72. The primary argument advanced on behalf of the Revenue was that the SPA, commercially construed, evidences a transfer of HTIL's property rights by their extinguishment. That, HTIL had, under the SPA, directly extinguished its rights of control and management, which are property rights, over HEL and its subsidiaries and, consequent upon such extinguishment, there was a transfer of capital asset situated in India. In support, the following 5
features of the SPA were highlighted: (i) the right of HTIL to direct a downstream subsidiary as to the manner in which it should vote. According to the Revenue, this right was a property right and not a contractual right. It vested in HTIL as HTIL was a parent company, i.e., a 100% shareholder of the subsidiary; (ii) According to the Revenue, the 2006 Shareholders/ Framework Agreements had to be continued upon transfer of control of HEL to VIH so that VIH could step into the shoes of HTIL. According to the Revenue, such continuance was ensured by payment of money to AS and AG by VIH failing which AS and AG could have walked out of those agreements which would have jeopardized VIH's control over 15% of the shares of HEL and, consequently, the stake of HTIL in TII would have stood reduced to minority; (iii) Termination of IDFC Framework Agreement of 2006 and its substitution by a fresh Framework Agreement dated 5.06.2007, as warranted by SPA; (iv) Termination of Term Sheet Agreement dated 5.07.2003. According to the Revenue, that Term Sheet Agreement was given effect to by clause 5.2 of the SPA which gave Essar the right to Tag Along with HTIL and exit from HEL. That, by a specific 5
Settlement Agreement dated 15.03.2007 between HTIL and Essar, the said Term Sheet Agreement dated 5.07.2003 stood terminated. This, according to the Revenue, was necessary because the Term Sheet bound the parties; (v) the SPA ignores legal entities interposed between HTIL and HEL enabling HTIL to directly nominate the Directors on the Board of HEL; (vi) Qua management rights, even if the legal owners of HEL's shares (Mauritius entities) could have been directed to vote by HTIL in a particular manner or to nominate a person as a Director, such rights existed dehors the CGP share; (vii) Vide clause 6.2 of the SPA, HTIL was required to exercise voting rights in the specified situations on the diktat of VIH ignoring the legal owner of CGP share [HTIHL (BVI)]. Thus, according to the Revenue, HTIL ignored its subsidiaries and was exercising the voting rights qua the CGP and the HEL shares directly, ignoring all the intermediate subsidiaries which are 100% held and which are non-operational. According to the Revenue, extinguishment took place dehors the CGP share. It took place by virtue of various clauses of SPA as HTIL itself disregarded the corporate structure it had set up; (viii) As a 5
holder of 100% shares of downstream subsidiaries, HTIL possessed de facto control over such subsidiaries. Such de facto control was the subject matter of the SPA.
73. At the outset, we need to reiterate that in this case we are concerned with the sale of shares and not with the sale of assets, item-wise. The facts of this case show sale of the entire investment made by HTIL, through a Top company, viz. CGP, in the Hutchison Structure. In this case we need to apply the "look at" test. In the impugned judgment, the High Court has rightly observed that the arguments advanced on behalf of the Department vacillated. The reason for such vacillation was adoption of "dissecting approach" by the Department in the course of its arguments. Ramsay (supra) enunciated the look at test. According to that test, the task of the Revenue is to ascertain the legal nature of the transaction and, while doing so, it has to look at the entire transaction holistically and not to adopt a dissecting approach. One more aspect needs to be reiterated. There is a conceptual difference between preordained transaction which is created for tax avoidance purposes, on the one hand, and a transaction 5
which evidences investment to participate in India. In order to find out whether a given transaction evidences a preordained transaction in the sense indicated above or investment to participate, one has to take into account the factors enumerated hereinabove, namely, duration of time during which the holding structure existed, the period of business operations in India, generation of taxable revenue in India during the period of business operations in India, the timing of the exit, the continuity of business on such exit, etc. Applying these tests to the facts of the present case, we find that the Hutchison structure has been in place since 1994. It operated during the period 1994 to 11.02.2007. It has paid income tax ranging from `3 crore to `250 crore per annum during the period 2002-03 to 2006-
07. Even after 11.02.2007, taxes are being paid by VIH ranging from `394 crore to `962 crore per annum during the period 2007-08 to 2010-11 (these figures are apart from indirect taxes which also run in crores). Moreover, the SPA indicates "continuity" of the telecom business on the exit of its predecessor, namely, HTIL. Thus, it cannot be said that the structure was created or used as a sham or tax 5
avoidant. It cannot be said that HTIL or VIH was a "fly by night" operator/ short time investor. If one applies the look at test discussed hereinabove, without invoking the dissecting approach, then, in our view, extinguishment took place because of the transfer of the CGP share and not by virtue of various clauses of SPA. In a case like the present one, where the structure has existed for a considerable length of time generating taxable revenues right from 1994 and where the court is satisfied that the transaction satisfies all the parameters of "participation in investment" then in such a case the court need not go into the questions such as de facto control vs. legal control, legal rights vs. practical rights, etc.
74. Be that as it may, did HTIL possess a legal right to appoint directors onto the board of HEL and as such had some "property right" in HEL? If not, the question of such a right getting "extinguished" will not arise. A legal right is an enforceable right. Enforceable by a legal process. The question is what is the nature of the "control" that a parent company has over its subsidiary. It is not suggested that a parent company never has control over the subsidiary. For 5
example, in a proper case of "lifting of corporate veil", it would be proper to say that the parent company and the subsidiary form one entity. But barring such cases, the legal position of any company incorporated abroad is that its powers, functions and responsibilities are governed by the law of its incorporation. No multinational company can operate in a foreign jurisdiction save by operating independently as a "good local citizen". A company is a separate legal persona and the fact that all its shares are owned by one person or by the parent company has nothing to do with its separate legal existence. If the owned company is wound up, the liquidator, and not its parent company, would get hold of the assets of the subsidiary. In none of the authorities have the assets of the subsidiary been held to be those of the parent unless it is acting as an agent. Thus, even though a subsidiary may normally comply with the request of a parent company it is not just a puppet of the parent company. The difference is between having power or having a persuasive position. Though it may be advantageous for parent and subsidiary companies to work as a group, each subsidiary will look to see whether 5
there are separate commercial interests which should be guarded. When there is a parent company with subsidiaries, is it or is it not the law that the parent company has the "power" over the subsidiary. It depends on the facts of each case. For instance, take the case of a one-man company, where only one man is the shareholder perhaps holding 99% of the shares, his wife holding 1%. In those circumstances, his control over the company may be so complete that it is his alter ego. But, in case of multinationals it is important to realise that their subsidiaries have a great deal of autonomy in the country concerned except where subsidiaries are created or used as a sham. Of course, in many cases the courts do lift up a corner of the veil but that does not mean that they alter the legal position between the companies. The directors of the subsidiary under their Articles are the managers of the companies. If new directors are appointed even at the request of the parent company and even if such directors were removable by the parent company, such directors of the subsidiary will owe their duty to their companies (subsidiaries). They are not to be dictated by the parent 5
company if it is not in the interests of those companies (subsidiaries). The fact that the parent company exercises shareholder's influence on its subsidiaries cannot obliterate the decision-making power or authority of its (subsidiary's) directors. They cannot be reduced to be puppets. The decisive criteria is whether the parent company's management has such steering interference with the subsidiary's core activities that subsidiary can no longer be regarded to perform those activities on the authority of its own executive directors.
75. Before dealing with the submissions advanced on behalf of the Revenue, we need to appreciate the reason for execution of the SPA. Exit is an important right of an investor in every strategic investment. The present case concerns transfer of investment in entirety. As stated above, exit coupled with continuity of business is one of the important tell-tale circumstance which indicates the commercial/business substance of the transaction. Thus, the need for SPA arose to re-adjust the outstanding loans between the companies; to provide for standstill arrangements in the interregnum between the date of 5
signing of the SPA on 11.02.2007 and its completion on 8.05.2007; to provide for a seamless transfer and to provide for fundamental terms of price, indemnities, warranties etc. As regards the right of HTIL to direct a downstream subsidiary as to the manner in which it should vote is concerned, the legal position is well settled, namely, that even though a subsidiary may normally comply with the request of a parent company, it is not just a puppet of the parent company. The difference is between having the power and having a persuasive position. A great deal depends on the facts of each case. Further, as stated above, a company is a separate legal persona, and the fact that all the shares are owned by one person or a company has nothing to do with the existence of a separate company. Therefore, though it may be advantageous for a parent and subsidiary companies to work as a group, each subsidiary has to protect its own separate commercial interests. In our view, on the facts and circumstances of this case, the right of HTIL, if at all it is a right, to direct a downstream subsidiary as to the manner in which it should vote would fall in the category of a persuasive position/influence rather 6
than having a power over the subsidiary. In this connection the following facts are relevant.
76. Under the Hutchison structure, the business was carried on by the Indian companies under the control of their Board of Directors, though HTIL, as the Group holding company of a set of companies, which controlled 42% plus 10% (pro rata) shares, did influence or was in a position to persuade the working of such Board of Directors of the Indian companies. In this connection, we need to have a relook at the ownership structure. It is not in dispute that 15% out of 67% stakes in HEL was held by AS, AG and IDFC companies. That was one of the main reasons for entering into separate Shareholders and Framework Agreements in 2006, when Hutchison structure existed, with AS, AG and IDFC. HTIL was not a party to the agreements with AS and AG, though it was a party to the agreement with IDFC. That, the ownership structure of Hutchison clearly shows that AS, AG and SMMS (IDFC) group of companies, being Indian companies, possessed 15% control in HEL. Similarly, the term sheet with Essar dated 5.07.2003 gave Essar the RoFR and Right to Tag 6
Along with HTIL and exit from HEL. Thus, if one keeps in mind the Hutchison structure in its entirety, HTIL as a Group holding company could have only persuaded its downstream companies to vote in a given manner as HTIL had no power nor authority under the said structure to direct any of its downstream companies to vote in a manner as directed by it (HTIL). Facts of this case show that both the parent and the subsidiary companies worked as a group since 1994. That, as a practice, the subsidiaries did comply with the arrangement suggested by the Group holding company in the matter of voting, failing which the smooth working of HEL generating huge revenues was not possible. In this case, we are concerned with the expression "capital asset" in the income tax law. Applying the test of enforceability, influence/ persuasion cannot be construed as a right in the legal sense. One more aspect needs to be highlighted. The concept of "de facto" control, which existed in the Hutchison structure, conveys a state of being in control without any legal right to such state. This aspect is important while construing the words "capital asset" under the income tax law. As stated earlier, enforceability is an 6
important aspect of a legal right. Applying these tests, on the facts of this case and that too in the light of the ownership structure of Hutchison, we hold that HTIL, as a Group holding company, had no legal right to direct its downstream companies in the matter of voting, nomination of directors and management rights. As regards continuance of the 2006 Shareholders/Framework Agreements by SPA is concerned, one needs to keep in mind two relevant concepts, viz., participative and protective rights. As stated, this is a case of HTIL exercising its exit right under the holding structure and continuance of the telecom business operations in India by VIH by acquisition of shares. In the Hutchison structure, exit was also provided for Essar, Centrino, NDC and SMMS through exercise of Put Option/TARs, subject to sectoral cap being relaxed in future. These exit rights in Essar, Centrino, NDC and SMMS (IDFC) indicate that these companies were independent companies. Essar was a partner in HEL whereas Centrino, NDC and SMMS controlled 15% of shares of HEL (minority). A minority investor has what is called as a "participative" right, which is a subset of 6
"protective rights". These participative rights, given to a minority shareholder, enable the minority to overcome the presumption of consolidation of operations or assets by the controlling shareholder. These participative rights in certain instances restrict the powers of the shareholder with majority voting interest to control the operations or assets of the investee. At the same time, even the minority is entitled to exit. This "exit right" comes under "protective rights". On examination of the Hutchison structure in its entirety, we find that both, participative and protective rights, were provided for in the Shareholders/ Framework Agreements of 2006 in favour of Centrino, NDC and SMMS which enabled them to participate, directly or indirectly, in the operations of HEL. Even without the execution of SPA, such rights existed in the above agreements. Therefore, it would not be correct to say that such rights flowed from the SPA. One more aspect needs to be mentioned. The Framework Agreements define "change of control with respect to a shareholder" inter alia as substitution of limited or unlimited liability company, whether directly or indirectly, to direct the policies/ management of the respective 6
shareholders, viz., Centrino, NDC, Omega. Thus, even without the SPA, upon substitution of VIH in place of HTIL, on acquisition of CGP share, transition could have taken place. It is important to note that "transition" is a wide concept. It is impossible for the acquirer to visualize all events that may take place between the date of execution of the SPA and completion of acquisition. Therefore, we have a provision for standstill in the SPA and so also the provision for transition. But, from that, it does not follow that without SPA, transition could not ensue. Therefore, in the SPA, we find provisions concerning Vendor's Obligations in relation to the conduct of business of HEL between the date of execution of SPA and the closing date, protection of investment during the said period, agreement not to amend, terminate, vary or waive any rights under the Framework/ Shareholders Agreements during the said period, provisions regarding running of business during the said period, assignment of loans, consequence of imposition of prohibition by way of injunction from any court, payment to be made by VIH to HTIL, giving of warranties by the Vendor, use of Hutch Brand, etc. The next point raised by the 6
Revenue concerns termination of IDFC Framework Agreement of 2006 and its substitution by a fresh Framework Agreement dated 5.06.2007 in terms of the SPA. The submission of the Revenue before us was that the said Agreement dated 5.06.2007 (which is executed after the completion of acquisition by VIH on 8.05.2007) was necessary to assign the benefits of the earlier agreements of 2006 to VIH. This is not correct. The shareholders of ITNL (renamed as Omega) were Array through HTIL Mauritius and SMMS (an Indian company). The original investors through SMMS (IDFC), an infrastructure holding company, held 54.21% of the share capital of Omega; that, under the 2006 Framework Agreement, the original investors were given Put Option by GSPL [an Indian company under Hutchison Teleservices (India) Holdings Limited (Ms)] requiring GSPL to buy the equity share capital of SMMS; that on completion of acquisition on 8.05.2007 there was a change in control of HTIL Mauritius which held 45.79% in Omega and that changes also took place on 5.06.2007 within the group of original investors with the exit of IDFC and SSKI. In view of the said changes in the parties, a 6
revised Framework Agreement was executed on 6.06.2007, which again had call and put option. Under the said Agreement dated 6.06.2007, the Investors once again agreed to grant call option to GSPL to buy the shares of SMMS and to enter into a Shareholders Agreement to regulate the affairs of Omega. It is important to note that even in the fresh agreement the call option remained with GSPL and that the said Agreement did not confer any rights on VIH. One more aspect needs to be mentioned. The conferment of call options on GSPL under the Framework Agreements of 2006 also had a linkage with intra-group loans. CGP was an Investment vehicle. It is through the acquisition of CGP that VIH had indirectly acquired the rights and obligations of GSPL in the Centrino and NDC Framework Agreements of 2006 [see the report of KPMG dated 18.10.2010] and not through execution of the SPA. Lastly, as stated above, apart from providing for "standstill", an SPA has to provide for transition and all possible future eventualities. In the present case, the change in the investors, after completion of acquisition on 8.05.2007, under which SSKI and IDFC exited leaving behind IDF alone was a situation which was 6
required to be addressed by execution of a fresh Framework Agreement under which the call option remained with GSPL. Therefore, the June, 2007 Agreements relied upon by the Revenue merely reiterated the rights of GSPL which rights existed even in the Hutchison structure as it stood in 2006. It was next contended that the 2003 Term Sheet with Essar was given effect to by clause 5.2 of the SPA which gave Essar the Right to Tag Along with HTIL and exit from HEL. That, the Term Sheet of 5.07.2003 had legal effect because by a specific settlement dated 15.03.2007 between HTIL and Essar, the said Term Sheet stood terminated which was necessary because the Term Sheet bound the parties in the first place. We find no merit in the above arguments of the Revenue. The 2003 Term Sheet was between HTIL, Essar and UMTL. Disputes arose between Essar and HTIL. Essar asserted RoFR rights when bids were received by HTIL, which dispute ultimately came to be settled on 15.03.2007, that is after the SPA dated 11.02.2007. The SPA did not create any rights. The RoFR/TARs existed in the Hutchison structure. Thus, even without SPA, within the Hutchison structure these rights existed. Moreover, the very object of 6
the SPA is to cover the situations which may arise during the transition and those which are capable of being anticipated and dealt with. Essar had 33% stakes in HEL. As stated, the Hutchison structure required the parent and the subsidiary to work together as a group. The said structure required the Indian partners to be kept in the loop. Disputes on existence of RoFR/ TARs had to be settled. They were settled on 15.03.2007. The rights and obligations created under the SPA had to be preserved. In any event, preservation of such rights with a view to continue business in India is not extinguishment.
77. For the above reasons, we hold that under the HTIL structure, as it existed in 1994, HTIL occupied only a persuasive position/influence over the downstream companies qua manner of voting, nomination of directors and management rights. That, the minority shareholders/investors had participative and protective rights (including RoFR/TARs, call and put options which provided for exit) which flowed from the CGP share. That, the entire investment was sold to the VIH through the 6
investment vehicle (CGP). Consequently, there was no extinguishment of rights as alleged by the Revenue. Role of CGP in the transaction
78. The main contention of the Revenue was that CGP stood inserted at a late stage in the transaction in order to bring in a tax-free entity (or to create a transaction to avoid tax) and thereby avoid capital gains. That, in December, 2006, HTIL explored the possibility of the sale of shares of the Mauritius entities and found that such transaction would be taxable as HTIL under that proposal had to be the prime mover behind any agreement with VIH - prime mover in the sense of being both a seller of shares and the recipient of the sale proceeds therefrom. Consequently, HTIL moved upwards in the Hutchison structure and devised an artificial tax avoidance scheme of selling the CGP share when in fact what HTIL wanted was to sell its property rights in HEL. This, according to the Revenue, was the reason for the CGP share being interposed in the transaction. We find no merit in these arguments.
79. When a business gets big enough, it does two things. First, it reconfigures itself into a corporate group by dividing 7
itself into a multitude of commonly owned subsidiaries. Second, it causes various entities in the said group to guarantee each other's debts. A typical large business corporation consists of sub-incorporates. Such division is legal. It is recognized by company law, laws of taxation, takeover codes etc. On top is a parent or a holding company. The parent is the public face of the business. The parent is the only group member that normally discloses financial results. Below the parent company are the subsidiaries which hold operational assets of the business and which often have their own subordinate entities that can extend layers. If large firms are not divided into subsidiaries, creditors would have to monitor the enterprise in its entirety. Subsidiaries reduce the amount of information that creditors need to gather. Subsidiaries also promote the benefits of specialization. Subsidiaries permit creditors to lend against only specified divisions of the firm. These are the efficiencies inbuilt in a holding structure. Subsidiaries are often created for tax or regulatory reasons. They at times come into existence from mergers and acquisitions. As group members, subsidiaries work together 7
to make the same or complementary goods and services and hence they are subject to the same market supply and demand conditions. They are financially inter-linked. One such linkage is the intra-group loans and guarantees. Parent entities own equity stakes in their subsidiaries. Consequently, on many occasions, the parent suffers a loss whenever the rest of the group experiences a downturn. Such grouping is based on the principle of internal correlation. Courts have evolved doctrines like piercing the corporate veil, substance over form etc. enabling taxation of underlying assets in cases of fraud, sham, tax avoidant, etc. However, genuine strategic tax planning is not ruled out.
80. CGP was incorporated in 1998 in Cayman Islands. It was in the Hutchison structure from 1998. The transaction in the present case was of divestment and, therefore, the transaction of sale was structured at an appropriate tier, so that the buyer really acquired the same degree of control as was hitherto exercised by HTIL. VIH agreed to acquire companies and the companies it acquired controlled 67% interest in HEL. CGP was an investment vehicle. As stated above, it is through the acquisition of CGP that VIH 7
proposed to indirectly acquire the rights and obligations of GSPL in the Centrino and NDC Framework Agreements. The report of Ernst & Young dated 11.02.2007 inter alia states that when they were asked to conduct due diligence by VIH, it was in relation to Array and its subsidiaries. The said report evidences that at the negotiation stage, parties had in mind the transfer of an upstream company rather than the transfer of HEL directly. The transfer of Array had the advantage of transferring control over the entire shareholding held by downstream Mauritius companies (tier I companies), other than GSPL. On the other hand, the advantage of transferring the CGP share enabled VIH to indirectly acquire the rights and obligations of GSPL (Indian company) in the Centrino and NDC Framework agreements. This was the reason for VIH to go by the CGP route. One of the arguments of the Revenue before us was that the Mauritius route was not available to HTIL for the reason indicated above. In this connection, it was urged that the legal owner of HEL (Indian company) was not HTIL. Under the transaction, HTIL alone was the seller of the shares. VIH wanted to enter into an agreement only with HTIL so 7
that if something goes wrong, VIH could look solely to HTIL being the group holding company (parent company). Further, funds were pumped into HEL by HTIL. These funds were to be received back in the shape of a capital gain which could then be used to declare a special dividend to the shareholders of HTIL. We find no merit in this argument. Firstly, the tier I (Mauritius companies) were the indirect subsidiaries of HTIL who could have influenced the former to sell the shares of Indian companies in which event the gains would have arisen to the Mauritius companies, who are not liable to pay capital gains tax under the Indo- Mauritius DTAA. That, nothing prevented the Mauritius companies from declaring dividend on gains made on the sale of shares. There is no tax on dividends in Mauritius. Thus, the Mauritius route was available but it was not opted for because that route would not have brought in the control over GSPL. Secondly, if the Mauritius companies had sold the shares of HEL, then the Mauritius companies would have continued to be the subsidiaries of HTIL, their accounts would have been consolidated in the hands of HTIL and HTIL would have accounted for the gains in 7
exactly the same way as it has accounted for the gains in the hands of HTIHL (CI) which was the nominated payee. Thus, in our view, two routes were available, namely, the CGP route and the Mauritius route. It was open to the parties to opt for any one of the two routes. Thirdly, as stated above, in the present case, the SPA was entered into inter alia for a smooth transition of business on divestment by HTIL. As stated, transfer of the CGP share enabled VIH to indirectly acquire the rights and obligations of GSPL in the Centrino and NDC Framework Agreements. Apart from the said rights and obligations under the Framework Agreements, GSPL also had a call centre business. VIH intended to take over from HTIL the telecom business. It had no intention to acquire the business of call centre. Moreover, the FDI norms applicable to the telecom business in India were different and distinct from the FDI norms applicable to the call centre business. Consequently, in order to avoid legal and regulatory objections from Government of India, the call centre business stood hived off. In our view, this step was an integral part of transition of business under SPA.
81. On the role of CGP in the transaction, two documents are required to be referred to. One is the Report of the KPMG dated 18.10.2010 in which it is stated that through the acquisition of CGP, VIH had indirectly acquired the rights and obligations of GSPL in the Centrino and NDC Framework Agreements. That, the said two agreements were put in place with a view to provide AG and AS with downside protection while preserving upside value in the growth of HEL. The second document is the Annual Report 2007 of HTIL. Under the caption "Overview", the Report observes that on 11.02.2007, HTIL entered into an agreement to sell its entire interests in CGP, a company which held through various subsidiaries, the direct and indirect equity and loan interests in HEL (renamed VEL) and its subsidiaries to VIH for a cash consideration of HK $86.6 bn. As a result of the said Transaction, the net debt of the Group which stood at HK $37,369 mn as on 31.12.2006 became a net cash balance of HK $25,591 mn as on 31.12.2007. This supports the fact that the sole purpose of CGP was not only to hold shares in subsidiary companies but also to enable a smooth transition of 7
business, which is the basis of the SPA. Therefore, it cannot be said that the intervened entity (CGP) had no business or commercial purpose.
82. Before concluding, one more aspect needs to be addressed. It concerns situs of the CGP share. According to the Revenue, under the Companies Law of Cayman Islands, an exempted company was not entitled to conduct business in the Cayman Islands. CGP was an "exempted company". According to the Revenue, since CGP was a mere holding company and since it could not conduct business in Cayman Islands, the situs of the CGP share existed where the "underlying assets are situated", that is to say, India. That, since CGP as an exempted company conducts no business either in the Cayman Islands or elsewhere and since its sole purpose is to hold shares in a subsidiary company situated outside the Cayman Islands, the situs of the CGP share, in the present case, existed "where the underlying assets stood situated" (India). We find no merit in these arguments. At the outset, we do not wish to pronounce authoritatively on the Companies Law of Cayman Islands. Be that as it may, under the Indian 7
Companies Act, 1956, the situs of the shares would be where the company is incorporated and where its shares can be transferred. In the present case, it has been asserted by VIH that the transfer of the CGP share was recorded in the Cayman Islands, where the register of members of the CGP is maintained. This assertion has neither been rebutted in the impugned order of the Department dated 31.05.2010 nor traversed in the pleadings filed by the Revenue nor controverted before us. In the circumstances, we are not inclined to accept the arguments of the Revenue that the situs of the CGP share was situated in the place (India) where the underlying assets stood situated.
Did VIH acquire 67% controlling interest in HEL (and not 42%/ 52% as sought to be propounded)?
83. According to the Revenue, the entire case of VIH was that it had acquired only 42% (or, accounting for FIPB regulations, 52%) is belied by clause 5.2 of the Shareholders Agreement. In this connection, it was urged that 15% in HEL was held by AS/ AG/ IDFC because of the FDI cap of 74% and, consequently, vide clause 5.2 of the Shareholders Agreement between these entities and HTIL downstream 7
subsidiaries, AS/AG/IDFC were all reigned in by having to vote only in accordance with HTIL's dictates as HTIL had funded the purchase by these gentlemen of the HEL shares through financing of loans. Further, in the Term Sheet dated 15.03.2007, that is, between VIH and Essar, VIH had a right to nominate 8 directors (i.e. 67% of 12) and Essar had a right to nominate 4 directors which, according to the Revenue, evidences that VIH had acquired 67% interest in HEL and not 42%/52%, as sought to be propounded by it. According to the Revenue, right from 22.12.2006 onwards when HTIL made its first public announcement, HTIL on innumerable occasions represented its direct and indirect "equity interest" in HEL to be 67% - the direct interest being 42.34% and indirect interest in the sense of shareholding belonging to Indian partners under its control, as 25%. Further, according to the Revenue, the purchase price paid by VIH was based on an enterprise value of 67% of the share capital of HEL; this would never have been so if VIH was to buy only 42.34% of the share capital of HEL and that nobody would pay US $2.5 bn extra without control over 25% in HEL. We find no merit in the above submissions. 7
At the outset, it may be stated that the expression "control" is a mixed question of law and fact. The basic argument of the Revenue is based on the equation of "equity interest" with the word "control". On perusal of Hutchison structure, we find that HTIL had, through its 100% wholly owned subsidiaries, invested in 42.34% of HEL (i.e. direct interest). Similarly, HTIL had invested through its non- 100% wholly owned subsidiaries in 9.62% of HEL (through the pro rata route). Thus, in the sense of shareholding, one can say that HTIL had an effective shareholding (direct and indirect interest) of 51.96% (approx. 52%) in HEL. On the basis of the shareholding test, HTIL could be said to have a 52% control over HEL. By the same test, it could be equally said that the balance 15% stakes in HEL remained with AS, AG and IDFC (Indian partners) who had through their respective group companies invested 15% in HEL through TII and Omega and, consequently, HTIL had no control over 15% stakes in HEL. At this stage, we may state that under the Hutchison structure shares of Plustech in the AG Group, shares of Scorpios in the AS Group and shares of SMMS came under the options held by GSPL. 8
Pending exercise, options are not management rights. At the highest, options could be treated as potential shares and till exercised they cannot provide right to vote or management or control. In the present case, till date GSPL has not exercised its rights under the Framework Agreement 2006 because of the sectoral cap of 74% which in turn restricts the right to vote. Therefore, the transaction in the present case provides for a triggering event, viz. relaxation of the sectoral cap. Till such date, HTIL/VIH cannot be said to have a control over 15% stakes in HEL. It is for this reason that even FIPB gave its approval to the transaction by saying that VIH was acquiring or has acquired effective shareholding of 51.96% in HEL.
84. As regards the Term Sheet dated 15.03.2007, it may be stated that the said Term Sheet was entered into between VIH and Essar. It was executed after 11.02.2007 when SPA was executed. In the Term Sheet, it has been recited that the parties have agreed to enter into the Term Sheet in order to regulate the affairs of HEL and in order to regulate the relationship of shareholders of HEL. It is also stated in the Term Sheet that VIH and Essar shall have to nominate 8
directors on the Board of Directors of HEL in proportion to the aggregate beneficial shareholding held by members of the respective groups. That, initially VIH shall be entitled to nominate 8 directors and Essar shall be entitled to nominate 4 directors out of a total Board of Directors of HEL (numbering 12). We must understand the background of this Term Sheet. Firstly, as stated the Term Sheet was entered into in order to regulate the affairs of HEL and to regulate the relationship of the shareholders of HEL. It was necessary to enter into such an agreement for smooth running of the business post acquisition. Secondly, we find from the letter addressed by HEL to FIPB dated 14.03.2007 that Articles of Association of HEL did not grant any specific person or entity a right to appoint directors. The said directors were appointed by the shareholders of HEL in accordance with the provisions of the Indian Company Law. The letter further states that in practice the directors were appointed pro rata to their respective shareholdings which resulted in 4 directors being appointed from Essar group, 6 directors being appointed by HTIL and 2 directors were appointed by TII. One such director was AS, the other 8
director was AG. This was the practice even before the Term Sheet. The Term Sheet continues this practice by guaranteeing or assuring Essar that 4 directors would be appointed from its Group. The above facts indicate that the object of the SPA was to continue the "practice" concerning nomination of directors on the Board of Directors of HEL which in law is different from a right or power to control and manage and which practice was given to keep the business going, post acquisition. Under the Company Law, the management control vests in the Board of Directors and not with the shareholders of the company. Therefore, neither from Clause 5.2 of the Shareholders Agreement nor from the Term Sheet dated 15.03.2007, one could say that VIH had acquired 67% controlling interest in HEL.
85. As regards the question as to why VIH should pay consideration to HTIL based on an enterprise value of 67% of the share capital of HEL is concerned, it is important to note that valuation cannot be the basis of taxation. The basis of taxation is profits or income or receipt. In this case, we are not concerned with tax on income/ profit arising from business operations but with tax on transfer of rights 8
(capital asset) and gains arising therefrom. In the latter case, we have to see the conditions on which the tax becomes payable under the Income Tax Act. Valuation may be a science, not law. In valuation, to arrive at the value one has to take into consideration the business realities, like the business model, the duration of its operations, concepts such as cash flow, the discounting factors, assets and liabilities, intangibles, etc. In the present case, VIH paid US $11.08 bn for 67% of the enterprise value of HEL plus its downstream companies having operational licences. It bought an upstream company with the intention that rights flowing from the CGP share would enable it to gain control over the cluster of Indian operations or operating companies which owned telecom licences, business assets, etc. VIH agreed to acquire companies which in turn controlled a 67% interest in HEL and its subsidiaries. Valuation is a matter of opinion. When the entire business or investment is sold, for valuation purposes, one may take into account the economic interest or realities. Risks as a discounting factor are also to be taken into consideration apart from loans, receivables, options, RoFR/ TAR, etc. In 8
this case, Enterprise Value is made up of two parts, namely, the value of HEL, the value of CGP and the companies between CGP and HEL. In the present case, the Revenue cannot invoke Section 9 of the Income Tax Act on the value of the underlying asset or consequence of acquiring a share of CGP. In the present case, the Valuation done was on the basis of enterprise value. The price paid as a percentage of the enterprise value had to be 67% not because the figure of 67% was available in praesenti to VIH, but on account of the fact that the competing Indian bidders would have had de facto access to the entire 67%, as they were not subject to the limitation of sectoral cap, and, therefore, would have immediately encashed the call options. The question still remains as to from where did this figure/ expression of 67% of equity interest come? The expression "equity interest" came from US GAAP. In this connection, we have examined the Notes to the Accounts annexed to the Annual Report 2006 of HTIL. According to Note 1, the ordinary shares of HTIL stood listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange as well as on the New York Stock Exchange. In Note No. 36, a list of principal subsidiaries of HTIL as on 31.12.2006 has been 8
attached. This list shows the names of HEL (India) and some of its subsidiaries. In the said Annual Report, there is an annexure to the said Notes to the Accounts under the caption "Information for US Investors". It refers to Variable Interest Entities (VIEs). According to the Annual Report, the Vodafone Group consisting of HTIL and its subsidiaries conducted its operations inter alia in India through entities in which HTIL did not have the voting control. Since HTIL was listed on New York Stock Exchange, it had to follow for accounting and disclosure the rules prescribed by US GAAP. Now, in the present case, HTIL as a listed company was required to make disclosures of potential risk involved in the investment under the Hutchison structure. HTIL had furnished Letters of Credit to Rabo Bank which in turn had funded AS and AG, who in turn had agreed to place the shares of Plustech and Scorpios under Options held by GSPL. Thus, giving of the Letters of Credit and placing the shares of Plustech and Scorpios under Options were required to be disclosed to the US investors under the US GAAP, unlike Indian GAAP. Thus, the difference between the 52% figure (control) and 67% (equity interest) arose on 8
account of the difference in computation under the Indian and US GAAP.
Approach of the High Court (acquisition of CGP share with "other rights and entitlements")
86. Applying the "nature and character of the transaction" test, the High Court came to the conclusion that the transfer of the CGP share was not adequate in itself to achieve the object of consummating the transaction between HTIL and VIH. That, intrinsic to the transaction was a transfer of other "rights and entitlements" which rights and entitlements constituted in themselves "capital assets" within the meaning of Section 2(14) of the Income Tax Act, 1961. According to the High Court, VIH acquired the CGP share with other rights and entitlements whereas, according to the appellant, whatever VIH obtained was through the CGP share (for short "High Court Approach").
87. At the outset, it needs to be mentioned that the Revenue has adopted the abovementioned High Court Approach as an alternative contention.
88. We have to view the subject matter of the transaction, in this case, from a commercial and realistic perspective. The present case concerns an offshore transaction involving a structured investment. This case concerns "a share sale" and not an asset sale. It concerns sale of an entire investment. A "sale" may take various forms. Accordingly, tax consequences will vary. The tax consequences of a share sale would be different from the tax consequences of an asset sale. A slump sale would involve tax consequences which could be different from the tax consequences of sale of assets on itemized basis. "Control" is a mixed question of law and fact. Ownership of shares may, in certain situations, result in the assumption of an interest which has the character of a controlling interest in the management of the company. A controlling interest is an incident of ownership of shares in a company, something which flows out of the holding of shares. A controlling interest is, therefore, not an identifiable or distinct capital asset independent of the holding of shares. The control of a company resides in the voting power of its shareholders and shares represent an interest of a shareholder which is made 8
up of various rights contained in the contract embedded in the Articles of Association. The right of a shareholder may assume the character of a controlling interest where the extent of the shareholding enables the shareholder to control the management. Shares, and the rights which emanate from them, flow together and cannot be dissected. In the felicitous phrase of Lord MacMillan in IRC v. Crossman  1 All ER 762, shares in a company consist of a "congeries of rights and liabilities" which are a creature of the Companies Acts and the Memorandum and Articles of Association of the company. Thus, control and management is a facet of the holding of shares. Applying the above principles governing shares and the rights of the shareholders to the facts of this case, we find that this case concerns a straightforward share sale. VIH acquired Upstream shares with the intention that the congeries of rights, flowing from the CGP share, would give VIH an indirect control over the three genres of companies. If one looks at the chart indicating the Ownership Structure, one finds that the acquisition of the CGP share gave VIH an indirect control over the tier I Mauritius companies which 8
owned shares in HEL totalling to 42.34%; CGP India (Ms), which in turn held shares in TII and Omega and which on a pro rata basis (the FDI principle), totalled up to 9.62% in HEL and an indirect control over Hutchison Tele-Services (India) Holdings Ltd. (Ms), which in turn owned shares in GSPL, which held call and put options. Although the High Court has analysed the transactional documents in detail, it has missed out this aspect of the case. It has failed to notice that till date options have remained un-encashed with GSPL. Therefore, even if it be assumed that the options under the Framework Agreements 2006 could be considered to be property rights, there has been no transfer or assignment of options by GSPL till today. Even if it be assumed that the High Court was right in holding that the options constituted capital assets even then Section 9(1)(i) was not applicable as these options have not been transferred till date. Call and put options were not transferred vide SPA dated 11.02.2007 or under any other document whatsoever. Moreover, if, on principle, the High Court accepts that the transfer of the CGP share did not lead to the transfer of a capital asset in India, even if it 9
resulted in a transfer of indirect control over 42.34% (52%) of shares in HEL, then surely the transfer of indirect control over GSPL which held options (contractual rights), would not make the transfer of the CGP share taxable in India. Acquisition of the CGP share which gave VIH an indirect control over three genres of companies evidences a straightforward share sale and not an asset sale. There is another fallacy in the impugned judgment. On examination of the impugned judgment, we find a serious error committed by the High Court in appreciating the case of VIH before FIPB. On 19.03.2007, FIPB sought a clarification from VIH of the circumstances in which VIH agreed to pay US$ 11.08 bn for acquiring 67% of HEL when actual acquisition was of 51.96%. In its response dated 19.03.2007, VIH stated that it had agreed to acquire from HTIL for US$ 11.08 bn, interest in HEL which included a 52% equity shareholding. According to VIH, the price also included a control premium, use of Hutch brand in India, a non-compete agreement, loan obligations and an entitlement to acquire, subject to the Indian FDI rules, a further 15% indirect interest in HEL. According to the said 9
letter, the above elements together equated to 67% of the economic value of HEL. This sentence has been misconstrued by the High Court to say that the above elements equated to 67% of the equity capital (See para 124). 67% of the economic value of HEL is not 67% of the equity capital. If VIH would have acquired 67% of the equity capital, as held by the High Court, the entire investment would have had breached the FDI norms which had imposed a sectoral cap of 74%. In this connection, it may further be stated that Essar had 33% stakes in HEL out of which 22% was held by Essar Mauritius. Thus, VIH did not acquire 67% of the equity capital of HEL, as held by the High Court. This problem has arisen also because of the reason that this case deals with share sale and not asset sale. This case does not involve sale of assets on itemized basis. The High Court ought to have applied the look at test in which the entire Hutchison structure, as it existed, ought to have been looked at holistically. This case concerns investment into India by a holding company (parent company), HTIL through a maze of subsidiaries. When one applies the "nature and character of the 9
transaction test", confusion arises if a dissecting approach of examining each individual asset is adopted. As stated, CGP was treated in the Hutchison structure as an investment vehicle. As a general rule, in a case where a transaction involves transfer of shares lock, stock and barrel, such a transaction cannot be broken up into separate individual components, assets or rights such as right to vote, right to participate in company meetings, management rights, controlling rights, control premium, brand licences and so on as shares constitute a bundle of rights. [See Charanjit Lal v. Union of India AIR 1951 SC 41, Venkatesh (minor) v. CIT 243 ITR 367 (Mad) and Smt. Maharani Ushadevi v. CIT 131 ITR 445 (MP)] Further, the High Court has failed to examine the nature of the following items, namely, non-compete agreement, control premium, call and put options, consultancy support, customer base, brand licences etc. On facts, we are of the view that the High Court, in the present case, ought to have examined the entire transaction holistically. VIH has rightly contended that the transaction in question should be looked at as an entire package. The items mentioned hereinabove, like, 9
control premium, non-compete agreement, consultancy support, customer base, brand licences, operating licences etc. were all an integral part of the Holding Subsidiary Structure which existed for almost 13 years, generating huge revenues, as indicated above. Merely because at the time of exit capital gains tax becomes not payable or exigible to tax would not make the entire "share sale" (investment) a sham or a tax avoidant. The High Court has failed to appreciate that the payment of US$ 11.08 bn was for purchase of the entire investment made by HTIL in India. The payment was for the entire package. The parties to the transaction have not agreed upon a separate price for the CGP share and for what the High Court calls as "other rights and entitlements" (including options, right to non- compete, control premium, customer base etc.). Thus, it was not open to the Revenue to split the payment and consider a part of such payments for each of the above items. The essential character of the transaction as an alienation cannot be altered by the form of the consideration, the payment of the consideration in instalments or on the basis that the payment is related to a contingency (`options', in 9
this case), particularly when the transaction does not contemplate such a split up. Where the parties have agreed for a lump sum consideration without placing separate values for each of the above items which go to make up the entire investment in participation, merely because certain values are indicated in the correspondence with FIPB which had raised the query, would not mean that the parties had agreed for the price payable for each of the above items. The transaction remained a contract of outright sale of the entire investment for a lump sum consideration [see: Commentary on Model Tax Convention on Income and Capital dated 28.01.2003 as also the judgment of this Court in the case of CIT (Central), Calcutta v. Mugneeram Bangur and Company (Land Deptt.), (1965) 57 ITR 299 (SC)]. Thus, we need to "look at" the entire Ownership Structure set up by Hutchison as a single consolidated bargain and interpret the transactional documents, while examining the Offshore Transaction of the nature involved in this case, in that light. 9
Scope and applicability of Sections 195 and 163 of IT Act
89. Section 195 casts an obligation on the payer to deduct tax at source ("TAS" for short) from payments made to non- residents which payments are chargeable to tax. Such payment(s) must have an element of income embedded in it which is chargeable to tax in India. If the sum paid or credited by the payer is not chargeable to tax then no obligation to deduct the tax would arise. Shareholding in companies incorporated outside India (CGP) is property located outside India. Where such shares become subject matter of offshore transfer between two non-residents, there is no liability for capital gains tax. In such a case, question of deduction of TAS would not arise. If in law the responsibility for payment is on a non-resident, the fact that the payment was made, under the instructions of the non- resident, to its Agent/Nominee in India or its PE/Branch Office will not absolve the payer of his liability under Section 195 to deduct TAS. Section 195(1) casts a duty upon the payer of any income specified therein to a non-resident to deduct therefrom the TAS unless such payer is himself liable to pay income-tax thereon as an Agent of the payee. 9
Section 201 says that if such person fails to so deduct TAS he shall be deemed to be an assessee-in-default in respect of the deductible amount of tax (Section 201). Liability to deduct tax is different from "assessment" under the Act. Thus, the person on whom the obligation to deduct TAS is cast is not the person who has earned the income. Assessment has to be done after liability to deduct TAS has arisen. The object of Section 195 is to ensure that tax due from non-resident persons is secured at the earliest point of time so that there is no difficulty in collection of tax subsequently at the time of regular assessment. The present case concerns the transaction of "outright sale" between two non-residents of a capital asset (share) outside India. Further, the said transaction was entered into on principal to principal basis. Therefore, no liability to deduct TAS arose. Further, in the case of transfer of the Structure in its entirety, one has to look at it holistically as one Single Consolidated Bargain which took place between two foreign companies outside India for which a lump sum price was paid of US$ 11.08 bn. Under the transaction, there was no split up of payment of US$ 11.08 bn. It is the Revenue 9