OP. ED.Practical Lawyer Archives

Remuneration to executive and non-executive directors has always one of the most deliberated and debated topics in corporate governance. The topic gains importance as there it involves outflow of money from the company, calculation of net profits, disclosures to its shareholders, approval of directors, shareholders and remuneration Committee. Remuneration to directors of loss-making company or company which is very sensitive to the economy or sector performance is always in the limelight. This article is an analysis of the important and relevant provisions of the Companies Act and the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) (Listing Obligations and Disclosure Requirements) Regulations, 2015 w.r.t. remuneration to non-executive directors. There is also a reference to the recent amendment introduced to Schedule V of the Companies Act.

Limits on the remuneration to directors

According to the provisions of Section 197 of the Act, the total managerial remuneration payable by a public company, to its directors (including managing director, whole-time director, non-executive directors whether independent or not), and its manager in respect of any financial year shall not exceed 11% of the net profits of that company for that financial year. The net profits shall be computed in the manner laid down in Section 198 of the Act.

The company in general meeting may, authorise the payment of remuneration 11% of the net profit of the company. Earlier this required the approval of the Central Government. But now, the approval of Central Government is not required by the amendment introduced by Companies (Amendment) Act, 2017. By this provision, the company can take an approval of the shareholders in general meeting and authorise payment of remuneration up to 30% (an example) of the net profit of the company.

Limits on the remuneration to non-executive directors under the Companies Act

According to Section 197 of the Act, except with the approval of the company in general meeting by passing a special resolution, the company can pay remuneration to its non-executive directors as follows:

(a) 1% of the net profit of the company, if there is an existing managing or whole-time director or manager. Here “1% of the net profit” means for all non-executive directors of the company (whether independent or not).

(b) 3% of the net profit in any other case i.e. where there is no managing or whole-time director or manager. In situation is very rare, where all the directors are non-executive directors. Here “3% of the net profit” means for all non-executive directors of the company (whether independent or not).

With the amendments introduced by the Companies (Amendment) Act, 2017, with the approval of shareholders in general meeting by special resolution, the above percentages can be changed. However, in such case, the company would be required to obtain few more approvals. Where the company has defaulted in payment of dues to any bank or public financial institution or non-convertible debenture holders or any other secured creditor, the prior approval of the bank or public financial institution concerned or the non-convertible debenture holders or other secured creditor, as the case may be, shall be obtained by the company before obtaining the approval in the general meeting.

The above percentages do not include sitting fees. Such payment is excluded from the calculation of the remuneration to directors.

Section 197(6) of the Act provides that a director (i.e. any director–executive director or non-executive director) or manager may be paid remuneration either by way of a monthly payment (i.e. salary) or at a specified percentage of the net profit of the company (i.e. commission) or partly by one way and partly by the other (i.e. combination of both).

Remuneration to non-executive directors in a loss-making company

Till the Companies (Amendment) Bill, 2020 [now, Companies (Amendment) Act, 2020], there was no specific provision in the Act to pay non-executive directors by way of commission, in the event of loss or inadequate profits of the public company.  Section 197(3) of the Act was amended by the Companies (Amendment) Act, 2020, wherein a company having no profits or inadequate profits, can pay to all its directors (executive and non-executive directors) by way of remuneration any sum in accordance with the provisions of Schedule V to the Act.

It is important to note here that even in the case of inadequate profits or losses, the sitting fees paid by the company is not a part of the remuneration to directors.

The Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA) has amended[1] Schedule V of the Companies Act, 2013, in Part II, under the heading—“Remuneration” and allowed companies to pay remuneration to non-executive directors or independent directors. The limit of yearly remuneration payable to such directors shall not exceed prescribed amount. The maximum amount of remuneration depends upon the effective capital of the company. Where in any financial year during the currency of tenure of non-executive directors or independent directors, a company has no profits or its profits are inadequate, it may, pay remuneration to such director not exceeding, the limits given below:

Sl. No. Where the effective capital

(in rupees) is

Limit of yearly remuneration payable shall not exceed (in rupees) in case of non-executive directors or independent directors
1 Negative or less than 5 crores. 12 lakhs
2 5 crores and above but less

than 100 crores.

17 lakhs
3 100 crores and above but less

than 250 crores.

24 lakhs
4 250 crores and above. 24 lakhs plus 0.01% of the effective capital in excess of Rs 250 crores.

Relevant provisions of SEBI (Listing Obligations and Disclosure Requirements) Regulations, 2015 (SEBI Listing Regulations)

Regulation 17 of the SEBI Listing Regulations relates to “Board of Directors”. It provides for composition, Board meetings, appointment of non-executive directors, succession planning, code of conduct, remuneration, Board evaluation, etc.

Following are the key points relating to the remuneration to directors under SEBI Listing Regulations:

(a) The Board of Directors shall recommend all fees or compensation, if any, paid to non-executive directors, including independent directors and shall require approval of shareholders in general meeting. Therefore, approval of shareholders in mandatory for remuneration to non-executive directors, irrespective of the provisions of the Companies Act.

(b) The requirement of obtaining approval of shareholders in general meeting shall not apply to payment of sitting fees to non-executive directors, if made within the limits prescribed under the Companies Act, 2013 for payment of sitting fees without approval of the Central Government. Therefore, shareholders approval is not required for payment of sitting fees to non-executive directors. Similar provisions are provided in the Companies Act. According to Rule 4 of the Companies (Appointment and Remuneration of Managerial Personnel) Rules, 2014, a company may pay a sitting fee to a director for attending meetings of the Board or Committees thereof, such sum as may be decided by the Board of Directors thereof which shall not exceed Rs 1 lakh per meeting of the Board of Directors or Committee thereof. However, for independent directors and women directors, the sitting fee shall not be less than the sitting fee payable to other directors.

(c) The approval of shareholders shall specify the limits for the maximum number of stock options that may be granted to non-executive directors, in any financial year and in aggregate. However, independent directors shall not be entitled to any stock option;

(d) The SEBI Listing Regulations introduce a very interesting provision for payment of remuneration to non-executive directors. According to the relevant provisions approval of shareholders by special resolution shall be obtained every year, in which the annual remuneration payable to a single non-executive director exceeds 50% of the total annual remuneration payable to all non-executive directors, giving details of the remuneration thereof. It is necessary to understand this provision in light of 2 situations:

(i) Company having adequate profits: In this case, a company can pay up to 1% or 3% of the net profit for that financial year. Here, it would be necessary to calculate the profits of the company and then confirm the share of any specific non-executive director(s) in the profit in the form of remuneration.

(ii) Company having inadequate profits: In this case, to calculate the effective capital and the remuneration paid to any non-executive director of the company. It is important to note here that specific approval would be rarely applicable as the remuneration of a non-executive director is compared to the remuneration of all non-executive directors and not all executive directors (under SEBI Listing Regulations).

In both the above cases, the remuneration shall not include sitting fees paid to the directors in accordance with the provisions of the Companies Act.

In these challenging times of Covid-19, its impact on the economy and companies, the amendment to Schedule V of the Companies Act will be very helpful for companies to pay all its directors.


Practising Company Secretary, Pune

[1]      MCA Notification dated 18-3-2021, S.O. 1256(E) [F. No. 1/5/2013-CL-V].

COVID 19Op EdsOP. ED.

1. INTRODUCTION

The on-going global Coronavirus disease (“COVID-19”) has affected a countless number of people around the world, businesses and the global economies alike. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic. In India too, the government has also termed COVID-19 as a pandemic. In testing times like these, India is slowly coming out of an unprecedented nationwide lockdown; which incidentally has been termed to be as one of the biggest lockdown in the world and has resulted in a temporary or partial shutdown of many businesses in India.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (“MHA“) along with various other relevant Indian governmental authorities to safeguard the interests of employees — ­particularly the inter-State migrant workers have come out with a series of notifications, advisories, circulars and orders (collectively referred to as  “the COVID Circulars”), many of which have cast onus on the ’employers’ and companies – whether they be in the industry or shops and commercial establishments,which (broadly) include but are not limited to the following:

(i) making payment of wages to their workers at their workplace, on the due date, without any deduction, for the period their establishments are or previously have been under closure during the lockdown (“MHA Circular”)[1]; and

(ii) ensuring fixed working hours and adequate safety of their employees[2], for the safety measures announced by the relevant governmental authorities, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. ­

This article seeks to discuss in light of the COVID Circulars and keeping in view the ever-increasing popularity of the appointment of non-executive directors (“NED”) in Indian companies, whether such NEDs can be held liable for non-compliance of the obligations which the COVID Circulars have cast upon companies and employers.

2. ROLE OF NON-EXECUTIVE DIRECTORS WITH REGARD TO COVID CIRCULARS AND APPLICABLE INDIAN LEGISLATIONS  

2.1  Due to the ever-growing participation of private equity and venture capital investments by investors in Indian companies, as a recently evolving trend, such investors in return for their investments have been demanding a board seat of an authorised individual representative of their choice, usually by way of appointing a NED.

2.2 Obligations of Employers with Regard to the COVID Circulars

 As indicated above, several COVID Circulars have cast obligations on ’employers’, especially, when it comes to payment of wages to their workers employed at their workplace, during the period of lockdown. For instance, Labour Departments of States such as Maharashtra and Telangana had even prior to the MHA Circular, directed that during the lockdown period (which was announced by the said States before the nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24, 2020), the employees/workers were to be paid salary and allowances in full, as a paid holiday during such period. As on date, however, there is no clarification from the relevant governmental authorities as to whether a NED will constitute as an ’employer’ and hence, there remains ambiguity regarding whether a NED can be held accountable for any act of non-compliance by a company, in light of the COVID Circulars.

With no ‘explicit’ clarity on the issue of liability of a NED, with regard to COVID Circulars, as a stop-gap measure, guidance on the role and responsibilities, and general actions from the definitions, and cases which have dealt with the said issue in the past, interpretation can be drawn, in terms of the relevant Indian statutes, which include but are not limited to: (i) the  Companies Act, 2013[3] (“the Act”); and (ii) applicable provisions of the Indian labour legislations, which have been analysed (in brief) below.

2.3 Definition and analysis of a NED in line with the Act and the allied Rules made thereunder

 NEDs in India are viewed as a custodian of the company[4]. Under the Act, the liability in case of a default is cast upon the “officer who is in default”[5]. The question which has been repeatedly tested and challenged in the competent court(s) of law is whether a NED in a company can be equated on the same footing as an “officer who is in default”[6]. The extant law, provides a way out for the directors of a company including the NEDs, who can prove that any breach or non-compliance was not intentionaland neither was it an intentional breach by him/her, however, the burden to establish innocence would always lie on the NED. Additionally, the Act provides that a NED should be held liable only in respect of any contravention of any provisions of the Act which had taken place with his knowledge (attributable through board processes) and where he has not acted diligently, or with his consent or connivance[7], a fact which has been reiterated by the MCA, on numerous occasions[8].

To clear the ambiguity around the issue of liability of a NED, the Ministry of Corporate Affairs (“MCA”) had issued a circular[9] (“the Circular”), wherein it clarified that the liability of a NED (not being a promoter or KMP) under the Act, is only for the acts of omission or commission by a company which had occurred with his knowledge, attributable through the ‘board’ process, and with his connivance or where he had not acted diligently (“the Criteria”). The Circular further states that unless the Criteria is met, a NED (who is not a promoter or KMP), should not be arrayed in any criminal or civil proceedings under the Act. The Circular also discusses the need to examine the Criteria, before serving notices to the NED of a company, for a potential non-compliance and default by him/her.

The MCA, through the said Circular, has also prescribed SOPs (standard operating procedures) for the Registrars, before initiating proceedings against the ‘officers in default’, for offences which include but are not limited to ascertaining the nature of default and officer in default. The MCA has further clarified that in case of any doubts pertaining to the liability of any director for proceedings to be initiated, guidance may be sought from the office of the Director General of Corporate Affairs, MCA, and consequently, such proceedings must only be initiated after receiving due sanction from the MCA. Also note, only where lapse(s) are attributable to the decisions which are taken by the board or its committees which include the NED, adequate care and responsibility must be taken to ensure that unnecessary proceedings are not initiated against such NEDs unless there is evidence to the contrary.

2.4 Definition of ‘Employer’: Guidance from various Indian labour statutes

In light of the COVID-19 Circulars, it appears that most of the advisories seem to be directed towards “employers”, and the roles and responsibilities which would need to be followed during the lockdown. For instance, in light of the hardships faced by the inter-State migrant workers, the MHA Circular called upon all “employers”– whether in industry or in shops and commercial establishments, to make payment of wages of their workers at their workplace on the due date without any deduction in the wages during the lockdown period. On similar lines, relevant State Government authorities of various States, such as (i) Maharashtra; (ii) Uttar Pradesh; (iii) Haryana; and (iv) Karnataka, had issued advisories/orders on similar lines refraining employers from terminating their employees and workers, and/ or to reduce their wages.

As indicated at Point 2.2. above, since the COVID Circulars are silent on who an “employer” is, nor have the relevant governmental authoritiesas on date clarified on who would fall under the definition and ambit of an “employer”, in the interim reliance can be placed on the relevant provisions of the applicable Indian labour laws, where an “Employer” has been defined under various statutes.

For instance, Section 2(7) of the Bombay Shops and Establishment Act, 1948[10], defines an “employer” as a person who owns or has ultimate control over the affairs of an establishment, whereas Section 2(g) of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, defines an “employer” to be: ‘(i) in relation to an industry carried on by, or under the authority of any department of the Central Government or a State Government, the authority prescribed in this behalf, or where no authority is prescribed, the head of the department; (ii) in relation to an industry carried on, by or on behalf of a local authority, the chief executive officer of that authority’. Additionally, Section 2(l) of the Code on Wages, 2019, defines an “employer” as: “a person who employs, whether directly or through any person, one or more employees in his establishment”.

Hence, who would fall under the definition of an “employer” would depend on factors such as:

(i) the nature of the business;

(ii) the type of workers employed; and

(iii) the place of operations of a business or an establishment.

3. JUDICIAL PRECEDENTS AND SUBSEQUENT RELAXATIONS BY RELEVANT GOVERNMENTAL AUTHORITIES

3.1 Judicial Precedents

3.1.1 The question of liability of the NEDs has been challenged and discussed upon in the court of law, time and again. Listed below is a brief analysis of the important judicial precedents on this issue, in the recent past:

  • In Chaitan M. Maniar v. State of Maharashtra[11], the Bombay High Court observed that for the acts of a few dishonest people, the NEDs, who were not concerned with the day-to-day functioning of the company will not be held responsible, unless there is valid evidence backed by proof, to prove the active participation of the NEDs in question.
  • In Poonam Garg v. Securities and Exchange Board of India[12],  the appellant (i.e. Poonam Garg) acted in the capacity of a NED in the company and her husband was the promoter, managing director and the compliance officer in the company. The Securities Appellate Tribunal, Mumbai Bench after examining the merits of the case held that: (i) as the appellant’s (i.e. Poonam Garg) husband, was also a promoter/Managing Director/Compliance Officer of the company, the same was sufficient to hold that the appellant (i.e. Poonam Garg) was an ‘insider’ ; (ii) it could be deduced that she was reasonably privy to the PSI or ‘Price Sensitive Information’; (iii) it was not open to the appellant (i.e. Poonam Garg) to feign ignorance of the Prohibition of Insider Trade Regulations; and (iv) take shelter under the violations committed by her husband.
  • For cases pertaining to liability under the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881, the Supreme Court of India in Pooja Ravinder Devidasani v. State of Maharashtra[13] held that: “a non-executive director is no doubt a custodian of the governance of the company but is not involved in day-to-day affairs of the running of its business and only monitors the executive activity”.

As can be seen from the cases cited above the courts usually examine the liability of a NED, individually on a case-to-case basis, and as such, there is no ‘one size fits all’ formula of the judicial tests, which the judicial courts, examine and has been laid down, to determine the liability of a NED.

3.1.2 Further, as discussed above, several COVID Circulars have imposed various obligations on the “employers” until a few relaxations by the relevant governmental authorities were announced[14]. Additionally, many COVID Circulars, such as the MHA Circular has been challenged by numerous aggrieved parties, before various courts having judicial jurisdiction, primarily on account of the inability of companies to pay wages during the period of lockdown. Listed below is a brief analysis of a few of such cases:

  • The Supreme Court of India in the matter of Hand Tools Manufacturers Association v. Union Of India[15], in its order stated that no coercive action was to be taken against an association of 52 (fifty-two) companies from Punjab for failing to comply with the MHA Circular, wherein the employers were compelled to pay wages to workers during the period of lockdown on account of COVID-19. The Hand Tools Manufacturers Association had challenged the constitutional validity of the Notification dated March 20, 2020, issued by the Secretary (Labour & Employment) and select portion of Clause III of the MHA Circular, both of which compelled payment of full wages to workers and employees during the period of lockdown.
  • The MHA Circular was also  challenged in  Ficus Pax Pvt.    v. Union of India[16], in the Supreme Court of India, wherein the appellant (Ficus Pax Pvt. Ltd. ) approached the Court to quash the MHA Circular directing payment of full wages to workers and employees during the lockdown as  “arbitrary, illegal, irrational, unreasonable and contrary to the provisions of law including Article 14 and Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution of India.”

3.2  Subsequent relaxations by the relevant governmental authorities at the Central level

 There have been a few relaxations announced by the relevant governmental authorities with regard to the liabilities which the COVID Circulars have placed on the ’employers’.  For instance, the relevant governmental authority on the issue of ‘payment of wages’ to temporary/casual/daily wage workers in light of the lockdown, has clarified that the lockdown period is part of the moral/humanitarian/contractual obligations of all companies irrespective of whether they have any legal obligation for CSR contribution under Section 135 of the Companies Act, 2013, and hence, payment of wages to temporary or casual or daily wage workers during the lockdown period will not count towards CSR expenditure[17].

Additionally, the MHA has by way of issuing an order[18] dated May 17, 2020 (“New Order”) announced various relaxations, wherein the previously issued SOPs, including the MHA Circular, has now been replaced with new guidelines. This would mean that the restrictions which had been imposed by the MCA Circular pertaining to mandatory payment of wages, during the period of lockdown would with effect from May 18, 2020, no longer be applicable and as a result of this move, any termination measures or reduction in wages by an employer would be governed by applicable provisions of the Indian labour statutes.

As on date, however, there appears to be ambiguity regarding the New Order i.e. whether it would apply to establishments which were not operational previously during the period of lockdown, and unless the courts decide otherwise, companies including the employers would be bound by guidelines issued by the MHA Circular from its enforcement (i.e. March 29, 2020), until the day of enforcement of New Order (i.e. May 18, 2020). Additional relaxations in the form of the previously issued standard operating protocol (“SOP”) have been now replaced with the new lockdown guidelines, for instance, it is no longer mandatory for the employer to ensure that its employees have installed the ‘Arogya Setu’ app but the same is to be done by the employer on a ‘best effort basis’ only.

3.3. Subsequent Relaxations by Various State Governments

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many State Governments have also provided a few relaxations in the compliance requirement for a few of the applicable labour laws, as a result of which the onus on the part of the employers or the “officer in charge” which may include NEDs by virtue of the role played by them in the company has significantly been reduced. For instance, the State of Uttar Pradesh provided relaxations to the “employers”, by way of issuing an Ordinance[19], in complying with certain requirements of the applicable legislation, such as exemptions from complying with the provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 (“IDA”) and the Factories Act, 1948 for 3 (three) years, starting from the date of the said Ordinance.

4. CONCLUSION

4.1 To conclude and to answer whether a NED can be held liable for any non-compliance in light of the  COVID Circulars, the following points provide an overview of the issue:

(i) As discussed above, as on the date of this article, there is no explicit clarity from the relevant governmental authorities, regarding whether a NED would fall under the definition of an “employer”. Hence, the liability of a NED, would need to be determined individually and on a case to case basis, till the time further clarity by a relevant governmental authority is provided.

(ii) In the interim, guidance can be drawn to applicable provisions of the Indian legislations, as discussed in line at Points 2.3 and 2.4 of this article (i.e. the definition of NED and definition of an ’employer’).

(iii) Several petitions challenging the legality of the COVID Circulars, have been filed by affected parties, many of which are still pending to be adjudicated upon by the courts, and are likely to be answered in the coming few days.

4.2 In the interim, in light of the COVID Circulars, to better protect the interest of the NEDs, the following measures should ideally be adopted by the companies:

(i) Obtaining a D&O (director and officer) insurance to better protect the interests of NEDs in a company;

(ii) Indemnification rights as part of the definitive agreements to protect the rights of the NED should be sought by the investors wanting to appoint a NED (i.e. in the form of their representative on the board of a company);

(iii) Clear demarcation of the roles and responsibilities of a NED in the company should be ideally defined and documented; and

(iv) As a stop-gap arrangement, companies may choose to nominate an individual/group of individuals (which may also include NEDs), to oversee the compliance requirements, including the requirements stemming from the COVID Circulars. This may however not be a fool-proof method to safeguard the interest of NEDs, as different courts, may take a different view on this.

4.3 In continuation to recommendations discussed at Point 4.2 above, NEDs may also make a recommendation to the KMPs or the members of the board of directors (as the case may be) and ensure that the employees are paid their wages on time – in line with the advisories issued by the relevant governmental authorities from time-to-time, and further, written consent of employees stating that the company is complying with the norms laid down by the relevant governmental agencies can be obtained, to protect the interests of the NEDs in a company.


*Lawyer from New Delhi/Mumbai, India. Author can be reached at ‘aseem.sahni@outlook.com’.

[Disclaimer: The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.]

[1] Refer to Order issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs – No. 40-3/ 2020- DM-I (A), dated March 29, 2020.

[2]MHA in its directive issued on May 1, 2020 had made installation of ‘AarogyaSetu’ App mandatory for both private and public sector employees and had called upon the head of the respective organisations to ensure 100 per cent coverage of the app among the employees.

[3] The Companies Act, 2013

[4] Chintalapati Srinivasa Raju  v. Securities and Exchange Board of India, (2018) 7 SCC  443, dated May 14, 2018.

[5] Section 2(60) of the Act defines an “Officer who is in default” and provides a list of officers of a company, who will be held accountable in case of default by the company, which include but are not limited to: (i) whole-time director; (ii) key managerial personnel; or (iii) any person in accordance with whose advice, directions or instructions, the board of directors of the company is accustomed to act, other than a person who gives advice to the board of directors in a professional capacity.

[6]Please refer to Point 3.1 of this article, for a discussion on an overview of the judicial interpretation.

[7]Section 149(12) of the Companies Act, 2013.

[8]Refer to ‘Report of Expert Committee’, available at:http://www.mca.gov.in/Ministry/reportonexpertcommitte/chapter4.html (last visited on May 24, 2020).

[9]Refer to General Circular No. 1 / 2020 (F.No. 16/1/2020-Legal) dated March 2, 2020.

[10]Also referred to as the Maharashtra Shops and Establishment Act, 1948.

[11]2004 SCC OnLine Bom 139

[12]  2018 SCC Online SAT 99.

[13] (2014) 16 SCC  1 

[14]Brief analysis of the relaxations announced by the various relevant governmental authorities in light of the COVID Circulars has been discussed at Point(s) 3.2 and 3.3 of this article.

[15]Writ Petition (Civil) Diary No. 11193/2020, order dated 15-5-2020.

[16] (2020) 4 SCC 810

[17]Ministry of Corporate Affairs  General Circular No. 15/2020 (F. No. CSR-01/4/2020-CSR-MCA), ‘COVID-19 related Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ No. 6) on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)’ dated April 10, 2020.

[18]Refer to order issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs – No. 40-3/2020-DM-I(A) – dated May 17, 2020, available at https://www.mha.gov.in/sites/default/files/MHAOrderextension_1752020_0.pdf

[19]Refer to Ordinance entitled “Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020”, dated May 08, 2020. It has since been withdrawn.