Furious SC tears into telecos

After Supreme Court rap, telecos ordered to clear dues by 11:59 pm

New Delhi: The government has asked telecom companies to pay their dues by 11.59 pm tonight, Press Trust of India reported on Friday, hours after the Supreme Court’s dressing down on unpaid dues.

Companies like Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea have been issued notices by the Department of Telecom, according to the news agency.

The telecom companies have to pay adjusted gross revenue (AGR) worth Rs 92,000 crore to the government.

This morning, the court ripped into telecom companies as well as the government over the dues remaining unpaid despite its orders. “We don’t know who is creating this nonsense, is there no law left in the country,” the Supreme Court asked, summoning telecom company bosses for contempt.

The managing directors of Bharti Airtel, Vodafone, MTNL, BSNL, Reliance Communications, Tata Telecommunication and others were summoned to the court on March 17.

“It is better not to live in this country and rather leave the country,” the judges thundered, angry about a letter from a desk officer of the Department of Telecom, who “stayed” the court order and said no action should be taken against the companies if they failed to pay up by the deadline.

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“I am anguished. I feel I should not work in this court,” a Supreme Court bench of Justices Arun Mishra, S Abdul Nazeer and MR Shah said on the petition filed by Vodafone Idea, Bharti Airtel and Tata Teleservices. “Our conscience has been shaken by the way things are happening in the country,” they remarked.

The Supreme Court had ordered the telecom companies to pay adjusted gross revenue (AGR) worth Rs 92,000 crore to the government.

“We will initiate contempt against the officer and the companies. Not a penny has been deposited… Is it not the outcome of money power?” the Supreme Court said today, referring to a “desk officer” in the government who had put on hold the top court’s order.

“I am totally at loss how to work in this system and in this country… A desk officer considers himself judge and stays our order.

Who is the desk officer? Where is the desk officer. Call him now here. Is there any law left in the country?” the judges fumed. “No company has deposited anything for many years. They should have deposited some money,” they said.

Telecom companies including Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and Tata Teleservices had approached the Supreme Court in January, seeking modification in the top court’s verdict to get more time to pay up.

The court had rejected the telecom service providers’ plea seeking a review of its earlier order that allowed the government to collect dues worth Rs 92,000 crore from them.

The telecom companies want the top court to allow them to approach the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) so that dues could be cleared beyond the January 23 deadline for payment.

Telecom providers in the country pay the DoT 3-5 per cent of their AGR in spectrum usage charges and 8 per cent as licence fees.

Companies have long argued that the AGR should comprise just revenue accrued from core services, while the government says it should include all revenue.

According to the Telecom Department, Bharti Airtel owes around Rs 23,000 crore, Vodafone Idea Rs 19,823 crore and Reliance Communications Rs 16,456 crore.

The letter that enraged Court

A “desk officer’s” letter asking that no coercive action be taken against telecom companies for not paying dues was the trigger for the Supreme Court’s tongue-lashing for the government and a notice to telecom companies for contempt. The top court summoned the officer besides telecom bosses over non-payment of dues of Rs 92,000 crore as Adjusted Gross Revenue (AGR). The Department of Telecom, given one hour to withdraw the letter, has now done so. “Should we wind up the Supreme Court? A desk officer considers himself judge and stays our order. Who is the desk officer? A desk officer says coercive action not to be taken until further orders. How can he stay our orders,” Justice Arun Mishra had demanded of the government, represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.

Sensex closes 200 pts lower

Equity benchmark indices ended lower after a volatile trading session on Friday following Supreme Court’s rejection of the telecom companies’ plea. The BSE S&P Sensex closed 202 points lower at 41,258 while the Nifty 50 slipped by 61 points to 12,113.