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Vodafone Idea shares slump as billionaire Birla's exit adds to worries

·2 min read
India's Aditya Birla Group Chairman Kumar Birla speaks during Forbes Global CEO Conference in Kuala Lumpur

By Sankalp Phartiyal and Nupur Anand

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -Vodafone Idea's shares fell to their lowest level in over a year, a day after its billionaire non-executive chairman stepped down, fuelling concerns that the Indian wireless carrier may not survive a hefty bill it owes to the government.

The company owes roughly 500 billion rupees ($6.74 billion) over the next 10 years for use of the airwaves and in licence fees. India's Supreme Court has not allowed any recalculation of those dues.

In June, Kumar Mangalam Birla, the former non-executive chairman of Vodafone Idea, whose resignation was accepted by the company's board on Wednesday, offered to sell his Aditya Birla Group's 27% stake in the telecoms carrier to keep it afloat.

Vodafone Idea was carved in 2018 by combining the Indian operations of Vodafone Group and Idea Cellular, which is majority owned by Aditya Birla Group.

In his June 7 letter to the government, Birla suggested measures to save the company, including clarity on dues Vodafone Idea owed, a moratorium on airwaves payments and a floor price for tariffs.

"I want to emphasise that without immediate active support from the government on these three issues VIL's (Vodafone India Ltd) financial situation will drive its operations to an irretrievable point of collapse," Birla wrote.

The government is yet to offer any help to the company. India's telecoms department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Vodafone Idea declined on Birla's departure, and representatives at Aditya Birla Group did not respond to an email from Reuters.

"This is Birla expressing his frustration at the way his pleas for help have been ignored, saying he does not want to helm the demise of a company he created," said a former executive at the company.

Vodafone's shares recovered to close little changed on Thursday after falling as much as 24% earlier.

With roughly 10,000 direct employees and loans from banks of nearly 300 billion rupees, Vodafone Idea's potential exit would send shockwaves through India's economy.

"In case Vodafone goes under, the biggest loser in this will be the government, because a major chunk of the debt is owed to them. So the ball is now in their court," said a senior banker at a private bank which has lent money to Vodafone Idea.

($1 = 74.1900 Indian rupees)

(Reporting by Sankalp Phartiyal in New Delhi and Nupur Anand in Mumbai; Additional reporting by Anuron Kumar Mitra and Chris Thomas in Bengaluru; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila and Mike Harrison)

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