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SC issues contempt notices against telcos for failure to pay Rs 1.47 lakh cr

The Supreme Court on Friday issued contempt notices to telecom companies—including Airtel and Vodafone Idea—for their failure to pay Rs. 1.47 lakh crore statutory dues ordered to be paid to the Department of Telecom by January 23.

“I am literally shocked… This is pure contempt, 100% contempt,” said a Bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra as it asked the telcos and the DoT officials to explain why contempt proceedings should not be initiated against them.

It directed the DoT officer concerned to withdraw the order that effectively stayed the court’s verdict.

Posting the matter for further hearing on March 17, the Bench asked the telecom companies to clear their dues, failing which their CMDs/MDs have to be personally present before it.

“Pay up by the next date of hearing. This is the last opportunity all companies have. We must do this.. Corruption of all kinds must stop,” it said.

“A desk officer staying SC order!,” Justice Mishra wondered about the notification staying payment of AGR dues by the DoT.

“I have never bothered about myself. You don’t know me even an inch. Better not to live in this country. Better to leave this country. There is no respect for the judicial system,” commented Justice Mishra.

The Bench didn’t agree with Solicitor General Tushar Mehta who wanted it to defer the matter for another day.

In a setback to beleaguered telecom companies, the Supreme Court had on January 16 dismissed the review petitions filed by Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and others seeking review of its order asking them to pay Rs 1.47 lakh crore in past statutory dues by January 23 on account of adjusted gross revenues (AGR).

 A three-judge Bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra – which on October 24, 2019 ruled that the statutory dues needed to be calculated by including non-telecom revenues in what is known as AGR of telcos – had said there was no “justifiable reason” to entertain their pleas.

The Bench had in October 24, 2019 upheld the AGR definition formulated by the DoT and termed as “frivolous” the nature of objections raised by telecom service providers.

Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had told Parliament in November last year that Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and other telecom companies owe the government as much as Rs 1.47 lakh crore in statutory dues and that there was 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 crore in unpaid licence fee, and another Rs 55,054 crore in outstanding spectrum usage charges.

 In an affidavit filed in the top court, the DoT had said Airtel owed Rs 21,682.13 crore as licence fee to the government and dues from Vodafone totalled Rs 19,823.71 crore, while Reliance Communications owed Rs 16,456.47 crore. BSNL owed Rs 2,098.72 crore, and MTNL Rs 2,537.48 crore.

Holding that interest and penalty have rightly been levied on the telecom companies, the top 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.

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