NEW DELHI: All hopes of judicial relief turned to ashes for India’s incumbent telecom majors on Friday in the face of the Supreme Court’s fiery indignation over non-compliance of its orders in the adjusted gross revenue (AGR) case. Heading a three-judge bench, Justice Arun Mishra launched into a furious tirade pulling up both the companies and the Department of Telecom (DoT) for violating its order mandating January 23 as the deadline for payment of Rs1.47 lakh crore in AGR dues.
The SC’s anger saw the DoT hastily reverse a previous order asking officials not to take “coercive action” against non-compliant telcos and directing the telcos to clear their dues by 11.59 pm on Friday. AGR is the basis on which levies like licence fees and spectrum usage charges are calculated and the SC had ruled last year this should include proceeds from licence-holders’ non-telecom businesses, too. Petitioners Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and Tata Teleservices collectively owe over Rs1 lakh crore to the government, according to DoT estimates. Only Reliance Jio complied with the SC direction on time, paying Rs190 crore dues.
“We have dismissed review plea in adjusted gross revenue case, but still not a single penny has been deposited… Is this not about money power?” thundered Mishra. The SC’s anger was directed in large part toward the DoT’s order asking officials not to take any coercive action against non-compliant telcos.
“A desk officer is sitting in appeal over our orders!… If a desk officer has the audacity to stay a Supreme Court order, then let’s wind up the Supreme Court!” said Mishra.
The officer’s “temerity” in passing the order was “nothing but a device to scuttle” the SC’s direction, the bench observed. “Who is sponsoring all this? At whose behest he did this? Should we say this officer was hand in gloves with those who didn’t want to pay?” Mishra asked. The hearing culminated in the SC drawing up contempt of court proceedings against the DoT officer and directing the directors of non-compliant telcos to show cause by the next hearing on March 17 as to why similar action should not be taken against them.