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Tuesday, January 09, 2024

The difficulties of asset monetisation in the transmission sector

by Akshay Jaitly, Charmi Mehta, Rishika R, and Ajay Shah.


About 95% of nationwide transmission assets in India are presently owned by the government company, Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (PGCIL). A transformation of electricity transmission systems is required to achieve decarbonisation, reflecting the distributed geography of renewables generation in India, and the eventual de-commissioning of present coal-based power generation. Several estimates suggest a total required investment, for electricity transmission, of over INR 2 trillion over the next five years.

Given the public finance and managerial constraints in the Indian state, private investment is critical to achieve the required investments. Land, compliances and clearances impede pure private greenfield transmission projects, so one method there is for the government to do development and then monetise the assets. Existing assets are relatively straightforward to operate and risk-free, with a steady stream of user charges, where private sector participation is then readily achieved.

While attempts at attracting private investment in this field have taken place from 2006, the outcomes so far have been poor. One response to this was in October 2022, where the Ministry of Power issued guiding principles for states to monetise 14% of transmission assets that are currently owned and operated by state-owned transmission utilities. This involved a new contracting mechanism: the "Acquire, Operate, Maintain and Transfer (AOMT) model".

This is the temporary transfer of asset ownership (i.e. not a sale) to private firms in exchange of an upfront payment. Firms are expected obtain cash from the operations (user charges) of the asset, depending on the model deployed for monetisation. Asset monetisation has twin benefits for governments - first, it provides short-term liquidity to the public sector entity in the form of upfront payment for the asset(s); and second, it allows the government to delegate the operations and maintenance (O&M) to the private sector, enabling public sector entities to harness private sector capabilities and reduce their scope.

How previous asset monetisation models worked

Asset monetisation has been used as a contracting model for O&M since 2018 when the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) began using the toll-operate-transfer (TOT) model, which draws on ideas from Australia, North America and Europe. Besides this, InvITs have been used in the transmission sector. There is significant knowledge and experience around InvITs and TOT contracts in India: they constitute the baseline against which the new AOMT can be understood. Table 1 provides a comparison of the three models on key features.

Table 1: A comparison of key features across contracting models - InvITs, TOT and AOMT.

InvITs Toll Operate Transfer AOMT
Description Transfer of assets to listed registered trusts regulated by Securities Exchange Board of India which issues units to multiple investors. Comparable to equity for a limited time period. Temporary transfer of asset ownership for an upfront payment from the private party who is granted this concession. The private party is also granted rights to collect user charges, and other charges to finance the O&M of the asset. Temporary transfer of ownership of assets for upfront payment from the private party, in turn allowing them to operate and maintain the asset, and generate revenue from it.
Regulation of investment vehicle Trust to be registered by SEBI; existing licences applicable SPV/ investor entity regulated by contract terms Transmission licence transfer/re-registration to be approved by State electricity regulator
Regulation of user charges Approved by electricity regulator and governed by Transmission Service Agreement As per National Highway Toll Determination Rules Approved by electricity regulator and governed by Transmission Service Agreement
Mode of returns Returns from dividends, interest and capital gains on units Toll charges Transmission charges (varied across states)
O&M Public Private Private
Ownership Pooled; investors Single or consortium Single or consortium

The Toll-Operate-Transfer model in Indian Highways

In 2018, the NHAI bundled approximately 500 km of highways for the first auction, and potential investors were to bid the upfront payment they would make for the bundle. In return, investors receive the right to operate the highway and collect tolls generated from it during the concession period. This model provides the awarded party autonomy on operations and revenue generation, eliminating the involvement of the public authority in O&M.

The NHAI has so far attempted to monetise ten bundles (rounds) of assets with varied rates of success. The lack of bids, undervalued bids, and low price recovery led to auctions being stalled, bids annulled and fresh auctions being called, several times. Most recently, the 9th and 10th TOT bundles up for auction were halted as they did not meet the reserve price set by NHAI. Despite using a familiar model, the implementation has not yielded positive outcomes. Large value disputes in highway contracting, low standards of public disclosure and the inability to make accurate revenue growth projections are some of the reasons for its substandard outcomes.

The InvIT model in the transmission sector

In 2020, the PGCIL became the first publicly owned company to set up its own investment trust (InvIT). The PGCIL InvIT holds transmission assets worth INR 7500 crores and it opened for subscription in early 2021. Within two days of the offer, 59% of the units were subscribed. When the session was closed, PGCIL benefited from a 3% premium over the issue price and the initial public offer was subscribed 4.83 times. During this period, investor perception was also positive with analysts predicting that the InvIT would yield steady long-term returns. PGCIL eventually auctioned 27.41 crore units, earning INR 2,736.02 crore in May 2021. However, concerns with the lack of transparent price discovery and taxation norms on long-term capital investments have prompted PGCIL to rethink its InvIT plans. Additionally, the retention of O&M as a function of the public sector entity may create a hesitation to investment by private entities.

Neither of the two distinct asset monetisation models that India has experimented with achieved the outcomes it set out to achieve. On one hand, InvIT provides a diversification of risk but O&M remains with the government. On the other hand, TOT provides autonomy over O&M but ownership is not diversified. This serves as a case study for the design of new models for asset monetisation, and whether it can address the concerns of previous models used.

There is no reason why an InvIT structure cannot be augmented to also include the contracting out of O&M functions to a private entity. This will bring in private sector efficiency and allay the fears of investors. There are two ways in which the InvIT could be presently undertaking O&M: (i) it is possible that PGCIL is charging the InvIT a fee and doing the O&M, or (ii) O&M staff may have been transferred with the assets and the InvIT is doing its own O&M. Either way the function is retained with the government, making it a potential point of concern for investors. To eliminate this friction, a third model is preferable, where O&M functions of an InvIT are contracted out. This could have been a plausible design option since InvITs have been around for a while, instead of opting for a fully different model.

Concerns about the AOMT

The importance of private investment in transmission is well taken. The question lies in the pathway to a solution. We recognise the immense complexities of getting up to a well-functioning institutional mechanism. We also recognise that different sectors may warrant different approaches to doing the same things. There are two main concerns with the AOMT model:

  1. The contract design is not suited to state government assets due to problems of state-level electricity governance; the overall lack of control on streams and decisions of revenue (user charges) is a factor that models should solve for; and
  2. The unfamiliarity with the model among state governments (and asset monetisation generally). There are two existing mechanisms for doing this, with precedents and understanding within infrastructure, finance and government establishments: InvIT and TOT. These represent natural pathways to take for electricity transmission assets.

It has been over one year since the introduction of the model and it has seen no uptake from states so far. States have expressed concerns with the design and feasibility of the model. When the Ministry of Power proposed AOMT, there was a need for a first principles argument and public consultation, about why a third strategy was proposed. They needed to show the difficulties that would arise through the three existing pathways, and how the modifications chosen under the AOMT model addressed these difficulties.


Ministry of Power, Guiding principles for Asset Monetisation in the Transmission sector for state governments, October 2022.

Utpal Bhaskar, Power firms finalize models for asset monetisation plan, Livemint, 2022.

KPMG, Global Infrastructure Asset Recycling and Infrastructure Capital, June 2020.

Charmi Mehta and Bhargavi Zaveri, Monetisation lessons from NHAI, The Business Standard, March 2021.

Surya Sarathi Ray, NHAI cancels two projects on low bids, Financial Express, March 2022.

P Manoj, NHAI annuls highest bid of Sekura Roads for ToT Bundle 10 as it was below reserve price, The Economic Times, Sept 2022.

Charmi Mehta and Susan Thomas, Identifying roadblocks in highway contracting: lessons from NHAI litigation, The LEAP Blog, July 2022.

Shreya Jai, PowerGrid's asset monetisation via InvITs gets Cabinet go-ahead, Business Standard, Sept 2020.

Sundar Sethuraman, PowerGrid Infrastructure Investment Trust ends debut trade at 3% premium, Business Standard, May 2021.

Sunil Shankar Matkar, PowerGrid InvIT IPO opens: Should you subscribe?, MoneyControl, April 2021.

Utpal Bhaskar, PGCIL drops second InvIT tranche plan, LiveMint, Jan 2023.

Akshay Jaitly is co-founder of Trustbridge Rule of Law Foundation and Trilegal, Charmi Mehta is a researcher with XKDR Forum, Rishika R is a researcher with Trustbridge Rule of Law Foundation, and Ajay Shah is co-founder of XKDR Forum.

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