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Identifying roadblocks in highway contracting: lessons from NHAI litigation

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by Charmi Mehta and Susan Thomas.

Introduction

Government contracting is an important foundational process which shapes state capacity. Under Indian conditions, there is limited state capacity in government contracting, which leads to a significant rate of contracting failure. One manifestation of contracting failure is litigation. Defects in the contracting process are often associated with litigation. In addition, litigation leads to delays in project completion, and the prospect of litigation deters some private firms from working with government thus hampering competitiveness in government contracting (Mehta and Uday, 2022). The study of litigation is, therefore, a pathway to creating knowledge in the field of government contracting. An example this was Damle et al, 2021.

In the `contract life cycle approach’, government contracting is a pipeline that runs through four phases: I – Contract design, II – Contract award, III – Contract management and IV – Contract closure. We must measure the incidence of defects across the four phases, so as to prioritise resourcing, in the field of policy research, and in the activity of government contracting.

In this article, we construct a novel data-set about contract related litigation at the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), which is the single agency that does the largest number of government contracts. Using this data-set, we measure the share of each of the phases of the procurement life-cycle in litigation. In our knowledge, this constitutes the first empirical evidence about the role of the phases of the government contracting life cycle in inducing litigation.

Methodology

We hand-construct a data-set which draws upon information from three sources.

Delhi High Court case orders
NHAI contracts and concession agreements give the Delhi High Court exclusive jurisdiction over its contractual disputes from anywhere in India. We find 1165 cases in 2007-2020 that emanate from NHAI contracts. For each case, we observe the date of initiation and disposal, and the names of parties involved.
Extracting facts from court documents
We read 635 out of the 1165 (65 percent) court documents. Using these, we extracted the cause of dispute whenever it was available. These were found to be one of the following: Interim relief, Appointment of arbitrator, Challenging arbitration award, Seeking extension of time, Seeking award enforcement, Restraining NHAI, Reimbursement of costs/Compensation, Challenging claims demanded.
The NHAI Draft Red Herring Prospectus (DRHP)
While filing for the NHAI Infrastructure Investment Trust listing with SEBI, MoRTH was mandated to disclose all large-value disputes involving the NHAI (that are in arbitration), along with a list of all outstanding claims. This had 40 disputes listed, with information about the dates of initiation, cause of disputes, the model of contracting used for the project under dispute, and the names of parties involved. As a self-disclosed data source, this served as a tool to validate observations from the Delhi High Court case orders data.

We find that NHAI accounts for almost 40% of the cases that the Union Government is party to (1165 out of the Union Government’s 2912). We also find that cases involving the NHAI have grown at a rate of 17.15% on average during this period. NHAI is the petitioner for about 45% of the cases, while the corresponding figure for other government agencies is about 30%.

NHAI is such a large scale litigant, that reducing the litigation intensity at NHAI would make a different to the working of the judiciary. This work is thus relevant not just for the field of government contracting, but also for the field of the judiciary.

We develop a two-step process for classifying NHAI contract related litigation orders into the four phases of the government contracting life cycle. In the first step, we categorise cases based on causes of dispute as follows:

  1. Related to arbitration proceedings: One set of cases pertain to petitions that (1) seek interim relief from the court under Section 9 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act 1996, (2) seek the court’s intervention in selection of the arbitrator (on account of delays or disagreement in appointment), and (3) appeal awards announced by the arbitral tribunal, which accounted for a significant fraction of the arbitration related matters.
  2. Payments related: This could be about payments, revision of payment terms, price estimation due to changes in scope/ additional components midway into the construction phase or changes in law or policy leading to adverse conditions of work for the private party. Changes in terms of the contract result in parties disagreeing over revised cost estimates or the method of calculating these revisions. In several cases, the delays were related to reimbursements to the private party on account of delays in land acquisition, or operationalising toll plazas. In some cases, the private firm sought restraining orders from the court against the NHAI invoking bank guarantees when there was a delay in the firm achieving financial closure.
  3. Related to wrongful termination/debarment of contractors: Concession agreements embed the terms of contract termination. Prior to the 2020 amendment in the model concession agreement (which allowed a mutual exit clause), the contract perceived termination as default by either side, with the opposite party having a right to compensation and damages. In the process, NHAI often debarred/black-listed contractors from bidding for tenders, a decision that contractors appeal in court.
  4. Reason unclear: For 253 cases, we were unable to classify the cause of dispute since the order was unclear for interpretation. This may reflect blemishes in the Delhi High Court website. We are conservative and classify a case under `Reason unclear’ when we are not confident about placing it into the other three categories.

We go on to classify cases into the four phases of the life-cycle of a contract. This mapping is sensitive to the domain; our classification processes are specific to government contracting in highways and infrastructure.

In all the cases that we studied, there was none in the first phase (the “Contract design” phase).

Litigation associated with defects in the pre-award phase involves disputes on the tendering/awarding processes. For example, this includes disputes regarding unfairly awarded tenders, wrongly classifying bids as non-responsive and irregular financial bid-opening processes, all of which are placed within the pre-award phase.

Reading the orders shows that arbitration-related and payments-related causes of disputes take place once the contract has been awarded. This is also true for some of the cases that are classified as wrongful debarment/termination which arises because of the non-performance of contractual obligations. Since these disputes arise after the contract is awarded, we classify these cases in the post-award phase. Some of the orders contain details about the type of contract between the parties. For example, SPVs are often formed for the construction of a highway, and are named ‘… Tollway Pvt. Ltd.‘ which indicates a legal entity that was formed for the purposes of executing a contract or an award. This can be identified from the names of the parties, even if the specific causes of dispute might be unclear in some cases. We use this information in classifying cases under the post-award category.

Traditionally, cases pertaining to payment delays are categorised within the post-completion phase. But in the case of NHAI contracts, payment schedules vary across the commonly used models of Hybrid Annuity (HAM), BOT-Annuity models and EPC. Payments are made to the concessionaire either at the start of construction, or at regular frequencies such as semi-annually, with payments usually linked to the achievement of project milestones. We place such cases in the post-award phase rather than in the post-completion phase. Similarly, case orders that seek to resolve arbitration-proceedings related disputes are also categorised as post-award since these disputes arise from a contractual relationship between two parties to approach alternate dispute resolution mechanisms, which can only exist in the event of a contract being awarded.

Findings

Table 1: Number of cases by drivers of litigation


Cause of dispute NHAI as petitioner Firm as petitioner Total
Arbitration proceedings related 123 137 260
Payments related 15 75 90
Wrongful termination/ debarment 1 31 32
Total 139 243 382

In Table 1, we summarise the number of cases falling under Categories 1-3 listed above. We further break up the cases under each category as the number of cases where NHAI was the petitioner and where the private firm was the petitioner. A large volume of cases are a) arbitration-proceedings related, and 2) payments-related (delayed payments). We see that arbitration related matters are nearly 70 percent of the sample of case orders. In this category, both the NHAI and the firm are almost equally likely to petition an arbitration matter. In the other two categories, NHAI is more likely to be litigated against.

The analysis based on case classification into phases of the contract life-cycle is presented in Table 2. This shows the number of disputes which we classify as falling within the pre-award, post-award, and post-completion phase. In this table, we present both the actual number of cases identified in a given phase, as well as the share of the cases as a fraction of the total.

Table 2: Share of disputes by the phase of the contract life-cycle


Phase of the contract life-cycle Share (% of Total) Number of cases
Pre-award 1.75 11
Post-award 66.14 420
Post-completion 0.15 1
Unclear/No data recorded 31.95 203
Total 100.00 635

Table 2 shows that over 65% of the cases are concentrated in the post-award or the contract management phase.

Discussion

In this article, we have analysed one important government contracting organisation, and attributed its litigation into the four phases of the contract life cycle. The results diverge from the commonly held view that the problems in public procurement arise because of problems with Phase 2 or L1 tendering. This analysis suggests that the hot spot in litigation is Phase 3 or the Contract management phase. This suggests that policy researchers and policy practitioners should allocate greater resources on strengthening this phase.

Another finding is that there is a large volume of arbitration-proceedings related disputes, which indicates the limitations of alternate dispute resolution (ADR) mechanisms. Strengthening ADR mechanisms in India would result in less litigation.

Recent reforms of the government contracting process have initiated movement on this front. The General Instructions on Procurement and Project Management (2021) built provisions to address concerns around arbitration and dispute resolution. It acknowledges that the majority of the cases appealed by government agencies end up being awarded in favour of the opposite party. In this context, the General Instructions emphasize the need for the government to actively take steps to minimise litigation. Further, it inserts Rule 227A in the General Financial Rules (GFRs) 2017 for Arbitration Awards, which mandates that the concerned ministry pay 75% of the amount of the arbitral award against the bank guarantee, even if it contests the award in a court of law. This is a step in the right direction as it takes away the incentive for either party to benefit from prolonging a dispute or appealing to a higher authority to delay payment of claims awarded by the arbitral tribunal.

References:

Damle D., Gulati K., Sharma A., and Zaveri-Shah, B. Litigation in public contracts: some estimates from court data., The LEAP Blog, May 2021.

Mehta C., and Uday D., How competitive is bidding in infrastructure public procurement? A study of road and water projects in five Indian states, The LEAP Blog, March 2022.

Charmi Mehta is a researcher at XKDR-Chennai Mathematical Institute and Susan Thomas is professor at the Jindal School of Business and a researcher at XKDR Forum. The authors thank Shailesh Pathak and Bhargavi Zaveri-Shah for their inputs in shaping the study, and Yajat Bansal and Diya Mal for their research assistance in this study.


Source: https://blog.theleapjournal.org/2022/07/identifying-roadblocks-in-highway.html


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