The issue of Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) in the Indian banking sector has become the subject of much discussion and scrutiny. The Standing Committee on Finance recently released a report on the banking sector in India, where it observed that banks’ capacity to lend has been severely affected because of mounting NPAs. The Estimates Committee of Lok Sabha is also currently examining the performance of public sector banks with respect to their burgeoning problem of NPAs, and loan recovery mechanisms available.

Additionally, guidelines for banks released by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in February 2018 regarding timely resolution of stressed assets have come under scrutiny, with multiple cases being filed in courts against the same. In this context, we examine the recent rise of NPAs in the country, some of their underlying causes, and steps taken so far to address the issue.

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 categorized 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 March 31, 2018, provisional estimates suggest that the total volume of gross NPAs in the economy stands at Rs 10.35 lakh crore. About 85% of these NPAs are from loans and advances of public sector banks. For instance, NPAs in the State Bank of India are worth Rs 2.23 lakh crore.

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 (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.

Escalating NPAs require a bank to make higher provisions for losses in their books. The banks set aside more funds to pay for anticipated future losses; and this, along with several structural issues, leads to low profitability. Profitability of a bank is measured by its Return on Assets (RoA), which is the ratio of the bank’s net profits to its net assets. Banks have witnessed a decline in their profitability in the last few years (Figure 2), making them vulnerable to adverse economic shocks and consequently putting consumer deposits at risk.


What led to the rise in NPAs?

Some of the factors leading to the increased occurrence of NPAs are external, such as decreases in global commodity prices leading to slower exports. Some are more intrinsic to the Indian banking sector.

A lot of the loans currently classified as NPAs originated in the mid-2000s, at a time when the economy was booming and business outlook was very positive. Large corporations were granted loans for projects based on extrapolation of their recent growth and performance. With loans being available more easily than before, corporations grew highly leveraged, implying that most financing was through external borrowings rather than internal promoter equity. But as economic growth stagnated following the global financial crisis of 2008, the repayment capability of these corporations decreased. This contributed to what is now known as India’s Twin Balance Sheet problem, where both the banking sector (that gives loans) and the corporate sector (that takes and has to repay these loans) have come under financial stress.

When the project for which the loan was taken started underperforming, borrowers lost their capability of paying back the bank. The banks at this time took to the practice of ‘evergreening’, where fresh loans were given to some promoters to enable them to pay off their interest. This effectively pushed the recognition of these loans as non-performing to a later date, but did not address the root causes of their unprofitability.

Further, recently there have also been frauds of high magnitude that have contributed to rising NPAs. Although the size of frauds relative to the total volume of NPAs is relatively small, these frauds have been increasing, and there have been no instances of high profile fraudsters being penalised.

What is being done to address the problem of growing NPAs?

The measures taken to resolve and prevent NPAs can broadly be classified into two kinds – first, regulatory means of resolving NPAs per various laws (like the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code), and second, remedial measures for banks prescribed and regulated by the RBI for internal restructuring of stressed assets.

The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC) was enacted in May 2016 to provide a time-bound 180-day recovery process for insolvent accounts (where the borrowers are unable to pay their dues). Under the IBC, the creditors of these insolvent accounts, presided over by an insolvency professional, decide whether to restructure the loan, or to sell the defaulter’s assets to recover the outstanding amount. If a timely decision is not arrived at, the defaulter’s assets are liquidated. Proceedings under the IBC are adjudicated by the Debt Recovery Tribunal for personal insolvencies, and the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) for corporate insolvencies. 701 cases have been registered and 176 cases have been resolved as of March 2018 under the IBC.

What changed recently in the RBI’s guidelines to banks?

Over the years, the RBI has issued various guidelines aimed at the resolution of stressed assets of banks. 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). In line with the enactment of the IBC, the RBI, through a circular in February 2018, substituted all the specific pre-existing guidelines with a simplified, generic, time-bound framework for the resolution of stressed assets.

In the revised framework which replaced the earlier schemes, the RBI put in place a strict deadline of 180 days during which a resolution plan must be implemented, failing which stressed assets must be referred to the NCLT under IBC within 15 days. The framework also introduced a provision for monitoring of one-day defaults, where incipient stress is identified and flagged immediately when repayments are overdue by a day.

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 guidelines in various High Courts. A two-judge bench of the Allahabad High Court had recently 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. All lawsuits against the circular have currently been transferred to the Supreme Court, which has now issued an order to maintain status quo on the same. This means that these cases cannot be referred to the NCLT until the Supreme Court’s decision on the circular, although the RBI’s 180-day deadline has passed. This effectively provides interim relief to the errant borrowers who had moved to court till the next hearing of the apex court on this matter, which is scheduled for November 2018.

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 GujaratRajasthanUttar 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.