Supreme Court Dismisses Plea of Telcos Seeking Review on Past Dues Verdict

The Supreme Court Thursday dismissed review petitions of top telecom firms including Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea seeking review of its earlier order asking them to pay Rs. 1,47,000 crores in past statutory dues by January 23 saying it did not find any “justifiable reason” to entertain them. The apex court had on October 24 ruled that the statutory dues need to be calculated by including non-telecom revenues in what is known as adjusted gross revenues (AGR) of telcos.

A bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra, S A Nazeer and M R Shah in-chamber hearing did not find merit in the review plea and dismissed it. The telecom companies had sought an open court hearing on their review petition but the Supreme Court decided to stick to its convention of doing an in-chamber hearing.

“Applications for hearing in open Court/oral hearing are rejected. Having perused the Review Petitions and the connected papers with meticulous care, we do not find any justifiable reason to entertain the review petitions. The Review Petitions are, accordingly, dismissed,” the bench said. The apex court had on October 24 last year upheld the AGR definition formulated by the DoT and termed as “frivolous” the nature of objections raised by telecom service providers.

Bharti Airtel, in its plea, had sought review of the directions on aspects of levy of interest, penalty and interest on penalty relating to AGR. Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had told Parliament in November that Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and other telecom companies owe the government as much as Rs. 1.47,000 crores in past statutory dues. He had added that there is no proposal at present to waive interest and penalties on such dues. In replies to separate questions in the Lok Sabha, Prasad had said telecom companies owe the government Rs. 92,642 crores in unpaid licence fee, and another Rs. 55,054 crores in outstanding spectrum usage charges.

In an affidavit filed earlier in the top court, the DoT said Airtel owed Rs. 21,682.13 crores as licence fee to the government and dues from Vodafone totalled Rs. 19,823.71 crores, while Reliance Communications owed Rs. 16,456.47 crores. BSNL owed Rs. 2,098.72 crores, and MTNL Rs. 2,537.48 crores. Holding that interest and penalty have rightly been levied on the telecom companies, the apex court had made it clear that there would be no further litigation on the issue and it would fix a time-frame for calculation and payment of dues by the telecom companies.

An Airtel spokesperson in a statement after the Supreme Court’s dismissal said, ” While respecting the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s decision, we would like to express our disappointment as we believe the long standing disputes raised regarding the AGR definition were bonafide and genuine. [..] The industry continues to face severe financial stress and the outcome could further erode the viability of the sector as a whole. The industry needs to continue to invest in expanding networks, acquiring spectrum and introducing New Technologies like 5G. The money now required to pay punitive interest, penalty and interest on penalty which forms nearly 75 percent of AGR dues would have better served the digital mission of the country. [..] We are evaluating filing a curative petition.”

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