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COVID-19 impact | Highway builders in a bind over force majeure notification

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Even though the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has declared COVID-19 as a force majeure event and informed National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) accordingly on March 25, NHAI has not issued a similar notification, leading to confusion at the ground level.

This has resulted in local field officers and independent engineers acting according to their discretion, to the extent of rejecting COVID-19 as a force majeure event in certain cases, according to the National Highway Builders Federation (NHBF).

The force majeure clause in a contract provides temporary reprieve to a party from performing its obligations upon occurrence of a force majeure event. This typically includes war, terrorism, earthquakes, hurricanes, acts of government, explosions, fire, plagues or epidemics or a list of events as agreed by both parties.

Rejection of COVID-19 as force majeure event has serious implications on the rights available to highway builders under the concession or contract agreement and may further affect the projects.

Even though the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has declared COVID-19 as a force majeure event and informed National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) accordingly on March 25, NHAI has not issued a similar notification, leading to confusion at the ground level.

This has resulted in local field officers and independent engineers acting according to their discretion, to the extent of rejecting COVID-19 as a force majeure event in certain cases, according to the National Highway Builders Federation (NHBF).

The force majeure clause in a contract provides temporary reprieve to a party from performing its obligations upon occurrence of a force majeure event. This typically includes war, terrorism, earthquakes, hurricanes, acts of government, explosions, fire, plagues or epidemics or a list of events as agreed by both parties.

Rejection of COVID-19 as force majeure event has serious implications on the rights available to highway builders under the concession or contract agreement and may further affect the projects.

For the BOT Toll and TOT projects, under force majeure event, the revenue loss is compensated in the form of extension in concession period.

In addition, 100 per cent of operations and maintenance (O&M) and interest costs are reimbursed for the BOT Toll projects for the affected period. This would amount to 50-55 per cent of loss of revenue incurred by these projects.

For projects that are public-funded (currently being tolled by NHAI through toll contractors), the suspension would result in a direct revenue loss for NHAI.

Fresh exemptions for lockdown period, construction allowed in rural areas

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The government on Friday gave exemptions to a few more areas from the purview of the ongoing lockdown including construction activities in rural areas, water supply, sanitation works and functioning of non-banking financial institutions and cooperative credit societies across India.

In a communication to all States and Union Territories, Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla also said collection, harvesting and processing of minor forest produce, non-timber forest produce by Scheduled Tribes and other forest dwellers in forest areas were also allowed to be carried out during the lockdown which will last till May 3.

Construction activities in rural areas include water supply and sanitation, laying and erection of power transmission lines and laying of telecom optical fibre and cable along with related activities will be allowed, Bhalla said in his communication.

Non-Banking financial institutions, including housing finance companies, and micro finance institutions with bare minimum staff and cooperative credit societies are exempted from the lockdown across India.

Bamboo, coconut, arecanut cocoa, spices plantation and their harvesting, processing, packaging, sale and marketing are also allowed to be carried out during the lockdown.

The lockdown was first announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24 in a bid to combat the Coronavirus endemic.

It was further extended till May 3.

On Wednesday, the Home Ministry had announced a series of exemptions given to different people and services during the lockdown.

Coronavirus pandemic | Lenders to request extension of moratorium beyond June: Report

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Banks will ask for an extension of the moratorium on loan repayments beyond June, as per a report by Business Standard.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had on March 27 announced a moratorium on instalments due between March 1 and May 31. The move is intended to provide depositors some relief during the COVID-19 outbreak.

"There is no way that things will limp back till first week of June," a private banker said as per the report, adding that the moratorium should be extended for three months starting from June.

The three-month moratorium for borrowers seems inadequate, bankers said as per the report.

The matter is expected to be discussed at a meeting of a key panel of the Indian Banks' Association (IBA), and will be taken to the central bank after that, as per a source quoted in the report.

A separate report by Mint said lenders have asked the Centre to guarantee their incremental loans to micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) of at least Rs 50,000 crore. The request was made by the IBA and is being evaluated by the government.

India is in a nationwide lockdown till May 3 to contain the spread of COVID-19. The lockdown was initially supposed to be lifted on April 15, but was extended later.

More than 80% of NBFCs sufficiently liquid: Report

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More than 80 percent of the non-bank financial institutions (NBFCs) in the country have sufficient liquidity in terms of assets to survive the coronavirus-induced cash squeeze.

Putting to rest the debate over payment obligations during the three-month moratorium allowed by the Reserve Bank of India to borrowers, the report, citing RBI sources, said about 100 top NBFCs, or 4/5th of the total assets of the shadow banking system, had adequate liquidity for loan repayments.

They qualify for funding from banks if they face stress, said the report, citing unnamed sources.

“Some NBFCs are facing issues and no one is saying that the sector doesn’t face problems,” said one of the people cited in the report. “But many of them are okay. Some of them said that were anyway troubled even before the COVID-19 problem surfaced are the ones that may be facing difficulties.”

Moneycontrol could not independently verify the report.

The RBI on March 27 allowed borrowers to put off repayment of term loans by three months, a move designed to alleviate economic pain brought by the viral outbreak.

A Business Standard report  earlier suggested that moratorium on term loans could impact NBFCs cash flows and put pressure on asset-liability management (ALM).

Some experts told the daily that ALM could be impacted for up to six months if cash flows were hurt.

Sources told ET that such concerns were unfounded and the Rs 65,000-70,000 crore repayment amount due in June "is quite manageable".

Coronavirus pandemic | Parents seek waivers, rollback of fee hikes as schools suspend classes

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Even as schools are struggling to maintain academic continuity due to the coronavirus outbreak, parents are hoping for some fee waivers as regular classes have been suspended.

Across the country, parents of school children are sending appeals to the state governments to seek fee waivers and prohibition of fee hikes during this period.

Though many school are trying to make up partly by online classes, students will lose some part of their academic year. Hence there is a call for a partial fee waiver for March, April and May when schools have moved to virtual classes.

However, sources told Moneycontrol that the department of school education of the human resource development ministry is unlikely to take a decision on this and would leave it to individual states and schools to take a call.

"My employer has announced a 30 percent salary cut till September 2020. While I am not trying to calculate how to handle the monthly expenses, my child's school fees has been increased from this academic session. When the schools are anyway not conducting physical classes, why can’t they be considerate?” said Kolkata-resident Avik Bose.

"My employer has announced a 30 percent salary cut till September 2020. While I am not trying to calculate how to handle the monthly expenses, my child's school fees has been increased from this academic session. When the schools are anyway not conducting physical classes, why can’t they be considerate?” said Kolkata-resident Avik Bose.


Coronavirus pandemic | FICCI says economy needs a stimulus package of Rs 9-10 lakh crore

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Apex industry-body, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) has said that India may need an economic stimulus of as much as Rs 9-10 lakh crore to ensure that the economy wrestles through the challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis.

Amid stymied economic activity due to a nationwide lockdown, several key sectors of the Indian economy are experiencing distress such as travel, tourism, entertainment, manufacturing, transport infrastructure, financial services, among others.

According to a Business Continuity Plan report by FICCI, there is an immediate need for a significant stimulus of Rs 9-10 lakh crores, this constitutes around 4-5% of the current GDP.

Other countries affected by the COVID-19 crisis have taken similar steps. For instance, the US has invested as much as 11 percent of its GDP to infuse liquidity into its economy.

The report recommends utilisation of funds for the rehabilitation of informal workers, MSMEs, and large corporates.

To ease the lack of liquidity that borrowers face amid the nationwide lockdown, the Reserve Bank of India on March 27 allowed banks and financial institutions to offer a three-month moratorium on term loans and credit card bills.

The FICCI report recommends extending a similar moratorium for loans taken from mutual funds and insurance companies.

In order to ensure workers resume jobs, the report recommends special transportation to get migration workers back to factories. The lockdown has caused a shortage of labour across sectors as migrant workers left for native places. The report also recommends engaging with trade unions to ensure a smooth transition.

Interest-free and collateral-free loans should be given to MSMEs for a period of upto 12 months to enable them to cover fixed costs, salaries and other operational expenses. This loan may be given with pre-conditions that businesses will continue to run and there would be no layoffs of workers.

Supply-side intervention recommendations

Provide greater regulatory forbearance including change in NPA definition and loan restructuring among other things. NPA recognition period to be extended from 90 days to a minimum of 360 days.

All tax payments including GST payments should be deferred by six months without inviting any penalty.

To ensure MSMEs are not forced to file for bankruptcy, the report recommends suspension of Sec 7, 9 and 10 of IBC with immediate effect instead of April 30. Between April 14-30, IBC may get triggered because of a lack of liquidity within the industry.

There is also a need to ensure all pending payments to the industry are cleared immediately by the government departments and PSUs.

There is a need to accelerate infrastructure spend of Rs 1.7 lakh crore allocated in Budget 2020 to provide immediate impetus to the economy. The report recommends directing the budget towards low cost housing and road construction.

COVID-19 war can't be won by clapping, lighting lamps: Shiv Sena

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The Shiv Sena on Tuesday said the war against coronavirus cannot be won by clapping, clanging of plates or lighting of lamps.

People "misconstrued" Prime Minister Narendra Modi's appeal, an editorial in Sena mouthpiece 'Saamana' said, adding that Modi should clearly spell out what it expected from citizens and those not obeying orders should be punished.

Modi last week appealed to people to defeat the coronavirus by switching off lights in their homes for nine minutes at 9 pm on Sunday amid the nationwide lockdown.

People across the country enthusiastically responded by lighting candles and diyas, and flashing lights of their mobile phones in balconies and in front of their houses.

Modi earlier urged people to observe 'Janta Curfew' on March 22, and come out briefly at their main doors and in balconies to show gratitude to health and other essential service providers, who at the forefront of the battle against coronavirus, with claps, sounds of bells and conches.

Taking a dim view of Modi's appeals, the Shiv Sena said, "Claps, thalis and lights...like this we will lose the war. There are many aspects to how people responded to these appeals. Citizens misconstrued the prime minister's

appeal...either the PM cannot communicate with citizens or he himself wants such a festive atmosphere."

It said Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has been urging people to maintain self-discipline, and communicating with them while ensuring there is no confusion.

"In the fight against coronavirus, you need such a commander. We lost the Panipat battle because of rumours and lack of planning. The war against coronavirus should not end up like that and people of the state shouldn't meet the fate of Sadashivrao bhau (Marathaarmy commander in Panipat

battle)," the Marathi daily said.

It said the prime minister should clearly tell people what is expected from them. "Those who don't obey should be punished. It is not that only Markaz (referring to Tablighi Jamaat's congregation in Delhi last month) breaks rules. Are those blaming the Markaz for the coronavirus spread themselves maintaining discipline and social distancing?" it asked.

The Sena cricitised incidents of people coming out on streets with candles, torches and mobile phones and dancing, and said due to bursting of crackers there was a fire incident in Solapur.

In Wardha, BJP MLA Dadarao Keche celebrated his birthday (during the lockdown) and more than 200 people gathered for the party, it noted.

The Sena also pointed out similar incidents in other parts of the country, including that of a BJP women's wing leader at Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh firing in the air to 'chase away' the coronavirus.

Fitch slashes India growth forecast to 30-year low of 2% for FY21

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Fitch Ratings on Friday said it has slashed India's growth forecast for the current fiscal to a 30-year low of 2 percent, from 5.1 percent projected earlier, as economic recession gripped global economy following the lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic. "The initial disruptions to regional manufacturing supply chains from a lockdown in China as the coronavirus spread have now broadened to include local discretionary spending and exports even as parts of China return to work.

"Fitch now expects a global recession this year and recently cut our GDP growth forecast for India to 2 percent for the fiscal year ending March 2021 after lowering it to 5.1 percent previously, which would make it the slowest growth in India over the past 30 years," it said in a statement.

On March 20, Fitch had projected India's GDP growth for 2020-21 at 5.1 percent, lower than 5.6 percent estimated in December 2019.

Fitch also said micro, small and medium-sized enterprises and the services segment are likely to be among the most affected amid reduced consumer spending.

NBFCs' business borrowers are typically smaller with more limited cash buffers, and any material fall in earnings is likely to affect their ability to repay their loans directly, it said in the statement.

"The challenges for India's non-bank financial institutions (NBFI) will intensify as local measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus exert pressure on their operating performance and financial profiles. Government-imposed activity restrictions in India will raise operational complications for the NBFIs, while any escalation in local infections would deal a blow to economic sentiment.

"These developments threaten to derail the incipient recovery in India's credit environment following the NBFI crisis in 2018-2019, and Fitch has taken negative action on our rated Indian NBFI portfolio in light of these risks," the agency said.

The RWN (Rating Watch Negative) placed on the ratings of Fitch-rated Indian NBFIs reflects heightened uncertainty over their credit profiles due to the authorities' measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, it added.

Last week, Moody's Investors Service sharply cut India's growth forecast for calendar 2020 to 2.5 percent from 5.3 percent estimated earlier.

New income tax rules from April 1: Find out what changes from today

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April 1 marks the beginning of the new fiscal year, 2020-21. Many new I-T rules are also coming into effect with the start of the new fiscal year.

Due to the 21-day lockdown across the nation to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the government has extended the deadline of some rules or procedures so that it will remain intact even after the commencement of new fiscal year. Income tax returns filing for the year 2018-19 has been extended, similarly, linking of pan card with Aadhaar card has also been extended to June 30.

Here are the new income tax rules, announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in Budget 2020, which will come into effect from April 1:

From April 1, the new tax slab will be effective, however the old tax slab will also remain in existence, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced on February 1. This will allow people to select any one out of the two slabs, new or old.

Dividends earned from mutual funds or domestic firms will be taxable. Investors in higher tax brackets will be put under higher burden the whereas less burdened will put on those with lower tax brackets.

For employees, it will be taxable if the contribution to the NPS, EPF and pension fund exceeds Rs 7.5 lakh in a year. This new income tax rule will be applicable to both the old, as well as the new, slab.

The government has extended the date of additional tax benefit for one year till March 31, 2021 for those who are buying a house for the first time and its price is up to 45 lakh rupees. The landlord will get an opportunity to claim additional tax exemption of 1.5 lakhs on interest in addition to the existing Rs 2lakh tax rebate if he takes a loan to buy a house up to 45 lakhs.

The employees of startups get exemption from paying tax on the shares allotted within the ESOPs or Employee Stock Ownership Plan in this new income tax rules.

Coronavirus pandemic | Now you may be allowed to defer date of journey beyond April 30 in your travel insurance

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Amidst the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the insurance regulator has asked companies to provide an option to defer date of journey in travel insurance products.

This will be for policies that were/are valid between March 22 and April 30.

Due to COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown in India and across the globe, several travellers have been either stranded in another location domestically or abroad.

Travel restrictions will be applicable till April 14 for the time being. There was a fear among individuals with travel insurance products about the validity of the product due to cancellation of flights.

Policy holders can call up their insurers to check if this facility has been provided.

The total number of reported COVID-19 cases in India stands at 1,251. The Union Health Ministry has said that 102 patients have recovered so far, but 32 have died.

This decision by Insurance Regulatory and Development and Authority of India (IRDAI) was among a slew of other measures announced to help tide over the COVID-19 situation.

In the first week of March, IRDAI had asked insurance companies to expeditiously settle all COVID-19 claims and also handle quarantine-related claims on the basis of the terms and conditions of the health insurance policy.

Later, on March 23, IRDAI had also asked life insurers to give an additional grace period of 30 days for payment of renewal premiums.

Insurers were also asked to design products specifically for covering COVID-19 that would cover the costs of the treatment. Typically, if an individual is admitted to a state-run hospital the government bears the treatment costs. However, in the case of private hospitals and home quarantine-related charges, the costs are to be borne by the affected persons.

As far as policyholders are concerned, IRDAI said that insurers have to display on their website a dedicated help line number for policyholders and another help line number for other stakeholders including agents and intermediaries.

Though the normal response time for policyholder complaint redressal is 15 days, due to the prevailing lockdown situation, an additional 21 days will be allowed. This is for all complaints which are received on or after March 15, 2020 and up to April 30, 2020. However, this additional response time is not applicable to complaints pertaining to COVID-19 for which the extant timelines will continue to apply.

For insurers

IRDAI has said that while insurance has been exempted from the lockdown, companies should advise their offices to function with only absolutely necessary staff including those involved in claims settlement, authorisation for hospitalisation, renewal of insurance policies and such other activities.

“To the extent possible, work from home may be adopted by facilitating the same for the staff of insurers, intermediaries and agents,” said IRDAI.

Further, the regulator said companies have to put in place a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) which inter alia deals with processes, transactions, reporting and customer services to be handled in a seamless manner to take care of the present situation.

Insurers also have to set up a crisis management committee to evaluate all risks including strategic, operational, insurance, liquidity, credit, reputational, market, foreign exchange, reduction in new business, reduction in renewal business, asset liability mismatch, reduction in yield, capital erosion, and claims in the wake of present situation, and shall devise necessary mitigation measures.

Any severe impact on the operations or capital requirements or solvency margin has to be promptly communicated to IRDAI.

Since remote working will have to be facilitated, IRDAI said that it is possible that there could be an increase in the number of cyber-attacks on personal computer networks. Therefore, insurers need to take precautionary measures to address such cyber risks and mitigate them as soon as they are identified.

For new policy sales, IRDAI said that wherever email addresses of policyholders are available, policy documents will have to be issued through email.

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