Airtel advertising on a shop front in Mumbai: AFP
Airtel advertising on a shopfront in Mumbai: AFP

Telecom operator Bharti Airtel has withdrawn its bid to purchase assets of Reliance Communications, owned by Anil Ambani and now undergoing insolvency, citing “unfair” conduct by the committee of creditors.

In another development, Anil Ambani resigned as Director of Reliance Communications after the company posted huge losses, according to a filing by the company on Saturday.

Bharti Airtel withdrew after the creditors extended the bid submission deadline on the request of Reliance Jio, owned by India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, and accused them of being biased.

Without naming Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel wrote a letter to the resolution professional, pointing out that while their request to extend the deadline was turned down by the committee of creditors, surprisingly the dates had been extended to accommodate a submission from another bidder.

Bharti Airtel had sought an extension of time to submit the resolution plan from November 11 to December 1, but was turned down. Bharti Airtel, Bharti Infratel and private equity firm Varde Partners submitted their bids for the assets of Reliance Communications, while Reliance Jio sought an extension.

While Bharti Airtel had placed a conditional bid to buy the spectrum of Reliance Communications, Bharti Infratel submitted bids for mobile towers.

Bharti Airtel’s Director (Finance) Harjeet Kohli pointed out that the company was constrained to submit the bids under due haste without the benefit of sufficient time to complete the resolution plan within the set deadline.

The committee of creditors later extended the deadline to November 25 after Reliance Jio made a request.

Reliance Communications had earlier tried to sell assets to various companies, including Reliance Jio, to clear debt, but the deals did not crystallize. Reliance Jio canceled the agreement as it did not want to bear the past liabilities of the debt-ridden firm.

Later, the insolvency proceedings against Reliance Communications started on a plea filed by Swedish telecom gear maker Ericsson after the company failed to clear its dues.

Ericsson had signed a seven-year deal with Reliance Communications in 2014 to operate and manage its nationwide telecom network. After non-payment of dues since 2016, Ericsson in 2017 moved against bankruptcy court National Company Law Tribunal. The tribunal handed over control of the company to an insolvency resolution professional.

It is estimated that Reliance Communications’ total secured debt is about 330 billion rupees (US$4.5 billion). Lenders submitted claims of about 490 billion rupees in August.

The debt-ridden company has put all its assets up for sale, which include its spectrum holding, its tower business, optical fiber network and data centers.

Anil Ambani quits

On Saturday, Anil Ambani tendered his resignation after Reliance Communications posted a consolidated loss of 301.42 billion rupees ($4.20 billion) for the July-September quarter, due to provisioning for liabilities after the Supreme Court ruling altering the parameters for calculation of adjusted gross revenue.

The ruling has badly hit all the telecom companies, including Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel, and Reliance Communications’ loss is the second-highest by any Indian corporate. The highest was posted by Vodafone Idea this quarter ($7 billion).

According to the company’s filing, Anil Ambani, along with Chhaya Virani, Ryna Karani, Manjari Kacker and Suresh Rangachar, have resigned as directors of Reliance Communications.

Reliance Communications stated that once the creditors’ committee approves, further disclosures will be made public.

Once a billionaire, Anil Ambani’s personal fortune has dwindled over the years as his businesses sank under the weight of debt. Ironically the collapse of Reliance Communications began after his elder brother Mukesh Ambani launched Reliance Jio in 2016 and resorted to predatory pricing.

The rock-bottom tariffs and freebies caused widespread customer desertions in rival telecom companies and they were also forced to reduce their prices, thereby resulting in widespread disruption.

Reliance Communications and Aircel went bankrupt. Vodafone India and Idea Cellular in March 2017 decided to merge their pan India networks to stay in the battlefield. Airtel acquired Tata Teleservices, Telenor and Tikona Digital.

Anil Ambani’s other group companies are also facing financial stress. Recently insurance sector regulator the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority barred his Health Insurance Ltd from selling new policies due to its weak financial health. His mutual fund arm Reliance Mutual Fund was renamed Nippon India Mutual Fund, after the Japanese company purchased a 75% stake.

In 2006, the two brothers divided father Dhirubhai Ambani’s business empire. In 2007, Anil Ambani had a net worth of $45 billion, according to the Forbes Rich List, while Mukesh Ambani had a net worth of $49 billion.

In 2018, Mukesh Ambani topped the Forbes India Rich List with $47.3 billion, while Anil had slipped to 66th position with $2.44 billion.

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