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Time to Protect Indian Businesses from Insolvency

The medium to long term financial effects of Coronavirus are yet to unfold, but the magnitude is already anticipated to be huge. Many countries across the world are announcing financial packages for businesses. India is also on the track to take a decision on relief packages.

With widespread lockdowns, the coming months are expected to witness a series of defaults by many viable businesses, and in this situation, we need to protect viable Indian businesses from landing up in our bankruptcy tribunals, for no fault of their promoters.

Broadly speaking – today an Indian company can be pushed into insolvency proceedings if it defaults in discharge of its liability worth over INR 1,00,000/- (USD 1,322) towards a financial creditor or an operational creditor. With a few statutory exceptions and very limited way-outs, the promoters today face a real threat of losing their businesses forever if a creditor decides to opt for a legal action upon default in a single payment above the said threshold.

The bankruptcy and insolvency landscape in India has significantly changed from the regime prevailing prior to introduction of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (“the IBC”) in 2016. The most prominent feature of the IBC is “corporate insolvency resolution process” or CIRP, during which period the creditors assume control of the company and bids to acquire its business are publicly invited by an insolvency resolution professional. The board of directors of the company is suspended during the CIRP period, and in most cases the promoters are legally prohibited from repurchasing their companies. This mechanism of CIRP was absent under the previous regime, governed by the (Indian) Companies Act, 2013. During that time, in certain cases the High Courts granted a few weeks’ of time to the promoters to settle with the creditor(s), failing which notification of winding up was published and the official liquidator took charge to liquidate the assets of the company.

The IBC stipulates a more mechanical approach, leaving little discretion with the learned judges of the National Company Law Tribunal (“NCLT”), which is the adjudicating authority under the IBC. The practitioners of the earlier company courts would agree that during the earlier regime it was expected from a creditor to show, in addition to a default of a similar threshold, that the corporate debtor is also unviable as a business. The courts went through the past balance sheets, read auditor’s reports while quoting them in judgments, and frequently observed in courtrooms that businesses give employment, and viable businesses cannot be liquidated just because of a default.

Since the advent of the IBC, the focus changed, and for a reason – the “CIRP”. Who will buy an unviable business during a CIRP? No one. What will then a CIRP achieve? Nothing.

The “business viability/unviability” test was perhaps therefore never propagated in the IBC. Resultantly, a default above the threshold is enough, by itself, to trigger a CIRP, with all its consequences under the IBC. What the IBC also doesn’t consider is – the reason for such default.

Time has come for us to realise that unviable businesses anyway fail the CIRP. The reports published by the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India evidence that four out of every five CIRPs are not able to find a resolution anyway. Eventually, such unviable companies are thrown into liquidation. No one wins.

We should, therefore, think of a course correction, and to save numerous Indian businesses that would otherwise land up in CIRPs because defaults are now imminent – and more painful – without any fault of the promoters. We need to acknowledge, with evidence now, that each default does not indicate a fault of the promoters, and survival of the businesses of all sizes is vital for survival of the economy. The IBC and NCLTs also have a much larger economic and functional role, beyond facilitating the buying and selling of the businesses and assets or enforcing settlements by promoters under fear of CIRPs.

We therefore feel that the “reason for default” should, in some way at-least, form part of the judicial consideration while admitting cases under the IBC. Viability of the business should form another vital consideration, even if focus is on CIRP. The thresholds also should be raised much above INR 1,00,000/-, which we note is a work in progress anyway.

Let’s save our businesses. It takes years to create each viable business. The above suggested actions may not be exhaustive. Our hon’ble judges also have always found innovative solutions, such as reverse CIRP, when the situation demands. It is now time for the law also to consider that exceptions (habitual defaulters) are not the rule.