The increasing Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) in the Indian banking sector has recently been the subject of much discussion and scrutiny. Yesterday, the Supreme Court struck down a circular dated February 12, 2018 issued by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). The RBI circular laid down a revised framework for the resolution of stressed assets. In this blog, we examine the extent of NPAs in India, and recent events leading up to the Supreme Court judgement.
What is the extent and effect of the NPA problem in India?
Banks give loans and advances to borrowers. Based on the performance of the loan, it may be categorised as: (i) a standard asset (a loan where the borrower is making regular repayments), or (ii) a non-performing asset. NPAs are loans and advances where the borrower has stopped making interest or principal repayments for over 90 days.
As of 2018, the total NPAs in the economy stand at Rs 9.6 lakh crore. About 88% of these NPAs are from loans and advances of public sector banks. Banks are required to lend a certain percentage of their loans to priority sectors. These sectors are identified by the RBI and include agriculture, housing, education and small scale industries. In 2018, of the total NPAs, 22% were from priority sector loans, and 78% were from non-priority sector loans.
In the last few years, gross NPAs of banks (as a percentage of total loans) have increased from 2.3% of total loans in 2008 to 9.3% in 2017 (see Figure 1). This indicates that an increasing proportion of a bank’s assets have ceased to generate income for the bank, lowering the bank’s profitability and its ability to grant further credit.
Figure 1: Gross NPAs (% of total loans)
Source: Reserve Bank of India; PRS
What has been done to address the problem of growing NPAs?
The measures taken to resolve and prevent NPAs can broadly be classified into two kinds – first, remedial measures for banks prescribed by the RBI for internal restructuring of stressed assets, and second, legislative means of resolving NPAs under various laws (like the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016).
Over the years, the RBI has issued various guidelines for banks aimed at the resolution of stressed assets in the economy. These included introduction of certain schemes such as: (i) Strategic Debt Restructuring (which allowed banks to change the management of the defaulting company), and (ii) Joint Lenders’ Forum (where lenders evolved a resolution plan and voted on its implementation). A summary of the various schemes implemented by the RBI is provided in Table 1.
Table 1: Non-legislative loan recovery framework
Sources: RBI scheme guidelines; Economic Survey 2016-17; PRS.
In June 2017, an internal advisory committee of RBI identified 500 defaulters with the highest value of NPAs. The committee recommended that 12 largest non-performing accounts, each with outstanding amounts greater than Rs 5,000 crore and totalling 25% of the NPAs of the economy, be referred for resolution under the IBC immediately. Proceedings against the 12 largest defaulters have been initiated under the IBC.
What was the February 12 circular issued by the RBI?
Subsequent to the enactment of the IBC, the RBI put in place a framework for restructuring of stressed assets of over Rs 2,000 crore on or after March 1, 2018. The resolution plan for such restructuring must be unanimously approved by all lenders and implemented within 180 days from the date of the first default. If the plan is not implemented within the stipulated time period, the stressed assets are required to be referred to the NCLT under IBC within 15 days. Further, the framework introduced a provision for early identification and categorisation of stressed assets before they are classified as NPAs.
On what grounds was the RBI circular challenged?
Borrowers whose loans were tagged as NPAs before the release of the circular recently crossed the 180-day deadline for internal resolution by banks. Some of these borrowers, including various power producers and sugar mills, had appealed against the RBI circular in various High Courts. A two-judge bench of the Allahabad High Court ruled in favour of the RBI’s powers to issue these guidelines, and refused to grant interim relief to power producers from being taken to the NCLT for bankruptcy. These batch of petitions against the circular were transferred to the Supreme Court, which issued an order in September 2018 to maintain status quo on the same.
What did the Supreme Court order?
The Court held the circular issued by RBI was outside the scope of the power given to it under Article 35AA of the Banking Regulation (Amendment) Act, 2017. The Court reasoned that Section 35AA was proposed by the 2017 Act to authorise the RBI to issues directions only in relation to specific cases of default by specific debtors. It held that the RBI circular issued directions in relation to debtors in general and this was outside their scope of power. The court also held that consequently all IBC proceedings initiated under the RBI circular are quashed.
During the proceedings, various companies argued that the RBI circular applies to all corporate debtors alike, without looking into each individual’s sectors problems and attempting to solve them. For instance, several power companies provided sector specific reasons for delay in payment of bank dues. The reasons included: (i) cancellation of coal blocks by the SC leading to non-availability of fuel, (ii) lack of enough power purchase agreements by states, (iii) non-payment of dues by DISCOMs, and (iv) delays in project implementation leading to cost overruns. Note that, in its 40th report, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Energy analysed the impact of the RBI circular on the power sector and noted that the ‘one size fits all’ approach of the RBI is erroneous.
 ‘Priority Sector Lending – Targets and Classification’ Reserve Bank of India, July 2012, https://rbi.org.in/scripts/NotificationUser.aspx?Id=7460&Mode=0.
 Revised Guidelines on Corporate Debt Restructuring Mechanism, Reserve Bank of India, https://www.rbi.org.in/upload/notification/pdfs/67158.pdf.
 ‘Framework for Revitalising Distressed Assets in the Economy – Guidelines on Joint Lenders’ Forum (JLF) and Corrective Action Plan (CAP)’, Reserve Bank of India, February 26, 2016, https://www.rbi.org.in/scripts/NotificationUser.aspx?Id=8754&Mode=0.
 Timelines for Stressed Assets, Press Release, Reserve Bank of India, May 5, 2017, https://www.rbi.org.in/Scripts/NotificationUser.aspx?Id=10957&Mode=0.
 Flexible Structuring of Long Term Project Loans to Infrastructure and Core Industries, RBI, July 15, 2014, https://www.rbi.org.in/scripts/NotificationUser.aspx?Id=9101&Mode=0.
 ‘RBI introduces a ‘Scheme for Sustainable Structuring of Stressed Assets’’ Press Release, Reserve Bank of India, June 13, 2016, https://www.rbi.org.in/Scripts/BS_PressReleaseDisplay.aspx?prid=37210.
 RBI identifies Accounts for Reference by Banks under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC), Reserve Bank of India, June 13, 2017, https://www.rbi.org.in/scripts/BS_PressReleaseDisplay.aspx?prid=40743
Recently, the Karnataka legislature passed the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) Bill, 2020. BBMP is the municipal corporation of the Greater Bengaluru metropolitan area. The BBMP Act, 2020 seeks to improve decentralisation, ensure public participation, and address certain administrative and structural concerns in Bengaluru. In this blog, we discuss some common issues in urban local governance in India, in the context of Bengaluru’s municipal administration.
The Constitution (74th Amendment) Act, 1992 provided for the establishment of urban local bodies (ULBs) (including municipal corporations) as institutions of local self-government. It also empowered state governments to devolve certain functions, authority, and power to collect revenue to these bodies, and made periodic elections for them compulsory.
Urban governance is part of the state list under the Constitution. Thus, the administrative framework and regulation of ULBs varies across states. However, experts have highlighted that ULBs across India face similar challenges. For instance, ULBs across the country lack autonomy in city management and several city-level functions are managed by parastatals (managed by and accountable to the state). Several taxation powers have also not been devolved to these bodies, leading to stressed municipal finances. These challenges have led to poor service delivery in cities and also created administrative and governance challenges at the municipal level.
BBMP was established under the Karnataka Municipal Corporation Act, 1976 (KMC Act). The BBMP Act, 2020 replaces provisions of the KMC Act, 1976 in its application to Bengaluru. It adds a new level of zonal committees to the existing three-tier municipal structure in the city, and also gives the Corporation some more taxation powers. Certain common issues in urban local governance in India, with provisions related to them in the BBMP Act, 2020 are given below.
Functional overlap with parastatals for key functions
The Constitution (74th Amendment) Act, 1992 empowered states to devolve the responsibility of 18 functions including urban planning, regulation of land use, water supply, and slum upgradation to ULBs. However, in most Indian cities including Bengaluru, a majority of these functions are carried out by parastatals. For example, in Bengaluru, the Bengaluru Development Authority is responsible for land regulation and the Karnataka Slum Clearance Board is responsible for slum rehabilitation.
The BBMP Act, 2020 provides the Corporation with the power and responsibility to prepare and implement schemes for the 18 functions provided for in the Constitution (74th Amendment) Act, 1992. However, it does not provide clarity if new bodies at the municipal level will be created, or the existing parastatals will continue to perform these functions and if so, whether their accountability will shift from the state to the municipal corporation.
This could create a two-fold challenge in administration. First, if there are multiple agencies performing similar functions, it could lead to a functional overlap, ambiguity, and wastage of resources. Second, and more importantly, the presence of parastatals that are managed by and accountable to the state government leads to an erosion of the ULB’s autonomy. Several experts have highlighted that this lack of autonomy faced by municipal corporations in most Indian cities leads to a challenge in governance, effective service delivery, and development of urban areas.
An Expert Committee on Urban Infrastructure (2011) had recommended that activity mapping should be done for the 18 functions. Under this, functions in the exclusive domain of municipalities and those which need to be shared with the state and the central government must be specified. Experts have also recommended that the municipality should be responsible for providing civic amenities in its jurisdiction and if a parastatal exercises a civic function, it should be accountable to the municipality.
Stressed municipal finances
Indian ULBs are amongst the weakest in the world in terms of fiscal autonomy and have limited effective devolution of revenue. They also have limited capacity to raise resources through their own sources of revenue such as property tax. Municipal revenue in India accounts for only one percent of the GDP (2017-18). This leads to a dependence on transfers by the state and central government.
ULBs in states like Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, and Haryana are in poor financial condition. This has been attributed to limited powers to raise revenue and levy taxes, and problems in the management of existing resources. For instance, the finances of Bihar’s ULBs were assessed to be poor because of: (i) delays in release of grants, (ii) inadequate devolution of funds, and (iii) delays in revision of tax rates and assessments of landholdings.
In comparison, Karnataka ranks high among Indian states in key indicators for fiscal capacity like collection of property taxes, grants from Central Finance Commissions, and state government transfers. The BBMP Act, 2020 further increases the taxation powers of the Corporation, by allowing it to impose taxes on professions and entertainment.
Experts have recommended that the central government and the respective state government should provide additional funds and facilitate additional funding mechanisms for ULBs to strengthen their finances. The revenue of ULBs can be augmented through measures including assignment of greater powers of taxation to the ULBs by the state government, reforms in land and property-based taxes (such as the use of technology to cover more properties), and issuing of municipal bonds (debt instruments issued by ULBs to finance development projects).
Powers of elected municipal officials
The executive power with state-appointed municipal Commissioners and elected municipal officers differs across states. States like Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, and cities like Chennai and Hyderabad vest the executive power in the Commissioner. In contrast, the executive power of the Corporation is exercised by a Mayor-in council (consisting of the Mayor and up to 10 elected members of the Corporation) in Kolkata and Madhya Pradesh. This is unlike large metropolitan cities in other countries like New York and London, where elected Mayors are designated as executive heads. Experts have noted that charging Commissioners with executive power diluted the role of the Mayor and violated the spirit of self-governance.
Under the BBMP Act, 2020, both the elected Mayor and the state-appointed Chief Commissioner exercise several executive functions. The Mayor is responsible for approving contracts and preparing the budget estimate for the Corporation. He is also required to discharge all functions assigned to him by the Corporation. On the other hand, executive functions of the Chief Commissioner include: (i) selling or leasing properties owned by the Corporation, and (ii) regulating and issuing instructions regarding public streets.
The Expert Committee on Urban Infrastructure (2011) has recommended that the Commissioner should act as a city manager and should be recruited through a transparent search-cum-selection process led by the Mayor. A Model Municipal law, released by the Urban Development Ministry in 2003, provided that the executive power should be exercised by an Empowered Standing Committee consisting of the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, and seven elected councillors.
Management of staff and human resources
Experts have noted that municipal administration in India suffers from staffing issues which leads to a failure in delivering basic urban services. These include overstaffing of untrained manpower, shortage of qualified technical staff and managerial supervisors, and unwillingness to innovate in methods for service delivery.
The BBMP Act, 2020 provides that the Corporation may make bye-laws for the due performance of duties by its employees. However, it does not mention other aspects of human resource management such as recruitment and promotion. A CAG report (2020) looking at the implementation of the Constitution (74th Amendment) Act, 1992 in Karnataka has observed that the power to assess municipal staff requirements, recruiting such staff, and determining their pay, transfer and promotion vests with the state government. This is in contrast with the recommendations of several experts who have suggested that municipalities should appoint their personnel to ensure accountability, adequate recruitment, and proper management of staff.
Other states including Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu also allow the state governments to regulate recruitment and staffing for ULBs. In cities like Mumbai, and Coimbatore, and some states like Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, while the recruitment process is conducted by the respective municipal corporations, the final sanction for hiring staff lies with the state government.