Amid the outbreak of Novel Coronavirus or COVID-19, the Government of India on 24-3-2020, announced a nationwide lockdown. The Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India vide Order dated 24-03-2020 issued certain directions which ensued the closure of majority of Government and private offices and other commercial establishments barring a few essential services. As a result of this country wide lockdown, many Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) faced the imminent threat of going out of business. To curtail the panic among the MSME sector and alleviate the imminent threat of insolvency, a slew of measures have been taken to provide a cushion to the companies likely to face the downturn. Among these measures were the increased threshold of invoking insolvency to Rs 1,00,00,000 (Rupees one crore only) from the earlier amount of Rs 1,00,000 (Rupees one lakh only) and exclusion of the lockdown period from the 330-day timeline prescribed under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 (hereinafter referred to as “IBC”) for completion of the insolvency process.
Section 4(1) of IBC provides for the threshold limits for triggering the insolvency proceeding. Section 4(1) of the IBC reads as follows:
“4. (1) This Part shall apply to matters relating to the insolvency and liquidation of corporate debtors where the minimum amount of the default is one lakh rupees:
Provided that the Central Government may, by notification, specify the minimum amount of default of higher value which shall not be more than one crore rupees.”
Exercising the powers conferred upon it under Section 4 of IBC, the Central Government vide Notification dated 24-03-2020 in the Official Gazette of India , has increased the minimum amount of default for the purpose of initiating a proceeding under IBC to Rs 1 Crore , which is the maximum threshold limit that the Central Government is empowered to prescribe.
A special provision, namely, Regulation 40-C has also been inserted in the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India (Insolvency Resolution Process for Corporate Persons) Regulations, 2016 to exclude the lockdown period from the timelines prescribed under the IBC vide Notification dated 29.03.2020  which reads as follows:
“40-C. Special provision relating to time-line.— Notwithstanding the time-lines contained in these regulations, but subject to the provisions in the Code, the period of lockdown imposed by the Central Government in the wake of COVID19 outbreak shall not be counted for the purposes of the time-line for any activity that could not be completed due to such lockdown, in relation to a corporate insolvency resolution process.”
Thus, the present timeline of 330 days prescribed in the proviso to Section 12(3) of the IBC for the insolvency resolution process would not include the lockdown period of 21 days.
In a suo motu action, taking a cue from the Supreme Court, the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (“NCLAT”) vide order dated 30-03-2020 in Suo Motu – Company Appeal (AT) (Insolvency) No. 01 of 2020  held the following:
“(1) That the period of lockdown ordered by the Central Government and the State Governments including the period as may be extended either in whole or part of the country, where the registered office of the corporate debtor may be located, shall be excluded for the purpose of counting of the period for ‘Resolution Process under Section 12 of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016, in all cases where ‘Corporate Insolvency Resolution Process’ has been initiated and pending before any Bench of the National Company Law Tribunal or in appeal before this Appellate Tribunal.
(2) It is further ordered that any interim order/stay order passed by this Appellate Tribunal in anyone or the other appeal under Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 shall continue till next date of hearing, which may be notified later.”
IMPLICATIONS OF INCREASED THRESHOLD LIMIT
It is pertinent to note that Section 7(1) of the IBC envisages initiation of Corporate Insolvency Resolution Process (“CIRP”) against a corporate debtor by a financial creditor either by itself or jointly with other financial creditors. The Explanation to Section 7(1) of the IBC provides that for the purpose of financial creditors, the default would include a default in respect of a financial debt owed not only to the applicant financial creditor but to any other financial creditor of the corporate debtor. Such an explanation is significantly absent from Section 8 of the IBC, which lays down provisions for operational creditors. Section 8(1) of the IBC provides that an operational creditor may, on the occurrence of a default, deliver a demand notice of unpaid operational debtor copy of an invoice demanding payment of the amount involved in the default to the corporate debtor in such form and manner as may be prescribed. In absence of a provision of joint action by operation creditors, the increased threshold limit of Rupees one crore would essentially drive out the operational creditors from the realms of IBC as most of the operational debts would fail to meet the one crore mark individually, especially with respect to MSME.
It is further pertinent to note that the Notification dated 24-03-2020 deals with Part II of the IBC which is concerned with Insolvency Resolution and Liquidation for Corporate Persons. The threshold limits pertaining to personal guarantors specified under PartIII of the IBC, namely, Insolvency Resolution and Bankruptcy for Individuals and Partnership Firms have been left untouched. The provisions of Part III of the IBC so far as they are applicable to personal guarantors to corporate debtors were brought into force from 1-12-2019 . Section 78 of the IBC which provides for threshold limit for triggering insolvency and bankruptcy proceedings against individuals reads as under:
“78. Application.- This Part shall apply to matters relating to fresh start, insolvency and bankruptcy of individuals and partnership firms where the amount of the default is not less than one thousand rupees:
Provided that the Central Government may, by notification, specify the minimum amount of default of higher value which shall not be more than one lakh rupees.”
The minimum amount of default for initiation of insolvency resolution against personal guarantors of corporate debtors continues to be pegged at Rs. 1000 (Rupees one thousand). Consequently, while the revised threshold limits have made it difficult to initiate insolvency proceedings against an MSME, the applications for initiation of insolvency proceedings against the personal guarantors of such MSME might witness an increase in numbers.
EFFECTS ON PENDING AND FUTURE CASES
The said Notification dated 24.03.2020 does not provide for retrospective application of the revised limits. Therefore, the earlier threshold of Rupees one lakh would continue to apply to cases that are pending. The new applications seeking commencement of CIRP would necessarily have to meet the revised criterion of default of minimum Rupees one crore by the corporate debtor.
The financial distress may also pose difficulties for companies undergoing CIRP to complete the process within the period of 330 days prescribed in the proviso to Section 12(3) of the IBC even after the exclusion of the lockdown period. Section 12(3) of the IBC which read as follows:
“Provided further that the corporate insolvency resolution process shall mandatorily be completed within a period of three hundred and thirty days from the insolvency commencement date, including any extension of the period of corporate insolvency resolution process granted under this section and the time taken in legal proceedings in relation to such resolution process of the corporate debtor:”
In this regard, it is pertinent to refer to the judgement in Committee of Creditors of Essar Steel India Ltd. Through Authorised Signatory v. Satish Kumar Gupta , whereby the Supreme Court struck down the word “mandatorily” used in the abovesaid proviso as being manifestly arbitrary under Article 14 of the Constitution of India and as being an excessive and unreasonable restriction on the litigant’s right to carry on business under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution and held as follows: (SCC OnLine para 108)
“108. …The effect of this declaration is that ordinarily the time taken in relation to the corporate resolution process of the corporate debtor must be completed within the outer limit of 330 days from the insolvency commencement date, including extensions and the time taken in legal proceedings. However, on the facts of a given case, if it can be shown to the Adjudicating Authority and/or Appellate Tribunal under the Code that only a short period is left for completion of the insolvency resolution process beyond 330 days, and that it would be in the interest of all stakeholders that the corporate debtor be put back on its feet instead of being sent into liquidation and that the time taken in legal proceedings is largely due to factors owing to which the fault cannot be ascribed to the litigants before the Adjudicating Authority and/or Appellate Tribunal, the delay or a large part thereof being attributable to the tardy process of the Adjudicating Authority and/or the Appellate Tribunal itself, it may be open in such cases for the Adjudicating Authority and/or Appellate Tribunal to extend time beyond 330 days…”
Furthermore, in view of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, the companies that are presently undergoing the CIRP would possibly find it difficult to attract resolution applicants. In cases where a resolution plan has been submitted by the resolution applicant and is pending approval of the Committee of Creditors or the Adjudicating Authority, the resolution applicant might seek modification of the resolution plans already submitted or cancellation of the process of submission/finalisation as the valuations and viability of businesses is likely to be severely affected due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Although there is no provision in the IBC that allows the resolution applicant to modify or withdraw a resolution plan which is pending approval of the Adjudicating Authority, the National Company Law Tribunal, Mumbai has vide order dated 27.09.2019 in State Bank of India v. Metalyst Forgings Ltd. allowed the prayer of the resolution applicant seeking cancellation of the process of submission of the resolution plan and held as follows:
“72. The IBC neither confers the power or jurisdiction on the Adjudicating Authority to compel specific performance of a plan by an unwilling resolution applicant. The letter and spirit of the IB Code mandate the acceptance of only a viable and lawful resolution plan being implemented at the hands of a willing resolution applicant. Absence of these factors renders the Section 31 application liable to be rejected. The IB Code envisages a scheme whereby the corporate debtor is taken over by the successful resolution applicant. This scheme must contain a provision for its implementation and supervision under Section 30(2)(d) and as required by the proviso to Section 31(1).
73. At this point, it is fit to refer to the sub-section (4) of Section 30 of the IB Code as it lays down the basis on which a resolution plan would be approved by the Committee of Creditors. For the sake of reference, the said clause is reproduced below:
“(4) The committee of creditors may approve a resolution plan by a vote of not less than sixty-six per cent of voting share of the financial creditors, after considering its feasibility and viability, and such other requirements as may be specified by the Board.”
74. Thus, a resolution plan is to be approved by the CoC only after being satisfied that it is feasible and viable. This clearly implies that if a resolution plan is not viable and found unfit for implementation or does not have proper provisions for its successful implementation or is based on incorrect assumptions which would lead to failure of the resolution plan and eventual, inevitable death of the corporate debtor, then the CoC ought to reject such a resolution plan. Regulation 38(3) of the IBBI (Insolvency Resolution Process for Corporate Persons) Regulations, 2016 provides that the resolution plan shall demonstrate with (a) it addresses the cause of default, (b) it is feasible and viable, (c) it provides for effective implementation, (d) it provides for approvals required and the time lime for the same, and (e) the resolution applicant has the capability to implement the resolution plan.”
(emphasis in original)
The National Company Law Appellate Tribunal vide order dated 07-02-2020 in Committee of Creditors of Metalyst Forging Ltd. v. Deccan Value Investors LP  upheld the order dated 27-09-2019 passed by the NCLT, Mumbai Bench in State Bank of India v. Metalyst Forgings Ltd. (supra) and observed that the IBC does not confer any power and jurisdiction on the Adjudicating Authority to compel specific performance of a plan by an unwilling resolution applicant.
The exclusion of lockdown period and the increased threshold limit are welcome steps taken by the legislature to ensure that the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises have enough cushion to recover from the financial distress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and would also declutter the cases under IBC by filtering out the frivolous ones. The low threshold of Rupees one lakh was hitherto criticised for potentially pushing an otherwise strong enterprise into liquidation for a default of a small amount at the instance of a single operational creditor. The critiques of the earlier threshold limit have hailed the revision as a positive move as it curtails the expansive powers of trigger-happy operational creditors who were more interested in recovery rather than resolution. It is ought to be remembered that the operational creditors do not stand to benefit in case a company undergoes liquidation as they are below the financial creditors in the line of proportionate repayment. The IBC is only a measure of last resort for the operational creditors. However, in cases where there is a personal guarantee, mostly given by the promoters/directors, it might still be used as a mechanism for recovery as the limit for initiation of the proceedings has not proportionately been increased and could possibly be a route that may be used to put pressure on the companies.
Nevertheless, in the times of the unprecedented downturn being experienced on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, the aforesaid measures would prove to be beneficial for resurrection of the enterprises facing the heat. After all, the key objective of the IBC is to ensure that the corporate debtor keeps operating as a going concern.
*Abhinav Shrivastava, Partner, GSL Chambers
**Sana Kamra, Associate, GSL Chambers
 Company Appeal (AT) (Insolvency) No. 1276 of 2019, https://nclat.nic.in/Useradmin/upload/8392498195e4106c6488b1.pdf