Vidarbha Industries v Axis Bank: A Slumping Case for Financial Creditors

By Neelabh Niket and Nitish Dubey, fourth-year students at HNLU, Raipur

Introduction

The Hon’ble Supreme Court (the Court) recently in the case of Vidarbha Industries Power Limited Vs Axis Bank Limited has held that the power of the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) to admit an application for initiation of CIRP by a financial creditor under section 7(5) of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 (IBC) is only directory and not mandatory in nature. This ruling, in simple words, signifies that even if an application is complete under section 7(5)(a), the Adjudicating Authority (AA) in exceptional cases such as where an impending order lies in favour of the Corporate Debtor (CD), may not accept such an application and keep the CIRP in abeyance to protect the entity from being resolved. The Court was of the opinion that the legislature intended section 7(5) to be discretionary in nature as the word ‘may’ has been used in the provision as opposed to the word ‘shall’ used in section 9(5) which postulates a mandatory requirement in the case of operational creditors. The authors through this article intend to revisit the judgement from critical lenses and would lay down the implications of the judgement. 

Facts

The Court, in this case, was considering a Special Leave Petition of the Vidarbha Industries Power Limited (VIPL/defaulting Company) which had defaulted on a loan from Axis Bank Limited,, i.e., the financial creditor. The appellant pleaded that the default was on account of a dispute relating to the price of the electricity which was to be settled by the Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission (MERC) and upon which the appellant was expecting to receive a substantial amount which would enable the appellant to pay off the debt. The appellants have gotten a favourable order from the Appellate Tribunal for Electricity (APTEL), however the same has been challenged in the Supreme Court whose order on the issue is awaited. 

Analysis

Before we delve into the nuances of the judgement, it is imperative to make it clear that the discretion conferred upon the Adjudicating Authorities to give a breathing space to the CD cannot be asked as a matter of right but can only be granted by the AA when there exist extraordinary circumstances. The authors however will argue that even this step of the Hon’ble Court is unwarranted and will open up Pandora’s box in an otherwise smooth IBC jurisprudence.  The same has been done under four heads which are as follows-

  • Overlooking Past Jurisprudence

Prior to the instant case, it was well settled through the verdict in E.S. Krishnamurthy vs M/S Bharath Hi Tech Builder judgement that the AA had only two options when an application under section 7(5)(a) came for adjudication: (i) accept it; (ii) reject it. A judgement on similar lines was also expressed impliedly in the landmark case of  Innoventive Industries Ltd vs ICICI Bank wherein the Hon’ble Court held the following, 

The moment the adjudicating authority is satisfied that a default has occurred, the application must be admitted unless it is incomplete…” (emphasis supplied)

However, the present judgement has in effect provided for a third option for the AA— to keep the insolvency proceedings in abeyance. Such an interpretation is not only against the established jurisprudence but also has little backing from the statute itself as neither the IBC nor the rules therein provide the AAs with the power to defer proceedings on account of an external/unrelated event. 

  • Diluting the Cash Flow Insolvency Test

The Supreme Court’s decision to read discretion into section 7(5)(a) is not simply a simple shift in AA’s routine power but has the potential to disrupt the entire insolvency regime in India. The regime which was built on the solid foundation of a certain and determinable occurrence of a default has been unsettled and may attract bogus excuses by CDs to escape CIRP, causing prolonged litigation. In doing that, the Court has inadvertently dumped the Cash Flow Insolvency Test and allowed facets of the Balance Sheet Test in the Indian insolvency jurisprudence. Before delving into the tests, it becomes imperative to understand their scope and meaning. 

There exist majorly two tests for determining an entity’s solvent status i) The Cash Flow Insolvency Test and; ii) The Balance Sheet Test. The Cash Flow Insolvency Test concentrates on whether the company can meet current debts from cash and other assets which can be readily realized; if it defaults in such repayment then it is considered insolvent. As long as an entity keeps paying its dues, and does not default no action can be taken against it under this test. Thus, the triggering point in the Cash Insolvency Test is an event of ‘default’. On the other hand, the Balance Sheet Insolvency Test requires the courts to pierce deeper into the company’s balance sheet and gauge its medium to long term liquidity, taking into account the company’s wider circumstances and be satisfied of the company’s insolvency if the company’s assets are less than its liabilities.

The IBC strictly follows the ‘Cash Insolvency Test’, terming an entity insolvent only when it accounts for defaults. However, the Court via the judgement has digressed from the determination of insolvency from defaults to assessing whether there are other available assets of the company which may be utilized for repayment of debt at a later stage. This approach, as discussed earlier, inclines towards the Balance Sheet Insolvency Test which has not been prescribed or advocated by the IBC. 

The erstwhile section 433(e) of the Companies Act, 1956 was based on the pretext of Balance Sheet Insolvency as it did not determine insolvency on the basis of defaults but on the entity’s inability to pay dues- a scenario which occurred when the company’s liabilities were greater than its assets.  In simple words, according to this section, an occurrence of default was insufficient in attracting the provisions of insolvency. This was however rejected and replaced by the IBC which ushered significant changes in the Indian Insolvency Regime. Importantly, the Court in Swiss Ribbons Pvt. Ltd. vs Union of India  indirectly approved the Cash Flow Insolvency Test and  noted that in a situation of financial stress, the cause of default is not relevant; and protecting the economic interest of the CD  is more relevant. 

  • Proper Usage of Discretion

The authors are of the opinion that the usage of ‘may’ in section 7(5)(a) shall be construed to confer discretion to AAs in rejecting a CIRP application only when a mala fide intention is detected and such discretion shall not extend to provide weightage to any extraneous matter which is independent of the loan availed. The discretion in this sense is necessary to curb malicious attempts of financial creditors and CDs in deliberately forcing a Company into insolvency. The same is somewhat prevalent in the IBC jurisprudence and can be traced in few cases. For instance, the NCLAT in the case of Hytone Merchants v. Satabadi Investments Consultants rejected a section 7 application which had fulfilled all pre-requisites on the ground that the debtors and the financial creditors colluded and were acting against the interests of the company. 

Further, the legislature’s usage of ‘shall’ for operational debt can also be justified on the same premise; the operational creditors are third parties who are not concerned with the entity and hence the chances of such collusion between the CD and operational creditors is very slim and unlikely. The Court has failed to delineate properly the different expressions used in the sections and has wrongly expanded the scope of the word ‘may’ on this premise, which in the authors’ view is wholly unnecessary. 

  • Abridging the Powers of the CoC

If there is a possibility that the CD may get a favorable order or award, then there is always an option of settlement available with the debtor and the Committee of Creditors(CoC) to settle their claims and withdraw the resolution processunder section 12A of IBC. In any case, it is the Committee of Creditors who after assessing the financial condition of the company, shall decide the best course of action for the Company’s revival. The IBC has not conferred any powers to the NCLT to prima facie decide, at the stage of admitting a petition under section 7, whether a Company is solvent or not. It is counterintuitive to say that  an order or award will operate to save the debtor and confer the NCLT the power to stall the very commencement of the CIRP. 

Thus, authorizing the NCLT and deferring the initiation of the CIRP on account of an uncertain event in the future may adversely affect the interests of all stakeholders, as with time other assets of the debtor may depreciate for the lack of investment and proper management. 

Conclusion

The Insolvency & Bankruptcy Code has been built upon the detection of insolvency upon the occurrence of a default or the Cash Flow Test. The Hon’ble Court via this judgement has diluted this Test and has allowed some element of the redundant Balance Sheet Test to again creep into the regime. The authors herein believe that the broad interpretation of the word ‘may’ in section 7(5)(a) by the Supreme Court will create unnecessary confusion and chaos in the Insolvency scenario in India. One must also not forget that in a commercial setup, there is a chain of transactions which are dependent on each other and a major delay in repayment may culminate in a domino effect, disrupting cash flow across sectors. On an optimistic note, it may however be hoped that such discretion does not become the rule and is only exercised in exceptional cases by the AA. 

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