government is interested in infrastructure development, the size of these projects ensure focus. So, if you have obstacles or difficulties during the project execution, they can be addressed at the highest level since the government too becomes a key driving force to ensure successful completion of the task.’
When a large construction company closes a deal with the government to deliver a critical infrastructure project, the agreement between the two parties is often a far different creature to a typical B2B contract. These are agreements, for example, to build and maintain miles upon miles of railroads for a number of years, often decades. The in-house teams drafting and negotiating these agreements therefore need to have a firm grasp on the operational requirements of the project. What amounts of materials are required? How much labour will the project call for? Does the company have the technological capabilities required to deliver the project on time and on budget?
Kathpalia explains that all of these requirements mean her department must be of a different character to your typical legal team.
‘We have to understand how robust the project execution team is to be able to undertake that task, and so it’s not just regulatory. Our exposure is not just in terms of the price, but each contract comes with a particular timeline stating that it has to be concluded in X number of months. If our team is not going to properly assess the number of man hours required, or the price, or procurement requirements, or things like that, then we would be completely out of pocket,’ she says.
‘If you look at the bigger picture, when we assess the contract and then price the contract, when we understand the risks within the contract and we understand the full scope, legal is not just understanding what the contract says, legal has to understand from the risk and the project execution department what the exposure is. If, for example, it’s a revamp [of an existing facility], we cannot afford for the property that already exists to be damaged. Sometimes the owner may be having the indemnification for it, sometimes not, sometimes we may get insurance cover for it, sometimes not. So we have to work with that.’
GE’s Tejal Patil voices a similar sentiment: ‘In terms of anticipating risk, you cannot review these contracts in a vacuum – there has to be a return on experience. For example, you need the supply-chain members telling you whether they can supply something in time in order for you to accept a liquidated damages clause. If a lawyer reviews contracts in isolation, sitting at a desk, you’re never going to be able to assess the true risk.’
Building – and Maintaining – Bridges
For those companies delivering enormous infrastructure projects to India, the list of potential clients is a short one. The majority of the work will come from the government directly, but even in those instances where a company like Tata Steel, GE or TechnipFMC will be contracting with other private entities, there are very few players in the market with which to engage. Because of this, relationships are key, and disputes must be approached carefully.
‘Traditionally, India is a litigious country and the process of dispensation through the legal system is slow. Most companies will be straddled with a number of cases. Depending upon the industry, the portfolio of cases varies,’ says Dipali Talwar, former group general counsel of Tata Steel, who also spent several years at Pfizer.
‘I think the requisite skills for lawyers and particularly in-house counsel would be their ability to take a proactive call on risk and foresight to ensure no dispute arises in the future. Counsel must excel in applying their judgement on current legal trends, impending legislation as applied to their industry and, more particularly, the business process and agenda of the corporation they are part of. The unique ability and opportunity of the in-house counsel is to be able to prevent disputes or non-compliance. In-house counsel should also be able to partake in discussions on an area where impending legislation may result in change.’
Another wrinkle in the disputes issue is the complexity and long-term nature of these projects, where all too often it’s not until years down the track that grounds for dispute are discovered.
‘When the going is good, everything is good,’ explains Kathpalia. ‘It’s only at the end of the project that you realise you are out of pocket, or that you have been short-changed and you want to raise the claim, whether it’s against the owner, or against your consortium partner or a sub-contractor. This means that, as a team, we have to be engaged and ensure we are operating partners throughout the lifecycle of the project.’
Because the industry runs on low-volume, high-value, project-based contracts, there are very few bridges available to be built and burned. Fortunately, this is a reality that is largely accepted by all corners of the sector.
‘Most sectors are small and close knit, so it’s important to find a way to collaborate and have meaningful dialogue and resolution with relevant stakeholders – be it the government, competitors, vendors, channel partners or customers,’ says Talwar. ‘It is often not worth the cost or the time to enter into formal disputes – litigation or arbitration.’
‘The organisations are used to supplier disputes,’ adds Patil. ‘Even if you have a dispute, it doesn’t prevent you from getting the next order, because they understand that it can sometimes happen in large contracts. The public sector undertakings in India don’t like to settle claims (sometimes even large claims) during execution – account reconciliation is usually at the end of the project. It may be ok for a large corporation like ours but, from a cash-flow perspective, for a smaller company, it gets challenging if the payments aren’t made in time or the dispute isn’t settled along the way.’
The focus must shift from reacting to disputes themselves to preventing them in the first place.
Given the cost associated with pursuing disputes in this industry, and the particular need to protect vital relationships, the focus must necessarily shift from reacting to disputes themselves to preventing them in the first place. This, explains Kathpalia, is an art in and of itself:
‘While there are many companies that will put some amount towards disputes expenses, we rely more on our execution: that our execution should be so masterful that we should not have to go into claims at the end of the project; to bring it to light on a regular basis so that the client too can assess what the changes are. And so, I hope I’m not speaking too soon, but so far we do not have any litigation or arbitration pending as far as our projects are concerned.’
One less adversarial method of dispute resolution is, of course, arbitration – a mechanism that is becoming more common in these industries. But the usefulness of an arbitration clause is restricted by the infrastructure that is in place in the relevant jurisdiction, and India, like many countries, is beefing up its capacity to meet the needs of businesses in this respect.
A judicial committee convened in 2017 highlighted the barriers to the development of arbitration in India: namely the time taken for such proceedings to progress through the courts, and what was called ‘an excess of judicial involvement’. The committee recommended a reformation of arbitration in India with a view to establishing the country as a globally competitive arbitration destination. These recommendations were approved and resulted in amendments to the Arbitration and Conciliation Act 1996. Among the changes were the establishment of the independent Arbitration Council of India to promote the use of arbitration and other alternative dispute resolution methods, and the introduction of time limits for the presentation of submissions before arbitral tribunals.
‘Arbitration as an alternate dispute resolution avenue is growing. There are about three new arbitration centres which have been established in the last few years. You have the Delhi Arbitration Centre, the Mumbai Arbitration Centre, and a couple of private arbitration centres, and they’re expanding with many retired judges and lawyers on their panels. Where there is still a bit of a gap, is technical expertise,’ says Patil.
‘For disputes of this nature, you need a technical person on the panel. Recently we have had some good experiences. Major disputes tend to use what we call ad-hoc arbitration, where one party appoints one arbitrator, the other party appoints a second and then a third, who is chairman of the panel, is appointed by both. These usually tend to be retired judges of the Supreme Court, High Court or eminent jurists.’
These ad-hoc arbitrations – as opposed to institutional arbitrations held in the kinds of large centres now opening – are still the primary preference in India, despite a finding by PricewaterhouseCoopers and Queen Mary University of London in 2008 that 86% of global arbitral awards in the preceding ten years had been from arbitral institutions. The committee was sceptical of the use of ad-hoc arbitrations in its 2017 report, citing the time taken for such arbitrations to conclude and the high costs associated with them. But with a concerted effort by the Indian government to make institutional arbitration a viable option, this may change.
‘The positive change we’re seeing is the government moving towards institutional arbitration in its contracts. In the past, there were contracts stipulating a single arbitrator, who would be a government employee,’ says Patil.
‘These three centres are growing. We have not used them, but we are looking into their services as more government contracts are incorporating them now.’