The government on Wednesday announced a clutch of measures that would dramatically increase the liquidity of construction firms over the next few weeks, let banks recover their outstanding dues and give a fillip to the real estate and infrastructure sectors by reactivating several stalled projects. Having recently simplified the arbitration law to make dispute resolution easier and speedier, it has now opened a new facility under which even while an arbitral award is being challenged by a public body, 75% of the amount in question will be released by it to the contractor against a bank guarantee. Also, existing disputes between public bodies and contractors, it said, could be shifted to the new simplified Arbitration Act. Although direct beneficiaries of the move are construction giants like HCC, Gammon India, Gammon Infra and IVRCL (see graphic), the gains from improved liquidity in construction would be felt across infrastructure industries.
Given contingent liabilities — that correspond to the amounts locked in arbitration/courts — of major public bodies and PSUs are seen to be over R70,000 crore, with National Highways Authority of India (Rs 22,500 crore), DMRC (R11,600 crore) and NHPC (Rs 9,000 crore) topping the list, the provision for release of funds to contractors would mean that some Rs 53,000 crore will be at their disposal.
These monies will be used by the contractors to discharge the liabilities towards banks and financial institutions (which, in turn will improve credit flows) and also to kick-start stalled projects.
However, analysts pointed out that in many sectors like roads, railways, ports and inland waterways, where government agencies themselves have turned major investors given the stagnation in private investment, the release of disputed funds to the contractors could impact their liquidity. But they added that given major government investors like the railways, NHAI and port trusts (apart from budget outlays, they can raise extra-budgetary resources) do not face a funds crunch, in the aggregate, Wednesday’s decisions would spur investments.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley said after a Cabinet meeting that in new contracts, there will be a provision for a conciliation board consisting of independent domain expert who will enter into contractual negotiations if there are changes in commercial circumstances around the project. Besides, item rate contracts would be replaced by turnkey contracts and a model draft turnkey contract would be circulated. The minister added that department of financial services and the Reserve Bank of India will soon prepare a policy to “deal with those companies which have lot of stressed assets in the construction sector”.
Gross value added (GVA) in the construction sector — which accounts for 8% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employs 4 crore people — has been growing at rates far lower than the overall GVA growth for the last few quarters. Apart from liquidity problems, which partly resulted from lenders’ wariness, tepid demand and overcapacity created in the real estate sector stunted the sector’s expansion. (GVA — construction grew 3.9% in 2016-16 against overall GVA growth of 7.2% and GDP expansion of 7.6% in the year; the sector’s growth was a measly 1.5% in April-June this year, compared with overall GVA growth of expansion of 7.3%.)
“Over 85% of the claims raised against government bodies are still pending, of which 11% is pending with the government agencies, 64% with arbitrators and 8.5% with courts. The average settlement time for claims is estimated at more than seven years. A majority of arbitration awards have gone against the government agencies,” said a government statement.
In the case of NHAI, of a total of 347 arbitral awards, 38 went in favour of the authority and 309 in favour of the contractor/concessionaire. Of the arbitral awards in NHAI cases, more than 90% were unanimous awards in which all arbitrators including the one appointed by NHAI had concurred in the decision. In many cases, arbitration awards are contested in the courts, even though a large majority of arbitration decisions are upheld by the courts.
A turnkey contract, which allows transfer of an entire project to the client after completion at pre-decided rates, is more handy for large contractors unlike the rate contract that requires contractors to quote a rate for each item of work.