Another Mallya? Winsome owes banks $1 bn, but pays just $150k

MUMBAI: Amid the CBI and ED glare on Vijay Mallya, lenders to Winsome group — India’s second largest wilful defaulter after Mallya’s Kingfisher Airlines — have received, for the first time in two years, a tiny fraction of the billion dollar outstanding loan. About $150,000 has come into the designated account from the Middle East clients of the gold and diamond house Winsome and a group firm Forever.

While Winsome spokespersons and its promoter Jatin Mehta — who has been away from the country for the past few years — claim that the group’s inability to repay banks Rs 6,800 crore was due to non-payment by overseas customers who lost heavily on gold and currency derivative bets, banks in India never bought the story.

The local lenders, suspecting a case of wilful default, had complained to central investigative agencies when they sensed there was no easy way to recover the amount. The local banks had issued standby letters of credit (SBLC in banking parlance) — similar to guarantees — in favour of international bullion banks like Standard of South Africa, Standard Chartered London and Scotiabank, which supplied gold to Winsome Group.

The arrangement was if Winsome failed to pay the bullion banks, Indian banks would step in to pay for the gold consignment.

The agreements with banks were such that one default could lead to recalling the entire amount. After Winsome defaults in March 2013, Indian banks had to pay the global bullion banks. During the year, when the company was negotiating with banks to restructure the loans, around $2.3 million was repaid.

The banks had not agreed to the proposed corporate debt restructuring. Even though the recent remittance of $150,000 takes place after a gap of almost two years, Winsome officials denied that this was triggered by actions against Mallya.

Winsome Group, largest defaulter after Vijay Mallya's KFA, pays fraction of loan back to lenders

“After filing of the cases and obtaining the decrees from the courts at Sharjah, the defaulting customers in UAE have remitted an ad hoc amount of $150,000 in the Punjab National Bank Escrow Account. The defaulting customers have challenged these decrees in the court of appeal at Sharjah and the company is resisting these appeals,” said a Winsome official responding to ET’s email queries.

But, a few questions crop up: What made a little-known Middle East jeweller which has no direct dealings with Indian banks and is outside the jurisdiction of Indian investigative agencies and regulators a token payment? Also, if it has challenged the decrees in the Sharjah court, why is it making a payment (when it has little compulsion to pay back)?

When asked whether Winsome has requested Indian banks not to pursue the cases (they have filed with central investigative agencies) in the light of the recent repayment, the spokesperson said, “The company has kept the Indian banks appraised of all the developments that have taken place in Sharjah and have provided them with the copy of the reports of the Accounting and Banking experts as well as the 26 decrees passed by the Sharjah Federal Court in favour of Winsome and Forever and not in light of the payment of $150,000 from the defaulting customers in UAE, as mentioned by you.”

MEHTA DENIES ALLEGATIONS

Some of the former company officials, who ET contacted, alleged that even though Jatin Mehta had distanced himself from the companies, they continued to act on the instructions of Mehta. According to them, Mehta refused to accept some of conditions that the bullion banks such as Standard and Scotia had asked for to give the group more time to repay.

“There were separate tele-conferences with these two banks soon after the defaults. At that time the default was only Rs 250 crore. They wanted us to arrange the amount and give assurance that further defaults would be avoided. They pulled the trigger after no such promises were made,” said one person condition of anonymity.

They said that while they have “shared these information” in the course of their interrogation by CBI and ED, they do not recall whether these were parts of their recorded statements. But speaking to ET over telephone from Dubai and replying to subsequent emails, Mehta strongly denied allegations.

“I had settled abroad since April 2011… I was asked to resign in a hastily called consortium meeting July 2012. There was an issue internationally and the banks believed that they could be better without me…Because the company has run into trouble due to the misdeeds and negligence of these executives and foolhardy behaviour of their customers, these executives are now trying to disassociate themselves from the decisions taken by them,” he said.