The Enforcement of Security Interest and Recovery of Debts Laws and Miscellaneous Provisions (Amendment) Bill, 2016 is listed for discussion in Rajya Sabha today.[i] The Bill aims to expeditiously resolve cases of debt recovery by making amendments to four laws, including the (i) Recovery of Debts Due to Banks and Financial Institutions Act, 1993, and (ii) the Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest Act, 2002. Recovery of Debts Due to Banks and Financial Institutions Act, 1993 The 1993 Act created Debt Recovery Tribunals (DRTS) to adjudicated debt recovery cases. This was done to move cases out of civil courts, with the idea of reducing time taken for debt recovery, and for providing technical expertise. This was aimed at assisting banks and financial institutions in recovering outstanding debt from defaulters. Over the years, it has been observed that the DRTs do not comply with the stipulated time frame of resolving disputes within six months. This has resulted in delays in disposal, and a high pendency of cases before the DRTs. Between March 2013 and December 2015, the number of pending cases before the DRTs increased from 43,000 to 70,000. With an average disposal rate of 10,000 cases per year, it is estimated that these DRTs will take about six to seven years to clear the existing backlog of cases.[ii] Experts have also observed that the DRT officers, responsible for debt recovery, lack experience in dealing with such cases. Further, these officers are not adequately trained to adjudicate debt-related matters.[iii] The 2016 Bill proposes to increase the retirement age of Presiding Officers of DRTs, and allows for their reappointment. This will allow the existing DRT officers to serve for longer periods of time. However, such a move may have limited impact in expanding the pool of officers in the DRTs. The 2016 Bill also has a provision which allows Presiding Officers of tribunals, established under other laws, to head DRTs. Currently, there are various specialised tribunals functioning in the country, like the Securities Appellate Tribunal, the National Company Law Tribunal, and theNational Green Tribunal. It remains to be seen if the skills brought in by officers of these tribunals will mirror the specialisation required for adjudicating debt-related matters. Further, the 1993 Act provides that banks and financial institutions must file cases in those DRTs that have jurisdiction over the defendant’s area of residence or business. In addition, the Bill allows cases to be filed in DRTs having jurisdiction over the bank branch where the debt is due. The Bill also provides that certain procedures, such as presentation of claims by parties and issue of summons by DRTs, can now be undertaken in electronic form (such as filing them on the DRT website). Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest Act, 2002 The 2002 Act allows secured creditors (lenders whose loans are backed by a security) to take possession over a collateral security if the debtor defaults in repayment. This allows creditors to sell the collateral security and recover the outstanding debt without the intervention of a court or a tribunal. This takeover of collateral security is done with the assistance of the District Magistrate (DM), having jurisdiction over the security. Experts have noted that the absence of a time-limit for the DM to dispose such applications has resulted in delays.[iv] The 2016 Bill proposes to introduce a 30-day time limit within which the DM must pass an order for the takeover of a security. Under certain circumstances, this time-limit may be extended to 60 days. The 2002 Act also regulates the establishment and functioning of Asset Reconstruction Companies (ARCs). ARCs purchase Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) from banks at a discount. This allows banks to recover partial payment for an outstanding loan account, thereby helping them maintain cash flow and liquidity. The functioning of ARCs has been explained in Figure 1. It has been observed that the setting up of ARCs, along with the use out-of-court systems to take possession of the collateral security, has created an environment conducive to lending.[iii] However, a few concerns related to the functioning of ARCs have been expressed over the years. These concerns include a limited number of buyers and capital entering the ARC business, and high transaction costs involved in the transfer of assets in favour of these companies due to the levy of stamp duty.[iii] In this regard, the Bill proposes to exempt the payment of stamp duty on transfer of financial assets in favour of ARCs. This benefit will not be applicable if the asset has been transferred for purposes other than securitisation or reconstruction (such as for the ARCs own use or investment). Consequently, the Bill amends the Indian Stamp Act, 1899. The Bill also provides greater powers to the Reserve Bank of India to regulate ARCs. This includes the power to carry out audits and inspections either on its own, or through specialised agencies. With the passage of the Bankruptcy Code in May 2016, a complete overhaul of the debt recovery proceedings was envisaged. The Code allows creditors to collectively take action against a defaulting debtor, and complete this process within a period of 180 days. During the process, the creditors may choose to revive a company by changing the repayment schedule of outstanding loans, or decide to sell it off for recovering their dues. While the Bankruptcy Code provides for collective action of creditors, the proposed amendments to the SARFAESI and DRT Acts seek to streamline the processes of creditors individually taking action against the defaulting debtor. The impact of these changes on debt recovery scenario in the country, and the issue of rising NPAs will only become clear in due course of time. [i] Enforcement of Security Interest and Recovery of Debts Laws and Miscellaneous Provisions (Amendment) Bill, 2016, http://www.prsindia.org/administrator/uploads/media/Enforcement%20of%20Security/Enforcement%20of%20Security%20Bill,%202016.pdf. [ii] Unstarred Question No. 1570, Lok Sabha, Ministry of Finance, Answered on March 4, 2016. [iii] ‘A Hundred Small Steps’, Report of the Committee on Financial Sector Reforms, Planning Commission, September 2008, http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/genrep/rep_fr/cfsr_all.pdf. [iv] Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission, March 2013, http://finmin.nic.in/fslrc/fslrc_report_vol1.pdf.
Last week, the Assam Legislative Assembly passed the Assam Cattle Preservation Bill, 2021. The Bill seeks to regulate the slaughter and transportation of cattle and the sale of beef. It replaces the Assam Cattle Preservation Act, 1950, which only provided for restrictions on cattle slaughter. In this post, we examine the Bill and compare it with other state laws on cattle preservation. For a detailed analysis of the Bill, see here.
Cattle preservation under the Bill
The Bill prohibits the slaughter of cows of all ages. Bulls and bullocks, on the other hand, may be slaughtered if they are: (i) over 14 years of age, or (ii) permanently incapacitated due to accidental injury or deformity. Inter-state and intra-state transport of cattle is allowed only for agricultural or animal husbandry purposes. This requires a permit from the competent authority (to be appointed by the state government). Further, the Bill allows the sale of beef and beef products only at certain locations as permitted by the competent authority. No permission for such sale will be granted in areas that are predominantly inhabited by Hindu, Jain, Sikh and other non-beef eating communities, or within a five-kilometre radius of a temple or other Hindu religious institution.
Provisions of the Bill may raise certain issues which we discuss below.
Undue restriction on cattle transport in the north-eastern region of India
The Bill prohibits the transport of cattle from one state to another (or another country) through Assam, except with a permit that such transport is for agricultural or animal husbandry purposes. This may lead to difficulties in movement of cattle to the entire north-eastern region of India. First, the unique geographical location of Assam makes it an unavoidable transit state when moving goods to other north-eastern states. Second, it is unclear why Assam may disallow transit through it for any purposes other than agriculture or animal husbandry that are allowed in the origin and destination states. Note that the Madhya Pradesh Govansh Vadh Pratishedh Adhiniyam, 2004 provides for a separate permit called a transit permit for transporting cattle through the state. Such permit is for the act of transport, without any conditions as to the purpose of transport.
Unrestricted outward transport of cattle to states that regulate slaughter differently from Assam
The Bill restricts the transport of cattle from Assam to any place outside Assam “where slaughter of cattle is not regulated by law”. This implies that cattle may be transported without any restrictions to places outside Assam where cattle slaughter is regulated by law. It is unclear whether this seeks to cover any kind of regulation of cattle slaughter, or only regulation that is similar to the regulation under this Bill. The rationale for restricting inter-state transport may be to pre-empt the possibility of cattle protected under the Bill being taken to other states for slaughter. If that is the intention, it is not clear why the Bill exempts states with any regulation for cattle slaughter from transport restrictions. Other states may not have similar restrictions on cattle slaughter as in the Bill. Note that other states such as Karnataka and Chhattisgarh restrict outgoing cattle transport without making any distinction between states that regulate cattle slaughter and those that do not.
Effective prohibition on sale of beef in Assam
The Bill prohibits the sale of beef within a five-kilometre radius of a temple (which means an area of about 78.5 square kilometres around a temple). This threshold may be overly restrictive. As per the 2011 census, the average town area in Assam is 5.89 square kilometres (sq km) and the average village area is 1.93 sq km. The three largest towns of Assam by area are: (i) Guwahati (219.1 sq km), (ii) Jorhat (53.5 sq km), and (iii) Dibrugarh (20.8 sq km). Hence, even if there is only one temple in the middle of a town, no town in Assam – except Guwahati – can have a beef shop within the town area. Similarly, if a village has even one temple, a beef shop cannot be set up in a large area encompassing several adjoining villages as well. In this manner, the Bill may end up completely prohibiting sale of beef in the entire state, instead of restricting it to certain places.
Note that certain states such as Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana completely prohibit the sale or purchase of beef within the state. However, they also completely prohibit the slaughter of cows, bulls and bullocks. This is not the case under the Bill, which only places a complete prohibition on slaughter of cows. Further, in places such as Delhi, municipal regulations prohibit the sale of meat (including beef) within 150 metres from a temple or other religious place. This minimum distance requirement does not apply at the time of renewal of license for selling meat if the religious place comes into existence after the grant of such license.
The prohibition on sale of beef in areas predominantly inhabited by communities identified based on religion or food habits (non-beef eating) may also have an unintended consequence. With the food typically consumed by a community becoming unavailable or available only in select locations, it may lead to the segregation of different communities into demarcated residential areas. As per the 2011 census, the population of Assam comprises roughly 61% Hindus, 34% Muslims, and 4% Christians.
Onerous requirement for the accused to pay maintenance cost of seized cattle
Cattle rearing is essentially an economic activity. Under the Bill, cattle may be seized by a police officer on the basis of suspicion that an offence has been or may be committed. Seized cattle may be handed over to a care institution, and the cost of its maintenance during trial will be recovered from such persons as prescribed by the state government through rules. Note that there is no time frame for completing a trial under the Bill. Thus, if the owner or transporter of seized cattle is made liable to pay its maintenance cost, they may be deprived of their source of livelihood for an indefinite period while at the same time incurring a cost.
Cattle preservation laws in other states
The Directive Principles of State Policy under the Constitution call upon the state to prohibit the slaughter of cows, calves, and other milch and draught cattle. Currently, more than 20 states have laws restricting the slaughter of cattle (cows, bulls, and bullocks) and buffaloes to various degrees. Table 1 below shows a comparison of such laws in select states of India. Notably, north-eastern states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland do not have any law regulating cattle slaughter.