Above: Mallya at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London
Though a UK high court has said that Vijay Mallya’s belongings in Britain could be seized, he has manipulated his business transactions in such a way that Indian banks can’t recover much
By Sajeda Momin in London
There must have been a lot of jubilation in those banks that lent a whopping Rs 9,000 crore to industrialist Vijay Mallya when a UK high court judge said that they could seize his belongings in Britain. If they thought they could recoup all their money, they were wrong as the wily businessman has managed to remain one step ahead of his creditors. Mallya officially owns so little in the UK that it is not even worth bothering about. It would be a drop in the ocean of what he owes back home in India.
The high court order granted enforcement officers permission to enter the former liquor baron’s properties in Hertfordshire, about 30 miles north of London, and recover up to £1.14 billion (Rs 10,499 crore) worth of assets on behalf of the consortium of 13 Indian banks. The officers can use force if needed to enter Mallya’s country mansions, but interestingly, the order does not mention his London townhouse at all, nor does it allow for seizing of the properties.
The order issued by the High Court’s Queen’s Bench Division said: “The High Court Enforcement Officer, including any enforcement agents acting under his authority, may enter Ladywalk, Queen Hoo Lane, Tewin, Welwyn, and Bramble Lodge, Queen Hoo Lane, Tewin, Welwyn, including all outbuildings of Lady-walk and Bramble Lodge to search for and take control of goods belonging to the First Defendant (Mallya)”. The order issued by Justice Byran on June 26 added: “The High Court Enforcement Officer including any Enforcement Agent acting under his authority may use reasonable force to enter the Property if necessary.”
Not fazed by the order at all, the fugitive Indian tycoon glibly points out that none of his lavish family residences are in his name and the authorities are welcome to take whatever little there is that belongs to him. “I have given the UK court on affidavit a statement of my UK assets. Which, pursuant to the freezing order, they are entitled to take and hand over to the banks,” said Mallya at the British Formula 1 Grand Prix at Silverstone (he is co-owner of the Force India team). “There are a few cars, a few items of jewellery and I said ‘OK, fine. You don’t have to bother to come to my house to seize them. I’ll physically hand them over. Tell me the time, date and place’,” he added.
The order relates to the UK’s Tribunal Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 and follows a UK High Court ruling on May 8 which refused to overturn a worldwide order freezing Mallya’s assets and upheld the Indian court ruling that Indian banks were entitled to recover their funds. While the banks may not be able to get back much of Mallya’s debts because of the tycoon’s clever business machinations, the order is important as it marks the first recorded case of a judgment of the Debt Recovery Tribunal in India being registered by the English High Court. It has set a legal precedent that can be used for other defaulters who are hiding out in England.
Mallya, who fled India in March 2016 after defaulting on his loans, had declared his international assets to the Supreme Court of India on April 21, 2016, as totalling Rs 782 crore, and Rs 36 crore of “investments and cash equivalents”. In a December 2017 affidavit, the flamboyant tycoon had stated that he “has no interest in any of the three properties” in the UK where he stays. According to Mallya, his Hertfordshire estate is in the name of his children, while his London home is in his mother’s name. The banks were interested in laying their hands on the defaulter’s properties, particularly the London house which is in a prime locality and if sold could have fetched a tidy sum.
The bank’s submissions to the Court show that his English properties are linked to his family trust by an intricate web of interconnected companies. Mallya’s luxurious London townhouse at 18/19 Cornwall Terrace, overlooking Regent’s Park, worth tens of millions of pounds, is owned by Rose Capital Ventures (RCV), a company based in the British Virgin Islands. This, in turn, is owned by other companies based in tax havens like Saint Kitts and Nevis, but eventually circle back to the Mallya family trust.
Mallya’s country mansion which he claims is in the name of his children and is currently estimated to be worth GBP 15 million has similar ownership links which go back to the family trust. The owner of the now defunct Kingfisher Airlines knows that as long as he keeps all his assets tied up in a trust, they will be difficult to seize. Everyone knows that the beneficiary of the network of companies and the trust is Mallya yet they cannot be touched. “They are entitled to take my assets in my name declared on oath to the court. They can’t go one step beyond that,” said the self-styled king of good times.
The banks claim there are numerous other assets which have been linked to Mallya which he denies owning. “These comprise three yachts, numerous cars and the Mabula Game Reserve in South Africa. The owners are offshore companies or trusts,” argue the banks in their submissions.
The super-yacht Indian Empress in which Mallya threw lavish parties and entertained Indian movers and shakers at Monaco and Abu Dhabi was recently sold at an auction in Malta after a dispute over unpaid crew wages, something reminiscent of Kingfisher Airlines. Mall-ya claimed that he had not owned the super-yacht for the last seven years and that it actually belonged to a “Middle Eastern gentleman” whose identity he would not disclose. He argued that he had entered into a deal which allowed him to simply use the Indian Empress for a month every year.
Mallya questions the targeting of his British assets, arguing that he has already sought to sell assets worth over $2 billion in India to repay his creditors. “I have put $2 billion worth of assets in front of the Karnataka High Court which is more than sufficient to repay the banks and everybody else. So the question of attaching assets either in the UK or wherever should not arise,” said Mallya.
Despite the order, the chance of any meaningful recovery from Mallya seems weak because he has hidden his wealth well, planned his actions carefully and outsmarted the banks. However, what the order does show is that the UK High Court is convinced of the merits of the Indian banks’ case and it is a positive step in strengthening India’s bid for Mallya’s extradition.
Mallya’s extradition proceedings are currently underway in the Westminster Magistrates Court and the next hearing in this case is on July 31 when Senior District Judge Emma Arbuthnot will hear final submissions. The former billionaire has argued all along that he is a victim of a political witch-hunt and cannot go back to India. “And now in an election year, I guess what they want to do is bring me back and hang me on the holy cross and hope to get more votes,” Mallya said at Silverstone.