More Privatisation on the cards?

MR Madhavan and... - October 22, 2019

The core group of secretaries on disinvestment has recently  approved the disinvestment of five public sector undertakings (PSUs).  This includes the entire shareholding of the government in four PSUs: Bharat Petroleum Corporation (BPCL), Shipping Corporation of India (SCI), North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) and THDC (operates and maintains the Tehri Hydro Power Complex), and 30% of the shareholding in Container Corporation of India Limited (Concor).  The government currently holds 54.8% of Concor, so the sale will reduce its stake below 25%.

Over the last few years, the government has removed legislative barriers towards privatisation of several other PSUs.  This raises the question whether the government plans to privatise them.

What was the Supreme Court’s order on privatisation of PSUs?

In 2003, a similar proposal had been raised by the government for the sale of its shareholding in HPCL and BPCL.  This proposal was challenged in the Supreme Court on the grounds that it would violate the provisions of the laws that transferred ownership of certain assets to the government (which later formed these PSUs).  For example, BPCL was formed by nationalising Burmah Shell in India through an Act of Parliament, and merging their refinery and marketing companies.   The  Court ruled that the central government cannot proceed with the privatisation of HPCL and BPCL (i.e., reduce its direct or indirect ownership below 51%) without amending the concerned laws.  So the government continues to hold majority stake directly in BPCL, and indirectly in HPCL ( through ONGC, another PSU).  

The five Companies approved for privatisation include BPCL and SCI (into which two nationalised companies, the Jayanti Shipping Company, and the Mogul Line Limited were merged).  The relevant nationalisation Acts have been repealed over the last five years.

How did the government remove the legislative barriers for privatisation?

Between 2014 and 2019, Parliament passed six Repealing and Amending Acts which repealed around 722 laws.  These included laws that had transferred the ownership of companies to the central government which later formed BPCL, HPCL, and OIL.  These also repealed the laws that had transferred ownership of the companies to the central government which were later merged with the SCI.  This implies that now the government can go ahead with the privatisation of these government companies as the conditions imposed by the Supreme Court’s order have been fulfilled.  These Repealing and Amending Acts also repealed several other nationalisation laws that were later formed into PSUs.  In the Table below, we have listed some of these companies.  Note that the  Law Commission of India (2014) had suggested the repeal of several of these laws (including the Esso Act, the Burmah Shell Act, the Burn Company Act) on the grounds that these laws do not serve any purpose with respect to the nationalised entity.   However, it had suggested that a study of all the nationalisation Acts should be done before repealing these Acts, and if necessary a savings clause should be provided in the repealing Act. 

Did Parliament scrutinise these Acts before passing them?

Many of these repeals were made through the Repealing and Amending Act, 2016.  These include the Acts relating to BPCL, HPCL, OIL, Coal India Limited, SCI, National Textiles Corporation, Hindustan Copper and Burn Standard Company Limited.   The Bill was not referred to a Parliamentary Standing Committee, and was passed after a cursory debate (50 minutes in Lok Sabha and 20 minutes in Rajya Sabha).  Similarly, the two Acts passed in 2017, that enable privatisation of SAIL, PowerGrid, and State Trading Corporation were not examined by a Standing Committee.

So what comes next?

The repeal of these Acts have cleared the legislative hurdle for privatisation of these companies.   That is, the government does not need prior approval of Parliament to sell its shareholding.  Therefore, it is now up to the government to decide whether it wishes to privatise these entities. 

A version of this article was published by the Business Standard on October 20, 2019.

Table 1: Some Nationalisation Acts repealed since 2014 (list not exhaustive)

Company

Act being repealed

Repealing Act

Shipping Corporation Of India (SCI)

The Jayanti Shipping Company (Acquisition of Shares) Act, 1971

Repealing and Amending Act, 2016

The Mogul Line Limited (Acquisition of Shares) Act, 1984

Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL)

The Burmah Shell (Acquisition of Undertakings in India) Act, 1976

Repealing and Amending Act, 2016

Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL)

The Esso (Acquisition of Undertakings in India) Act, 1974

Repealing and Amending Act, 2016

The Caltex [Acquisition of Shares of Caltex Oil Refining (India) Limited and of the Undertakings in India of Caltex (India) Limited] Act, 1977

The Kosangas Company (Acquisition of Undertaking) Act, 1979

Coal India Limited (CIL)

The Coking Coal Mines (Emergency Provisions) Act, 1971

Repealing and Amending Act, 2016

The Coal Mines (Taking Over of Management) Act, 1973

The Coking Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1972.

Repealing and Amending (Second) Act, 2017

The Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973.

Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL)

The Bolani Ores Limited (Acquisition of Shares) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1978

Repealing and Amending (Second) Act, 2017

The Indian Iron and Steel Company (Acquisition of Shares) Act, 1976

Power Grid Corporation of India Limited

The National Thermal Power Corporation Limited, the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation Limited and the North-Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited (Acquisition and Transfer of Power Transmission Systems) Act, 1993.

Repealing and Amending (Second) Act, 2017

The Neyveli Lignite Corporation Limited (Acquisition and Transfer of Power Transmission System) Act, 1994.

Oil India Limited (OIL)

The Burmah Oil Company [Acquisition of Shares of Oil India Limited and of the Undertakings in India of Assam Oil Company Limited and the Burmah Oil Company (India Trading) Limited] Act, 1981

Repealing and Amending Act, 2016

State Trading Corporation of India Ltd. (STC)

The Tea Companies (Acquisition and Transfer of Sick Tea Units) Act, 1985

Repealing and Amending Act, 2017

National Textile Corporation Limited (NTC)

The Sick Textile Undertakings (Taking Over of Management) Act, 1972

Repealing and Amending Act, 2016

The Textile Undertakings (Taking Over of Management) Act, 1983

The Laxmirattan and Atherton West Cotton Mills (Taking Over of Management) Act, 1976

Hindustan Copper Limited

The Indian Copper Corporation (Acquisition of Undertaking) Act, 1972

Repealing and Amending Act, 2016

Burn Standard Co Ltd

The Burn Company and Indian Standard Wagon Company (Nationalisation) Act, 1976

Repealing and Amending Act, 2016

Indian Railways

The Futwah-Islampur Light Railway Line (Nationalisation) Act, 1985

Repealing and Amending Act, 2016

Braithwaite & Co Limited, Ministry of Railways

The Braithwaite and Company (India) Limited (Acquisition and Transfer of Undertakings) Act, 1976.

Repealing and Amending (Second) Act, 2017

The Gresham and Craven of India (Private) Limited (Acquisition and Transfer of Undertakings) Act, 1977

Andrew Yule & Co. Ltd.

The Brentford Electric (India) Limited (Acquisition and Transfer of Undertakings) Act, 1987

Repealing and Amending (Second) Act, 2017

The Transformers and Switchgear Limited (Acquisition and Transfer of Undertakings) Act, 1983

Repealing and Amending Act, 2019

Alcock Ashdown (Guj) Limited, Government of Gujarat Undertaking

The Alcock Ashdown Company Limited (Acquisition of Undertakings) Act, 1973.

Repealing and Amending Act, 2019

Bengal Chemicals & Pharmaceuticals Ltd. (BCPL)

The Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works Limited (Acquisition and Transfer of Undertakings) Act, 1980

Repealing and Amending (Second) Act, 2017

Organisations under Department of Pharmaceuticals

The Smith, Stainstreet and Company Limited (Acquisition and Transfer of Undertakings) Act, 1977

Repealing and Amending (Second) Act, 2017

The Bengal Immunity Company Limited (Acquisition and Transfer of Undertakings) Act, 1984.

Sources: Repealing and Amending Act, 2015; Repealing and Amending (Second) Act, 2015; Repealing and Amending Act, 2016; Repealing and Amending Act, 2017; Repealing and Amending (Second) Act, 2017; Repealing and Amending Act, 2019. 

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