The decision to name the top performing PSUs as Maharatnas was taken at the meeting of the Cabinet, presided over by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
"The main objective of the Maharatna Scheme is to empower mega CPSEs to expand their operations and emerge as global giants", Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni said after the meeting.
Of the 18 Navaratnas, SAIL, ONGC and NTPC met the stiff criteria set by the government, including a three-year track record of annual net profit of over Rs 5,000 crore, net worth of Rs 15,000 crore and turnover of Rs 25,000 crore, besides being listed entities in the bourses.
The coveted status empowered the boards of these firms to take investment decisions up to Rs 5,000 crore as against the present Rs 1,000 crore limit without seeking government approval.
"The PSUs which have the potential to become Indian Multinational Companies (MNCs), can be recognised as a separate class as Maharatnas", Soni said.
The stock market, however, was not excited by the decision. The bluchip scrips of ONGC moved up marginally while SAIL and NTPC declined by 1.63 per cent and 1.52 per cent to Rs 232.25 and Rs 226.40 respectively in a flat market.
After the Cabinet meeting, Heavy Industries and Public Sector Enterprises Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh said: "We are for giving more autonomy to performing PSUs."
The Maharatna firms would now be free to decide on investments up to 15 per cent of their net worth in a project, limited to an absolute ceiling of Rs 5,000 crore.
Earlier, the Navaratna companies could invest up to Rs 1,000 crore without government approvals.
"However, the overall ceiling on such equity investments and mergers and acquisitions in all projects put together will not exceed 30 per cent of net worth of the CPSE," Soni said.
Reacting to the Cabinet decision, Standing Conference of Public Enterprises (SCOPE) Director General U D Choubey said: "Efficiency of the companies should not be just based on the net turnover and corresponding net profit because there may be companies which have less turnover but their profits might be higher."
SAIL Finance Director Soiles Bhattacharya welcomed the decision and said, "It will help us clear big investment decisions quickly, especially when it comes to our investments in any JV format."
At present, the top performing Central PSUs are called Navaratnas. There are 18 such companies, including ONGC, BHEL, GAIL, SAIL, NTPC, IOC and several of them are listed and traded in the stock markets.