Bombay High Court Ruling in Favour of Vodafone in Share Issue Case

Over the last
couple of years, Indian subsidiaries of multinational companies have been faced
with the unique tax issue pertaining to the issuance of shares to their parent
companies. The tax department has questioned the valuation on which shares have
been issued by the Indian subsidiaries and sought to apply the transfer pricing
provisions under the Income Tax Act, 1961 (the Act) to impute additional tax
burden through a recharacterization of the transactions. This has resulted in considerable
litigation.
Of recent
significance is the judgment of a division bench of the Bombay High Court on
October 10, 2014 in Vodafone
India Services Pvt. Ltd. v. Union of India
, which is subject to a
preliminary analysis in this post. In this case, Vodafone India (the
subsidiary), a wholly owned subsidiary of Vodafone Tele-Services (India)
Holdings Limited (the holding company) issued shares of a face value of Rs. 10
each at a premium of Rs. 8,509 per share to the holding company. The price was
arrived at based on the methodology prescribed by the Controller of Capital
Issues (CCI). However, the income tax department questioned the transaction on
the ground that Vodafone India ought to have valued each share at Rs. 53,775,
and on that basis there was a shortfall in premium to the extent of Rs. 45,256
resulting in an aggregate shortfall of Rs. 1,308.91 crores for all of the
shares so issued. The income tax department sought to treat the aggregate
shortfall as income of Vodafone India as income, as a consequence of which the
amount was to be treated as a deemed loan given by the holding company to
Vodafone India upon which interest was chargeable as income.
Vodafone India
challenged the income tax department’s position through a writ petition before
the Bombay High Court on the principal ground that the shortfall does not
constitute income and also that Chapter X of the Act relating to transfer
pricing was not applicable to this case due to which the transfer pricing
officer (TPO) did not possess jurisdiction. The High Court referred the
jurisdictional issue to the dispute resolution panel (DRP) which was already
seized of the matter. After consideration of the issues, the DRP passed an
order dated February 11, 2014 holding that the income tax department had the
jurisdiction to consider the issue of shares by Vodafone India to its holding
company and also to tax the shortfall as income. It is against this order that
Vodafone India preferred a writ petition to the Bombay High Court that resulted
in its present judgment.
The primary
question before the Court related to the applicability of Chapter X of the Act.
This is because that chapter in certain circumstances permits the revenue to
impute an “arm’s length price” in case of an international transaction. The
Court began by observing that a “plain reading of Section 92(1) of the Act very
clearly brings out that income arising from an International Transaction is a
condition precedent for application of Chapter X of the Act”. Hence, the narrow
issue was whether the issue of shares by Vodafone India to the holding company
gave rise to “income”: whether the nature of the transaction made it one of a
capital transaction or revenue transaction.
On this basis, the
Court embarked on an analysis of the meaning of “income”, especially where it
involved capital receipts. It found based on an interpretation of section 2(24)
of the Income Tax Act that “income will not in its normal meaning include
capital receipts unless it is so specified, as in Section 2(23)(vi) of the
Act”. Since an issue of shares is a transaction on the capital account, the
premium cannot be treated as income. The Court also drew a contrast with
Section 56(2)(viib) of the Act where a capital transaction is deemed by legal
fiction to amount to income. However, that provision applies only to premium
received from a resident and that too where that premium is in excess of the
fair market value of the shares. The Vodafone case was far from that scenario
because the premium was less than the alleged fair value of the shares, and
that too received from a non-resident. One can glean from the analysis of the
Court another difference which is that in Section 56(2)(viib) there is an
actual receipt of the excess of amount, whereas in this case there is only an
imputed amount of the difference without any actual receipt. On this ground,
the Court unequivocally concluded that neither the capital receipts in the form
of the issue price (par value plus premium) nor the imputed difference with the
fair market value could be considered income for the purpose of the Act.
Given the absence
of “income”, which expression was supplied with a narrow interpretation by the
court (consistent with reading of tax statutes), the Court was able to quickly
conclude on the inapplicability of Chapter X of the Income Tax Act relating to
transfer pricing and arm’s length determination of income from international
transaction. While a number of arguments were made by counsel representing both
Vodafone India as well as the tax department on the interpretation of Chapter X
(particularly the definition of International Transaction in Section 92B(1)),
the Court dealt with those arguments in a more concise  fashion given its conclusion as to the absence
of “income”, which is a prerequisite for the application of the Chapter.
This pronouncement
of the Bombay High Court is welcome. First, from a legal perspective, issuance
of shares and infusion of funds into companies constitute a capital
transaction. In case such a transaction is to be taxed, the charging provision
must be clear to extend to such. It is not permissible for the revenue to
stretch the law to subsume such transactions within its fold.
Second, the
judgment also induces a level of certainty in the taxability of such
transactions. The ability of the revenue to tax them has caused consternation
among foreign investors. As we have previously
discussed on this Blog
, the power of courts to recharacterize transactions
must be exercised very carefully so as to preserve certainty to the extent
feasible. If courts adopt a carefree approach to altering the substance of the
transaction (for example in this case from equity to part-debt), that would
affect a conducive atmosphere for business. It is only in cases where there is blatant
abuse of policy that courts must embark upon such approach, that too in a
careful and considered manner.
Although some
clarity has emerged for share issuances by Indian subsidiaries of foreign
parent companies, it may very well be temporary in case the tax department
decides to prefer an appeal against the ruling to the Supreme Court. But, for
now, the ruling may benefit several other companies that have found themselves
in a similar predicament.

About the author

Umakanth Varottil

Umakanth Varottil is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore. He specializes in corporate law and governance, mergers and acquisitions and cross-border investments. Prior to his foray into academia, Umakanth was a partner at a pre-eminent law firm in India.

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