The Mitsui & Co. Challenge: Time to Rethink the Retrospective Tax Amendment?

By Aarushi Srivastava and Ridhi Gupta, second-year students at RGNUL, Patiala

INTRODUCTION

After Cairn and Vodafone, the latest instance of a company initiating investment arbitration proceedings against a hefty amount demanded under India’s infamous retrospective taxation regime, is Earlyguard Ltd., a British subsidiary of the Japanese behemoth, Mitsui & Co. The 2,400-Crore tax is being charged over a transaction that took place in 2007, consisting of the sale of Earlyguard’s shares of Finsider International Co., a UK domiciled company which had a 51% stake in Sesa Goa. Earlyguard treated the capital gain properly and in accordance with taxation rules prevalent then, but despite that, the company was served with a tax notice. Thereafter, it initiated arbitration proceedings, before the Permanent Court of Arbitration, under the India-UK Bilateral Investment Treaty.

Previously, Vodafone, as well as Cairn, have won arbitration cases against retrospective taxation by India and its violation of bilateral investment treaties in international tribunals. However, instead of honouring the arbitration awards of INR 75 Crore and INR 8842 crore respectively, the Indian Government(hereafter Government) has challenged both these awards. In the case of Cairn, the Government stated that it never agreed to arbitrate the dispute, despite it sending a judge to the tribunal. While in Vodafone’s case, the Government has filed an appeal before the Singapore appeals court, stating that it has the sovereign right to taxation and no private individual can decide on it.

RETROSPECTIVE TAX AMENDMENT

The origin of the retrospective tax can be traced back to 2007, when Vodafone was taxed by Indian tax authorities. In the case of Vodafone International Holdings B.V. v. Union of India & Anr., the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the telecom company by stating that, “tax laws must be strictly construed and the provision of income tax must not be expanded to impose tax on any exchange that was otherwise untaxable.” It was to override this judgement that the then Government introduced the Finance Bill, 2012 to amend the Income Tax Act, 1961 with retrospective effect, returning the onus of payment to Vodafone.

  1. Fair and Equitable Treatment in Investment Treaties

Article 1(a) of the Draft Convention on Protection of Foreign Property has influenced various countries to incorporate the principles of fairness in international dealings. The meaning and substance of fair and equitable treatment (“FET”) has been laid down in various arbitral awards such as Biwater Gauff Ltd. v. United Republic of Tanzania and Rumeli Telekom AS v. Republic of Kazakhstan. The following concepts have emerged under the scope of FET :

  • Prohibition of manifest arbitrariness in decision making, that is measures taken purely on the basis of prejudice or bias without a legitimate purpose or rational explanation;
  • Prohibition of denial of justice and disregard to the fundamental principles of due process;
  • Prohibition of targeted discrimination on manifestly wrongful grounds of gender, religion, race or religious belief.;
  • Prohibition of abusive treatment of investors, including coercion, duress and harassment; and
  • Protection of investors’ legitimate expectations arising from a government’s representation and balancing the same with host State’s right to regulate in public interest.

The introduction of the retrospective tax amendment was a direct violation of the FET under international law. Firstly, the Government had no rational reason to introduce the amendment, other than the motive to reverse the Supreme Court judgment. Secondly, the due process of law was disregarded as all the dealings were based on the India-UK Bilateral Treaty, which is silent on taxation, except in cases where already an international or domestic legislation provides for the tax. Thirdly, the investors, at the time of making the dealings with India in all the cases, Vodafone (2007), Cairn (2006-07) and Mitsui (2007) could not legitimately expect the Government to enforce a tax on these dealings after a period of 5-6 years, as there was no such representation or intention shown by the Government.

Expropriation means the act of nationalising or taking away money or property, especially for public use without payment to the owner, or through illegal measures. Expropriation could be direct, where an investment is nationalised or directly expropriated, or indirect, through state interference without effect on legal title. Under International law the property or assets of an ‘alien’, i.e., a person from another state must not be expropriated, without adequate compensation. The India- UK Bilateral Treaty states under Article 5(1) that the investments of an investor shall not be expropriated except for a public purpose regulating economic activity on a non-discriminatory basis and equitable compensation. However, in all the aforementioned dealings, the Government enforced the tax regime neither for a public purpose to regulate economic activities nor for the purpose of equitable compensation, and thus, the retrospective tax is a direct violation of the ‘very law’ i.e. the treaty governing all these dealings.

There have been cases where Tribunals have considered tax measures as indirect expropriation. In the EnCana v. Ecuador, the Tribunal held that, from the perspective of expropriation taxation is in a special category, only if a tax law is punitive, extraordinary or arbitrary, issues of indirect expropriation would be raised. It was held that, in the absence of a specific commitment from the host state, the foreign investor has neither right nor any legitimate expectation that the tax will not change perhaps to its disadvantage, during the period of investment. Further, the Tribunal in Feldman v. Mexico held that a tax measure may amount to expropriation, where the investor had an acquired right with regard to which the tax authorities behaved arbitrarily through a sufficiently restrictive nature.

The act of the Government of enforcing retrospective taxes on its investors was, thus, not only against the FET but also an act of expropriation. To begin, the amendment was introduced arbitrarily without any consultation with the investors or regard to the India-UK Treaty. Further, the investors had no legitimate expectation that the tax regime would change to their disadvantage and that the tax authorities would function in such a restrictive nature.

POSSIBLE NEGATIVE OUTCOMES

When the amendment was introduced in 2012, the then-opposition party, BJP, raised its voice against it and criticized the government. However, years after coming into power, there have  been no attempts from its side to remove the amendment. Instead, tax notices have been sent to companies, their assets have been seized, and the taxation regime has been defended in the arbitration proceedings. This shows the unwillingness of the present Government to discontinue with the tax amendment of 2012.

However, the Government’s disregard to the arbitral awards will not prevent investors to fight tooth and nail to enforce these awards. Cairn Energy, for instance, is leaving no stone unturned to monetize the award. The company has successfully got the award registered in countries like the US, the UK, France, the Netherlands and Singapore, in order to further the process of enforcing the award against overseas Indian assets. This would mean that Cairn can seize Indian assets in these countries, if India fails to pay the amount. The company can enforce the award in over 160 countries that have signed and ratified the 1958 New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards. Cairn has also filed a lawsuit in New York to declare Air India, the national carrier, as an alter ego of the Indian Government. If Cairn does get successful in enforcing the award, this will set precedent for other companies facing the same issue of retrospective taxation. This might lead the country having to lose a significant number of its overseas assets in the future. As a result of which, India’s investment environment can be perceived in a negative light, having a toll over its future investment dealings.

Since the amendment was introduced, there has been zero revenue collection under it, rather it has resulted in substantial amount of losses in foreign direct investment (FDI) and foreign institutional investors (FII). The FII’s invest huge amounts of money in India that provides a great boost to the economy.  The investors, while investing in a country take close notice of the existing legal framework and then decide on investment. A consistent legal environment is not ‘much’ that the investors expect a country to give, as it is a part of minimum standard of protection of foreign investments under customary international law. However, with all these initiations against India’s retrospective tax regime and yet no reconsideration by the Government, the investors would not legitimately expect a consistent scenario of taxes in India, and they may fear any future amendments that could again impair their rights.

CONCLUSION

India was ranked 63rd in the Ease of Doing Business Rankings, 2020 which is indeed a development for India, however, due to the hasty 2012 amendment, the country has been attracting negative attention lately. Not only is the retrospective law against the FET and way of expropriation but also, it can act as a major discouragement for investors globally, who would have otherwise been interested in making investments in India. With two major judgements against the Government, its high time for the Government to look back and revise its arbitrary amendment. It is ironical, that though the present Government has always promoted international trade and business, it has failed to address this major hindrance to international dealings. The retrospective tax amendment should be done away with, in order to regain the trust of the investors and ensure a secure environment for investments in India.

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