Infrastructure Agenda for the New Government of India

GC speaks to Shailendra Singh, partner at Advaita Legal, about the role legal can play in avoiding potential pitfalls in India’s ambitious infrastructure agenda.

GC: What do you think should be the priority areas/sectors for the re-elected Indian government?

Shailendra Singh (SS): The long term priorities of the government should be environment, affordable housing, drinking water and sanitation, waterways development, financial inclusion and development of hard infrastructure.

Capital investment in hard infrastructure development, drinking water and sanitation, renewable energy and energy efficiency schemes, among others should be in focus. Electricity distribution should be another focus area.

GC: Which steps taken by the previous government in the infrastructure sphere need a further push by the re-elected government?

SS: Over the years, the speed of road construction has become the benchmark for India’s infrastructure creation. Now, the central government has set in play a new integrated infrastructure programme, which involves building roads, railways, waterways and airports. The centre has also been trying to leverage roads, railways and waterways to bring India’s logistics costs down to 8%, to make the economy competitive. India has long grappled with high logistics costs at 14% (as a percentage of product cost), which make exports uncompetitive vis-à-vis those of China, where logistics costs are about 8-10%.

The last five years have seen massive spending in roads, railways, water, irrigation and urban infrastructure. Where roads are concerned, 52 projects worth 37,019 crore were awarded between 2015 and 2018, under the new 30-year lease toll-operate-transfer (TOT) model introduced to recycle capital and auction operating road assets to private equity investors.

With the view to reducing India’s carbon footprint and ensure faster movement of goods, inland waterways are being explored as an alternative. The continued push for transport through waterways is required to make it competitive and a viable option. The development of terminals at Varanasi, Sahibganj and Haldia, and the development of NW-1 needs to be expedited.

Shailendra Singh, partner, Advaita Legal

Further, to ensure faster and more predictable enforcement of contracts, the arbitration and other alternative dispute resolution mechanisms have to be given a recognised statutory basis. Sectoral regulators promised for certain infrastructure sectors such as MRTs and coal should be implemented as soon as possible.

GC: What are the key areas of focus in the power sector and what steps can be taken to increase usage of renewable energy and ensure global commitments to reduce India’s carbon footprint?

SS: Reforms in the power sector are necessary to ensure that all stakeholders improve their financial health. The regulatory commissions have to be made more professional to implement in spirit the mandate of the Electricity Act, too.

With regards to the renewable energy sector, while the mandate under the existing laws is clear on renewable purchase obligations that must be met by the distribution licensees in the procurement mix; the enforcement of the deterrent needs improvement. The distribution licensees must be held to strict renewable procurement obligations, as well.

GC: What are your thoughts on the potential of public-private partnerships (PPPs) and the impetus that the government should give?

SS: Funding India’s wide-ranging, $500bn programme of infrastructure expansion over a five-year period is likely to be beyond the means of total government funding, so policies have been designed to facilitate private investment to the maximum level possible. If the Indian government’s targeted level of private sector involvement and investment are met (approximately 30%), the quantum of funding required would be around $150bn – dwarfing the investment achieved over the past decade.

The government has, in the last three years, undertaken some noteworthy steps to strengthen the PPP framework and the enabling ecosystem in India. This includes formulation of guidelines for new innovative PPP models, with due consideration to the extant risk outlook and investor appetite, like monetisation of publicly-funded highway projects worth approximately 35,600 crore under TOT and construction and expansion of over 60 highway projects under Hybrid-Annuity-Model (HAM). With the implementation of PPP models like HAM and TOT, the government has taken over the project implementation risk and thereby revived the interest of private players and financial institutions to a considerable extent. Furthermore the government has liberalised the exit policies for concessionaires to free up equity for re-investment into new projects, approved the policy of railway station development through PPP and is currently in the process of formulating suitable PPP policy for newer sectors and asset classes.

Some of the other measures include the setting-up of a National Infrastructure Investment Fund (NIIF) to channel foreign institutional funds into infrastructure; introduction of a PPP component in the new metro policy; amendment of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act 1996 to make dispute resolution more cost-effective and time sensitive; 2.11 lakh crore plan to recapitalise public-sector banks aimed at reviving bank-lending; and introduction of ease of doing business (EODB) state-level ranking, to help the government to push through reforms in sectors that are primarily state subjects.

GC: What legal impediments do you foresee for a prospective investor in infrastructure?

SS: For any prospective investor, certainty of the regulatory regime is of prime importance. Regulated sectors generally assert the rules of the game upfront and there is regulatory certainty of the trends that one can expect in the sector. To improve investor confidence, sectoral regulators need to be actually set up – a mere policy announcement will not do. This also assumes significance since there is an arms-length distance between the government and the participants of that sector. Therefore, existing sectoral regulators such as AERA need to be strengthened and new ones for urban transport and coal, for example, needs to be set-up to increase investor confidence.

Also, overlapping jurisdictions in the context of multiple statutes needs to be addressed. For example, the Specific Relief Amendment Act that was recently notified seeks to cover a gamut of infrastructure projects within its ambit that are specified in the Schedule to that Act. However, a bare reading of the Act raises three primary concerns: one, the said statute is applicable to a ‘contract relating to an infrastructure project’, making it sweeping in nature to potentially include within its ambit sub-sub-contractor(s)-level project agreements. Second, since the provision is limited to suits for specific performance under the Specific Relief Act, it may have a limited impact since any contract that has an arbitration clause would effectively be out of its ambit. Third, since many, if not all, infrastructure sub-sectors annexed to the Schedule of the Amendment Bill are governed by their respective sectoral regulators, the interface between sectoral regulators, the players/elements of the sectors that are regulated and the contractors who can avail the protection provided under the proposed regime would throw complex and myriad legal issues.

From a contracting perspective, the contracts in the infrastructure contract need to be more balanced and both the oncessionaire and the authority must share risk and reward appropriately. The idea that all risks need to be passed on to the concessionaire, while tempting, from the government point of view must be resisted to produce much more bankable documents and to encourage global participation.

GC: What are your thoughts on the recent amendments to the Commercial Courts Act and its implications for infrastructure development?

SS: The government, on 3 May 2018, promulgated an ordinance amending the Commercial Courts, Commercial Division and Commercial Appellate Division of the High Courts Act, 2015 (Act). These amendments are an attempt to expand the scope of commercial courts in India. It reduced the dispute value that can be settled in the commercial courts to 3 lakh rupees from the earlier 1 crore rupees limit, and, it introduced mandatory pre-institution mediation.

Sudipta Bhattacharjee, partner, Advaita Legal

This would bring a large number of disputes within the ambit of the commercial courts which were previously outside their scope. It appears that the intent is to meet the parameters used to gauge enforceability of contracts in the World Banks’s Ease of Business Report, since the cases considered for the report are the ones with claim values worth 200% of income per capita or $5,000, whichever is greater. With this change, it is expected that the data of the commercial courts constituted under the Act would now be used as the pecuniary jurisdiction starts from 300,000 crore. However, specifically as it regards infrastructure, it would have limited impact since the cases that would fall within the realm of the Act would be disputes arising at the SLA level and the key project contract and the disputes thereof would still be the subject matter of the sectoral regulator.

GC: What are your views on the impact of the GST regime on the infrastructure sector?

SS: The biggest bugbear that GST poses to the infrastructure sector is the restriction on availment of credit of input side GST, if it has been incurred for construction of ‘immoveable property’ (other than ‘plant and machinery’, as defined). For several large infrastructure projects which are coming up on a PPP basis, the cost of the construction of the project assets is significant – the GST incurred on this cost of construction being unavailable as credit against output GST by the project SPV leads to significant spikes in project cost, followed by litigation to invoke ‘change in law’ provisions under the relevant concession agreement to pass on the cost to the end-customers/users. This aspect ought to be remedied soon if investment in infrastructure, especially on a PPP basis, is to be boosted.

Further, while no GST is payable on advances for goods, GST becomes leviable on advances for services even though the credit of such GST incurred on advances for services is available at a later point when the services are actually received. This is effectively the proverbial double whammy, leading to significant cash-flow issues, especially for construction-sector players.

More specifically, ambiguity prevails over applicability of GST on concession agreements for construction of roads, especially under the HAM, which needs to be clarified along with clear guidelines about recouping such GST (if any) by the private concessionaires from National Highways Authority of India (“NHAI”), the nodal agency of the Indian government in charge of construction of national highways.

Also, there prevails a lot of ambiguity apropos GST applicability in solar and wind power projects despite several representations and recent amendment. Here too, we at Advaita Legal have represented the Wind Turbine Manufacturers’ Association before the Delhi High Court, seeking to achieve greater clarity and a more beneficial GST implication for wind power projects.

GC: What are the key contractual disputes that are arising out of the Goods and Service Tax regime?

SS: In our experience, there are a number of instances where contractual disputes have arisen owing to the onset of GST:

  • Impact of ‘change in law’ benefit: in calculating the change in contract price necessitated by a ‘change in law’, disputes frequently arise as to whether there is actually an increase in tax burden or the other contracting party is trying to profit from a change in the tax regime. Disputes of this nature are not only leading to arbitration claims but also to scenarios where the recipient threatens the supplier with a complaint to the anti-profiteering authority as a strategy to avoid arbitration.
  • Delay as an excuse to nullify a ‘change in law’ benefit: construction contracts provide that in the case of a delay on the part of the contractor, the employer is not liable to pay increased tax rates or new taxes. Therefore, if the employer is able to prove that the project was delayed by the contractor then the whole incremental tax cost due to GST or any change in GST rate will have to be borne by the contractor. However, establishing such a delay is a lengthy process often leading to arbitration, and until then the contractor has to bear the burden of incremental taxes. This is emerging as a serious challenge in large construction contracts.
  • Forcing the contractor to adopt or continue old contracting structures: before GST, the conventional wisdom in tax structuring of contracts involved splitting a turnkey scope of work into separate supply and services contracts. However, after GST such structuring has mostly been rejected by advance ruling authorities, who treat the multiple contracts together as one composite or mixed supply. Such collapsing of separate contracts leads to a higher GST liability and unless a clear indemnity is pre-negotiated, this leads to heated contractual disputes (and at times arbitration claims) in respect of such incremental GST liability.

The foregoing is not to say that contract structuring is are longer possible under GST – however, the principles underlying such structuring are often different under GST; the difference in such principles and the concept of ‘substance’ needs to be duly factored in, while planning any contract structuring.

  • Forcing the contractor to pass on input credit agreed in the contract pre-GST: often, long-term contracts entered pre-GST would contain a stipulation that the contractor pass on a specified quantum of input tax credit to the customer. The amount agreed would, of course, be based on the earlier pre-GST tax regime and common sense would dictate that, post-GST, such terms should either be specifically re-negotiated or be agreed between parties as irrelevant or unenforceable owing to a change in the law. Unfortunately, many customers are pressing hyper-technical contractual interpretations to force the contractor to pass on the same pre-agreed quantum of input credit, failing which, arbitration claims are being raised or threatened against such contractors.
  • Disputes on GST on liquidated damages: it has been internationally recognised that no GST can be levied on liquidated damages as they are in the nature of compensation or damages. However, Indian tax authorities (as well as advance ruling authorities) have taken a different stance. This leads to disputes between the contracting parties as to whether GST is leviable and other related issues.