Banks call on government to ease pressure on India's Vodafone Idea

A hotel employee clears a table after Vodafone Group and Idea Cellular news conference in Mumbai, India March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

MUMBAI, Sept 13 (Reuters) - Banks led by State Bank of India (SBI) have called on the Indian government to give debt-laden Vodafone Idea (VODA.NS) more time to clear its tax dues and spectrum fees, two bankers and a government official familiar with the matter said.

An Indian court last year ordered the mobile carrier, a joint venture between the Indian unit of Britain's Vodafone Group (VOD.L) and Aditya Birla Group's Idea Cellular, to pay just over $8 billion to the government to settle long-standing dues. Vodafone has a stake of about 44% in the company and Aditya Birla owns nearly 27%.

In June, Vodafone Idea's then non-executive chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla warned that without a government reprieve the Indian mobile carrier's "financial situation will drive its operations to an irretrievable point of collapse". read more

Vodafone Idea's gross debt as of June 30 was 1.9 trillion rupees, comprising of deferred spectrum payment obligations of 1.06 trillion rupees and an adjusted gross revenue liability of 621.8 billion rupees, its latest stock exchange filing in June showed.

The adjusted gross revenue is the usage and licensing fee that telecom operators are charged by the Indian government.

The mobile operator also reported that it owes 234 billion Indian rupees ($3.18 billion) to financial institutions.

Senior SBI (SBI.NS) officials and representatives of the Indian Banks' Association (IBA) met finance and telecom department officials this month and proposed an immediate breather on the repayment of spectrum dues, the two bankers and the government official, who requested anonymity, told Reuters.

"We've had these discussions with the banks but the issue is the finance ministry needs to be comfortable with the measures," the government official said.

SBI, IBA, and the finance and telecom departments did not respond to Reuters requests seeking comment.

The company is facing a repayment of 5-10 billion rupees of non-convertible debentures around January, one of the bankers said.

Vodafone Idea declined to comment. Vodafone Group did not immediately reply to an email seeking comment. An Aditya Birla Group spokesman declined to comment.

Vodafone Idea had cash and cash equivalents of 9.2 billion rupees at the end of June, a transcript of a company conference call published on its website said.

"All eyes are on New Delhi right now as banks are getting increasingly nervous," another banker with exposure to Vodafone Idea said.

The bankers have also proposed providing some relief to Vodafone by restructuring its dues, one government official and two bankers said.

Birla stepped down as chairman early last month after appealing for the government bailout.

The government has been considering a broader package to help a telecom industry disrupted by the 2016 entry of Mukesh Ambani-controlled Reliance Jio, which shook up the market with its free voice and cut-price data plans.

($1 = 73.6380 Indian rupees)

Reporting by Nupur Anand in Mumbai and Aftab Ahmed in New Delhi; Editing by Alexander Smith

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