IT-Dept sells shares of Cairn to recover tax

Weeks before an international arbitration tribunal rules on retrospective tax levied by India, the Income Tax (IT) Department has sold almost all of Cairn Energy Plc’s attached shares to recover a part of the Rs 10,247 crore retrospective tax demand, regulatory filings showed.

While the government had used a 2012 legislation to tax certain past income of at least half a dozen foreign companies such as Vodafone plc, Cairn Energy of the UK remains the only company against whom the demand has been enforced and it remains to be seen if an arbitration award against it will be honoured. Cairn Energy held 4.95% stake in mining major Vedanta Ltd which the IT-Dept had attached after issuing a Rs 10,247 crore tax demand in 2014 on alleged capital gains the British firm made on a decade-old reorganisation of its India business.

The Income Tax Department in May and June sold about 2% stake held by Cairn in Vedanta.

Vedanta in its March quarter filing of shareholding pattern to stock exchanges showed 18.41 crore (4.95%) shares being held by Tax Recovery Officer (International taxation)-I. This in the June quarter filing dropped to 11.96 crore shares (3.22%). ‎

In its filing for the September quarter, Vedanta did not list the IT Department as holding any shares (greater than 1 per cent).

As per statutory requirement, a company is obliged to list all entities holding more than 1% stake.

The shareholding pattern at the end of September did not list IT Department as holder of shares in that section, implying that either all of the shares have been sold or that such shareholding has fallen below 1%.

Reached for comments, a Cairn Energy spokesperson said: “The international arbitration case under the India UK Bilateral Investment Treaty is in its final stages.”

“In March 2015, Cairn filed a Notice of Dispute under the Treaty in order to protect its legal position and seek restitution of the value effectively seized by the IT Department in and since January 2014.

“Cairn’s principal claims are that the assurance of fair and equitable treatment and protections against expropriation afforded by the Treaty have been breached by the actions of the tax department, which is seeking to apply retrospective taxes to historical transactions already closely scrutinised and approved by the government of India,” the spokesperson said.

Cairn said it wants that “the effects of the tax assessment should be nullified and Cairn should receive recompense from India for the loss of value resulting from the 2014 attachment of shares and the withholding of unrelated tax refunds, which together total approximately $1.4 billion.”

An international arbitration tribunal has concluded final hearing in The Hague against the imposition of retrospective tax and is expected to give an award in December or January.

Besides selling shares, the tax department has seized dividends due to Cairn from its shareholding in Vedanta totalling $162 million and offset a tax rebate of $234 million due to Cairn as a result of overpayment of capital gains tax on a separate matter. ‎

The IT Department began selling shares on May 14 - the day Finance Minister Arun Jaitley underwent a kidney transplant surgery and the charge of his portfolio was given to Piyush Goyal on a temporary basis. Jaitley resumed charge on August 23.

Sources said while there was no share sale when Goyal was in charge, it resumed ‎in August-end.

The firm, which gave the country its biggest on-land oil discovery in Rajasthan, is seeking restoration of monetary value it enjoyed in 2014 before the government levied retrospective tax demand and attached its shares.

The arbitral tribunal awards are binding and internationally-enforceable and there exists no forum for them to be challenged.

The tax department had in January 2014 used a two-year-old retrospective tax law to raise a Rs 10,247-crore demand on alleged capital gains made by Cairn Energy on a decade-old internal reorganisation of its India business.

This was followed by attaching the company’s residual 9.8 per cent shares in its erstwhile subsidiary, Cairn India. Cairn India was subsequently merged with its new parent Vedanta, in which Cairn Energy held about 4.95% stake. ‎

These shares continued to be attached for four years but the tax department had earlier this year got them transferred to it.

The Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) had in April, in response to a PTI query, stated that “there is no legal advice against the sale of the attached shares”. 

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IT-Dept sells shares of Cairn to recover tax

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