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
Tribunals function as a parallel mechanism to the traditional court system. Tribunals were established for two main reasons - allowing for specialised subject knowledge in disputes on technical matters and reducing the burden on the court system. In India, some tribunals are at the level of subordinate courts with appeals lying with the High Court, while some others are at the level of High Courts with appeals lying with the Supreme Court. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament may create an alternative to High Courts provided that they have the same efficacy as the High Courts. For an overview of the tribunal system in India, see our note here.
In April 2021, the central government promulgated an Ordinance, which specified provisions related to the composition of the search-cum-selection committees for the selection of members of 15 Tribunals, and the term of office for members. Further, it empowered the central government to notify qualifications and other terms and conditions of service (such as salaries) for the Chairperson and members of these tribunals. In July 2021, the Supreme Court struck down certain provisions of the Ordinance (such as the provision specifying a four-year term for members) stating that these impinged on the independence of the judiciary from the government. In several earlier judgements, the Supreme Court has laid out guidelines for the composition of Tribunals and service conditions to ensure that these Tribunals have the same level of independence from the Executive as the High Courts they replace.
However, Parliament passed the Tribunals Reforms Bill, 2021 in August 2021, which is almost identical to the April Ordinance and includes the provisions which had been struck down. This Act has been challenged in the Supreme Court. For a PRS analysis of the Bill, please see here.
On 16th September 2021, the central government notified The Tribunal (Conditions of Service) Rules, 2021 under the Tribunals Reforms Act, 2021. A couple of the provisions under these Rules may contravene principles laid out by the Supreme Court:
Appointment of the Administrative Member of the Central Administrative Tribunal as the Chairman
In case of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), the Rules specify that a person with at least three years of experience as the Judicial Member or Administrative Member may be appointed as the Chairman. This may violate the principles laid down by the past Supreme Court judgements.
The CAT supplants High Courts. In 1986, the Supreme Court stated that if an administrative tribunal supplants the High Courts, the office of the Chairman of the tribunal should be equated with that of the Chief Justice of the High Court. Therefore, the Chairman of the tribunal must be a current or former High Court Judge. Further, in 2019, the Supreme Court stated – “the knowledge, training, and experience of members or presiding officers of a tribunal must mirror, as far as possible, that of the Court it seeks to substitute”.
The Administrative Member of the CAT may be a person who has been an Additional Secretary to the central government or a central government officer with pay at least that of the Additional Secretary. Hence, the Administrative Member may not have the required judicial experience for appointment as the Chairman of CAT.
Leave Sanctioning Authority
The Rules specify that the central government will be the leave sanctioning authority for the Chairperson of tribunals, and Members (in case of absence of the Chairperson). In 2014, the Supreme Court specified that the central government (Executive) should not have any administrative involvement with the members of the tribunal as it may influence the independence and fairness of the tribunal members. In addition, it had observed that the Executive may be a litigant party and its involvement in administrative matters of tribunals may influence the fairness of the adjudication process. In judgements in 1997 and 2014, the Supreme Court recommended that the administration of all Tribunals should be under a nodal ministry such as the Law Ministry, and not the respective administrative ministry. In 2020, it recommended setting up of a National Tribunals Commission to supervise appointments and administration of Tribunals. The Rules are not in consonance with these recommendations.