The call of debt

Surprisingly, ever since Anil Swarup became head of the Projects Monitoring Group (PMG) under the Cabinet Committee of Investment, he has not gotten the attention he deserved. When we invited him to speak on the progress made by the PMG at an ´INFRASTRUCTURE TODAY´ conference, he was the first one to walk into the conference hall, dot on time. And when I complimented him on his punctuality, he clarified that he felt it was unfair to the people who came on time to hear him if he did not maintain his time commitment. His clarity of thought, his delivery, witty comments and remarks were quite unusual for a bureaucrat. But then Swarup is a passionate man. His drive ensured that the health scheme he was responsible for, prior to his appointment at the PMG, was a resounding success. On November 21, as he took the podium after receiving the award for ´Construction World Man of the Year 2014´, he lauded the efforts of ASAPP Media and the manner in which it conducted its events and presented its magazines. As most awardees before him were construction leaders and had commented on whether ´achhe din´ had come or were imminent, he asserted that it was a matter of one´s own state of mind to decide to make things happen or wait for them to happen. Interestingly, he got a near unanimous vote for Man of the Year from our jury. What´s more, he held the audience spellbound by the magic of his delivery at the event. Graciously presenting the awards to construction leaders, he affirmed that they represented the true spirit of enterprise that India is banking on.

Just as Anil Swarup acted as a catalyst and broke the infra project logjam, our FM needs to appoint a point-man to help catalyse non-performing assets in the construction sector. During the dinner conversation at the event, one awardee narrated that a few years ago, when Uday Kotak visited Hyderabad, he had remarked that Hyderabad was the infrastructure capital of India. ´Now, it is the CDR capital of India,´ he remarked sardonically. Indeed, debt-ridden companies are furiously flailing their arms and legs to stay afloat. Most companies got into project development buoyed by the infrastructure boom, but the delay in projects, issues related to land acquisitions, lack of fuel for power and environment clearances among others have bled the companies dry. A huge infusion of capital is needed just to reach a stage of sustainability.

HCC is using the Lavasa IPO to bring debt into control; Gammon India plans to sell 58.67 per cent of its holdings in Gammon Infrastructure; Jaiprakash is selling its power and cement plants and has raised nearly Rs 15,000 crore from the sale of assets until March and Rs 1,500 crore via qualified institutional placements; GMR Group sold 40 per cent stake in Istanbul´s international airport and another firm providing airline services for $305 million and Welspun sold its stake in a construction JV for $99 million. More than $10 billion worth of assets have already been sold and another $5-7 billion are in the pipeline as per CLSA brokerage research.

The FM recently urged bankers to ´take calls´ without fear on extending credit. I think he needs to extend ´easier´ terms for easing corporate debt burden by redefining NPA guidelines. Infrastructure by its very definition has a longer gestation period and debt extended to such a sector must be addressed with easier guidelines, especially as our debt market does not offer long-term credit instruments defeating the basic tenet and creating a mismatch right from the inception of the debt. The power sector is staring at a huge debt hole for both power companies and banks. A committee should analyse all such beleaguered companies within a timeline and offer assistance to all genuine cases by offering relief and extensions.