Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI): S.K. Mohanty, Whole Time Member, passed an order finding the promoters of New Delhi Television Ltd. (“NDTV”) Dr Prannoy Roy, Chairman (“Noticee 2”), Radhika Roy, Managing Director (“Noticee 3”) and RRPR Holdings (P) Ltd. (“Noticee 1”) grossly violated the provisions of Section 12-A(a), (b) and (c) of the Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, 1992 read with Regulations 3(a), (b), (c), and (d) and 4(1) of the SEBI (Prohibition of Fraudulent Trade Practices relating to Securities Market) Regulations, 2003. Further, Dr Pronnoy Roy and Radhika Roy were additionally found to have violated Clause 49(1)(d) of the Equity Listing Agreement read with Section 21 of the Securities Contracts (Regulation) Act, 1956.
In view of such findings and in order to protect the interest of investors and the securities market the Board passed following Directions against the Noticees:
(i) All the Noticees are restrained from accessing the securities market and are further prohibited from buying, selling or otherwise dealing in securities, directly or indirectly, or being associated with the securities market in any manner, whatsoever, for a period of 2 years. During the said period of restraint/prohibition, the existing holding, including units of mutual funds, of the Noticees shall remain frozen;
(ii) Dr Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy are restrained from holding or occupying position as Director or any key managerial personnel in NDTV for a period of 2 years; and
(iii) Dr Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy are restrained from holding or occupying position as Director or any key managerial personnel in any other listed company for a period of 1 year.
In August and December of 2017, SEBI received complaints from a shareholder of NDTV alleging, inter alia, that RRPR Holdings, which is one of the promoters of NDTV, and Dr Pronnoy Roy and Radhika Roy, who are promoters as well as Directors of NDTV, have violated the provisions of SEBI Act and the rules and regulations made thereunder by omitting to disclose material information to the shareholders of NDTV about certain loan agreements entered into by them.
NDTV is a company listed on BSE and NSE, and the three Noticees together constituted for 63.17% aggregate promoters shareholding in NDTV during the period of investigation, i.e., 14-10-2008 to 22-11-2017.
Upshot of findings in the investigation
(a) The Noticees entered into three loan agreements, one with ICICI Bank Ltd. (a rupee term loan not exceeding Rs 375 crores) and two with Vishvapradhan Commercial Private Ltd. (“VCPL”) (total amounting to more than Rs 400 crores, interest-free and payable at the end of 10 years period). These loan agreements contained material and price sensitive information, in as much as action/decision on many important matters pertaining to NDTV were made subject to prior written consent of the ostensible lender and without the knowledge of the minority shareholders of NDTV.
(b) Further, under the VCPL agreements and the two call option agreements executed as supplementary to the said loan agreements, beneficial interest in 30% shares of NDTV was effectively vested in VCPL. All these information were profoundly material and price sensitive information which would have influenced the investment decision of the investors in the shares of NDTV, had they been made aware of this information at that time.
(c) Terms of the loan agreements were devised to affect the interest of shareholders of NDTV. Although various clauses in the loan agreements deceitfully created binding obligations on NDTV, the Noticees consented to such clauses behind the back of the shareholders of NDTV to further their own private interests.
(d) Having held the dominant position and being majority shareholders of NDTV, the Noticees manifestly assured VCPL to ensure swift compliance of such clauses of the loan agreements pertaining to NDTV, thereby taking all other shareholders for granted and also compromising the interest of shareholders of NDTV.
(e) In order to conceal the said information from the investors so that the investors continue to trade in the shares of NDTV blissfully ignorant of the fact that the promoters of the company have already vested their voting rights to the extent of 30% in favour of a third external party, Noticees 2 and 3 chose to act in flagrant breach of Code of Conduct of NDTV. If the said information regarding loan agreements had been disclosed by Noticees 2 and 3 to the Board of Directors of NDTV, then the company was bound to intimate the same to the stock exchanges which in turn, would have disseminated such information on their websites for information of the general public.
(f) The loan agreements were unmistakably structured as a scheme to defraud the investors by camouflaging the information about the adversarial terms and conditions impinging upon the interest of NDTV’s shareholders, thereby inducing innocent investors to continue to trade in the shares of NDTV oblivious to such adversarial developments in the shareholding of NDTV.
Observation on fiduciary duty and conflict of interest
It was argued that Noticees 2 and 3 could not have acted in terms of the loan agreements in view of their statutory fiduciary duty towards NDTV. That even if the agreements entered into by Noticees 2 and 3 contained provisions prejudicial to NDTV or its investors, yet such agreements were unenforceable if they were in violation of the statutory fiduciary duty of Noticees 2 and 3 as Directors of NDTV.
In Board’s opinion, the question of enforceability of an agreement by the Courts would arise only in case of breach of the agreement by any of the parties. However, if the parties to an agreement decide to honour the undertakings and covenants provided for in such agreement out of their own volition, such agreements can always be performed by the parties, provided agreement is not prohibited by law. In the present case, the VCPL loan agreements, even though prejudicial to the interest of NDTV and creating conflict for Noticees 2 and 3 in the discharge of their fiduciary duties on the Board of NDTV, these agreements had been dutifully complied by the Noticees, till date. The Noticees, being fully aware and conscious about their pivotal role and positions in NDTV, still agreed/consented and executed agreements containing clauses which have an adversarial effect on the shareholders of NDTV. It restricts NDTV from raising fresh capital, making any restructuring, going for a merger, etc., without the prior written consent of ICICI/VCPL. It certainly amounts to acting in breach of fiduciary duties by Noticees 2 and 3.
Shareholder’s vote, right to property, and freedom to exercise thereof
It was also contended that Noticess were also shareholders of NDTV, and a shareholder’s vote being a right to property, prima facie may be exercised by him as he thinks fit in his own interest.
Rejecting the contention, the Board stated that it is to be understood that the case against the Noticees was not that they could not have entered into such loan agreements or exercised their voting rights the way they desired to, but the case against the Noticees was that they entered into certain transactions with a third party whereby they agreed to comply with certain conditions which bind NDTV and the interest of its shareholders too. In other words, by entering into such transaction, Noticees brought their personal interest in conflict with the interest of NDTV.
Based on such findings, the Securities and Exchange Board of India passed directions as aforementioned against Dr Prannoy Roy, Chairman, NDTV Ltd.; Radhika Roy, Managing Director, NDTV Ltd.; and RRPR Holdings (P) Ltd. all promoters of NDTV Ltd. It was directed that the directions made in the order shall come into effect with immediate effect. [NDTV Ltd, In re, 2019 SCC OnLine SEBI 47, decided on 14-6-2019]