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‘Sheer contempt’: SC fumes at Centre’s request for telcos over AGR dues, warns of jailing firm MDs

The Centre had on Monday moved the Supreme Court seeking approval of a formula to allow telecom service providers to make annual installments of around Rs 1.47 lakh crore AGR dues in the next 20 years or more.

SNS | New Delhi |

The Supreme Court on Wednesday came down heavily on the Centre for seeking a 20-year window for telecom service providers to pay the Adjusted Gross Revenue (AGR) dues saying the self-assessment done by telcos was a “sheer violation” of the court order – a “sheer contempt”.

Questioning the Centre on who permitted self-assessment of dues, the top court thundered: “If reassessment is permitted, it is fraud on this court. We won’t spare officials who allowed reassessment of telecom dues.”

Calling it a question of “this court’s prestige”, the judges said, “self-assessment of AGR payments is a sheer violation, sheer contempt.”

“Do companies feel they are more powerful on earth,” the Supreme Court questioned. “If anyone feels they’re more powerful or try to influence us they’re wrong,” it added.

The court further warned that “it will send the top executives of all telecom companies to jail”.

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had on Monday moved the Supreme Court seeking approval of a formula to allow telecom service providers, including Vodafone and Airtel, to make annual installments of around Rs 1.47 lakh crore AGR dues in the next 20 years or more.

DoT had said that the interest on the principal and penalty not be charged beyond judgment date, while dues payable to the government be protected by a levy of 8 per cent interest on staggered payments.

The petition said that the Centre is dealing with the telecom service providers and it has found that telcos who are required to make the payments are catering to crores of consumers throughout the country.

The Department also sought the apex court’s nod for a formula arrived at for recovery of dues from telecom companies after detailed deliberation by government and cabinet.

Vodafone Idea on Monday said that it has cleared the principal amount towards AGR dues as it paid Rs 3,354 crore to DoT.

“The company has today paid a further amount of Rs 3,354 crore to the DoT, being the balance part of the principal amount towards AGR liability. Thus the company has paid the full principal amount of Rs 6,854 crore towards the AGR dues,” it said.

According to Vodafone Idea’s own assessment, its AGR dues stand at Rs 21,533 crore and the principal amount out of the total dues is Rs 6,854 crore.

However, according to the DoT’s estimate, the company’s overall dues stand at Rs 53,000 crore.

The other major player Bharti Airtel has already said that it has paid its full adjusted gross revenue (AGR) dues of about Rs 13,000 crore.

After meeting Telecom Secretary Anshu Prakash on March 11, Bharti Airtel Chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal said as the government directed the company has paid the full amount.

He said that the full AGR dues is about Rs 13,000 crore, and Rs 5,000 crore is extra, adding that the company has also submitted its self-assessment document.

The Supreme Court had in February rapped telecom companies for not paying dues to the tune of Rs 1.47 lakh crore to the Government and summoned their top executives to court to explain why its order on clearing dues was not followed.

The top court had also pulled up the Department of Telecommunications for not complying with the court’s October 2019 judgement related to the payment of AGR dues .

The court had expressed anguish over the Central government’s order staying the payment of AGR dues despite the SC order. “Should we wind up the Supreme Court now? Is there any law left in the country?” A three-judge bench of Justice Arun Mishra, Justice S Abdul Nazeer and Justice MR Shah had asked.

“We will draw up contempt against everyone,” Justice Mishra added.

On January 16, Justice Mishra-led bench had already 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. It further asked them to pay Rs 1.47 lakh crore in statutory dues by January 23, saying it did not find any “justifiable reason” to entertain them.