India Court Strikes Arbitration Award, Raising Questions about the Use of BITs

By Shourya Arora

In August, the Delhi High Court granted relief to the Indian government by setting aside a $562.2 million International Chamber of Commerce arbitral award made in favor of Devas Multimedia due to Devas’s sudden termination of its contract with Antrix Corp., a commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organization, India’s state-owned national space agency. Devas Multimedia Private Ltd. v. Antrix Corp. Ltd., ICC Case No. 18051/CYK. The main grounds for this annulment were that it was illegal and went against India’s public policy.

The Devas-Antrix saga began with the alleged wrongful termination of a 2005 agreement between two Indian companies, Devas Multimedia Private Ltd. and the Indian State-owned entity, Antrix, for the lease of an electromagnetic spectrum frequency, or S-band, on two satellites. Devas planned to provide mobile multimedia and broadband data services to the Indian market using the S-band spectrum.

Antrix terminated the contract in 2011, citing, among other things, that it was unable to obtain the necessary frequency and orbital slot coordination (the “Article 7(c) ground”) and that the CCS decision was a force majeure event rendering the performance of the Contract impossible (the “Article 11 ground”).

Devas commenced an ICC arbitration seated in New Delhi under the contract terms, claiming damages for wrongful termination. On Sept. 14, 2015, the ICC tribunal issued the award, ordering Antrix to pay USD 562.5 million in damages plus interest. But in late summer, on Aug. 29, the court annulled the arbitral award because it was patently illegal and in contravention of Indian public policy. See Bhadra Sinha, “Antrix-Devas case: What was the dispute & why SC upheld NCLAT order to wind up Devas for fraud,” The Print (Jan. 19, 2022) (available at https://bit.ly/3Vwuzyh).

BIT Disputes

This factual framework sparked two reported bilateral investment treaty arbitrations by Devas’ shareholders against India for expropriation of investments and treaty norms. The shareholders received favorable damages awards in these investment treaty arbitrations.

First, note that in January 2022, the India Supreme Court upheld Devas’ compulsory winding up on the grounds of fraud–referred to as the “Liquidation Judgment”–in the context of enforcement proceedings pending in multiple jurisdictions concerning the award discussed above and the investment treaty arbitration awards.

According to clause 34(2)(b)(ii) of the Indian Arbitration and Conciliation Act 1996, a court may annul an arbitral award if it is “in conflict with the public policy of India.” Explanation 1 to  section 34 of the act’s arbitral award would be in opposition to India’s public policy only if:

  1. the making of the award was induced or affected by fraud or corruption; 
  2. it contravenes the fundamental policy of Indian law; or 
  3. it conflicts with the most basic notions of morality or justice. 

Furthermore, under section 34 (2a)of the Act, a domestic arbitration award may be revoked if it is discovered to be “vitiated by patent illegality appearing on the face” of the award. Pankaj Bajpai, “Arbitral award vitiated by patent illegality appearing on face of same, calls for interference: SC,” LegitEye (Aug. 6) (available at https://bit.ly/3yRuYl9). An arbitral award cannot be set aside on patent illegality merely because of an erroneous application of the law or by reappreciation of evidence.

The Court held that the tribunal, in the Antrix-Devas case, had committed patent illegality as it (i) incorrectly excluded the pre-contractual negotiations between the parties, (ii) rendered contradictory findings on the applicability of the force majeure clause, and (iii) the finding of fraud in the winding-up proceedings established that the ICC Award “conflict[s] with the ‘most basic notions of justice,’“ and “thus antithetical to the fundamental policy of Indian law.“ (See the first link above to the opinion.) For all these reasons, the Court allowed the s34 application and set aside the ICC Award.

More recently, in February 2022, Devas brought another BIT claim against India under the India-Mauritius BIT in which Devas shareholders claim that the retaliatory investigations, seizure of funds, and raids by Indian authorities on Devas are part of an audacious scheme to avoid paying the awards. It is still unclear, however, how the August setting-aside ruling will affect the proceedings of this case, and what the ultimate outcome may be.

What’s Ahead?

The Court’s decision to set aside the award is the most recent development in the Devas-Antrix saga’s 10-year history. It is probable that the claimants in the continuing India-Mauritius BIT case, which involves allegations of governmental retaliation, will rely on this judgment. The setting-aside judgment was described as “a mockery of the international arbitration system and a warning to investors that the Indian judiciary is being weaponized against those who assert their legal rights” by the claimants’ attorney.

With reasonable success, claimants Devas and its shareholders have sought to have their arbitral awards enforced in other jurisdictions. It remains to be seen whether enforcement courts defer to this setting-aside decision, even though enforcement courts typically are reluctant to enforce arbitral awards that have been annulled in the seat courts.

The dilemma for India: India is not a signatory to the ICSID Convention. This is for historical reasons, as it has always been of the view that the supremacy of its courts cannot be compromised by providing finality and immunity from the challenge for an ICSID arbitral tribunal decision.

India seems to have gotten caught on the wrong foot. At one level, it has exposed itself to criticism of not being an investment-friendly destination–an image it cannot afford, given the country’s enormous task to pull its millions out of poverty. On the other hand, there are legal issues that it must now face with billions at stake.

Lessons for India: There is now, somewhat all of a sudden, a new dimension to bilateral investment treaties (and indeed, the picture is unfolding the world over).

To begin with, India needs to examine if its current BITs need to be modified or refined in light of the recent global experience. What are the legitimate rights a foreign investor must be assured of, and where does a country need to draw the line?

Second, India must realize its inherent disadvantage in BIT investment arbitrations. It is generally recognized that investment arbitrations are skewed in favor of foreign investors. This disadvantage is further fueled by the limited pool of investment arbitrators and lawyers and the negligible participation of Indians in it. As a result, India is driven to appoint non-Indians as arbitrators or lawyers in most of its BIT disputes.

It should be a legitimate expectation of a nation as vast and commercially significant as India to participate in the decision-making process where it is involved. India thus needs to take vigorous steps to train and upgrade the skills of its law officers, and focus on giving arbitrations and arbitral institutes a boost so that locally grown talent is nurtured and emerges.

Third, India must consider whether it should accede to the ICSID Convention. More than 140 countries have ratified the Convention as of now (more have signed and are in the ratification process). Can India afford to sit outside this community of nations?

Lessons for the investors: Fighting a legal battle against a host country isn’t an ideal situation for any long-term investor. An investor’s focus must be on molding its business plans to fit in with realities on the ground, taking the thick with the thin, just as any domestic investor would. A foreign investor’s interest would be equally well served (and foreign investment not suffer) if the treaty in question is confined to protecting against seriously inequitable or unfair treatment. If a BIT is too expansive, its interpretation or application is not in the best interest of investors or the future of BITs.

The following are some recommendations for future BITs–especially for Indian BITs:

  • If inserted, the “FET Standard” should be defined as exhaustively as possible. “‘Fair and equitable treatment’ includes the obligation not to deny justice in criminal, civil, or administrative adjudicatory proceedings in accordance with the principle of due process embodied in the principal legal systems of the world.” 2004 U.S. Model BIT (available at https://bit.ly/3ghp9ao). In addition, exceptions to the application of the standard should be indicated.
  • There should be a saving clause for the use of regulatory powers, preferably as an exception to the FET clause. States must be free to regulate sovereign affairs without fearing an expensive investment arbitration claim. The regulation, however, should not be arbitrary or discriminatory.
  • The defense of “necessity” should be given a definite shape and boundaries of application. Tribunals should assess impugned actions of the state within such ambit. (States have made pleas of necessity under various investment treaties, notably the Argentina-US BIT (Article XI), which provides that the state may take measures “necessary” for “public order,” “the fulfillment of its obligations with respect to the maintenance or restoration of international peace or security,” and its “essential security interests.” Argentina–United States of America BIT (1991) (available at https://bit.ly/3CMVGNc).)  
  • The respondent-state must be empowered to raise counterclaims based on the claimant’s obligations. Furthermore, the respondent-state must have equitable remedies, such as challenging the claimant’s bona fides. For this purpose, the BIT may provide a stage for determining a prima facie breach.
  • The loser should pay all costs of arbitration proceedings. For instance, Norway’s Model BIT requires the “costs of arbitration shall in principle be borne by the unsuccessful Party.” See the model at https://bit.ly/3g28zeq, noting that the tribunal may apportion such costs “if it determines that apportionment is reasonable, taking into account the circumstances of the case.”

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The author, an LLM student at the Caruso School of Law at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., is a Fall 2022 CPR Intern.

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