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In the matter related to payment of Adjusted Gross Revenue (AGR) dues, the Supreme Court today expressed its disappointment with the DoT and telecom companies in no uncertain terms.
The Bench of Justices Arun Mishra, Abdul Nazeer and MR Shah said that the attempts made by the telcos seeking re-assessment of its previous order amounted to a fraud on the Court.
At the start of today's hearing, the Bench observed that re-assessment of dues may amount to contempt of court. Justice Mishra said,
Justice Arun Mishra says this is a question of this Court's prestige. "Do companies feel they are more powerful ?"
If anyone feels they're more powerful or try to influence us they're wrong.
Justice Mishra came down heavily on the Centre for suggesting a different formula for repayment of AGR dues.
Justice Mishra went on to allude the telcos were trying to influence the Court through the media.
The judge noted that the Centre itself "fought tooth and nail" against the telcos and sought the imposition of penalties on them during the previous hearings before the Court.
The Bench was adamant that there can be no modification of its earlier order.
When Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, suggested freezing of interest calculations on AGR dues for the time being, the Court said,
"This is more than a serious kind of fraud being played on this Court."
The Court then asked the Centre to submit an undertaking that no reassessment will be done, to which Mehta agreed.
At this point, Senior Advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Vodafone, interjected to say that there was some error while assessing the AGR dues. Justice Mishra replied,
"This is not the question of error, process contempt has been committed. Error can't be of thousands of crores."
The Bench went on to state,
Ultimately, the Court stated that it would not entertain any further objection from the telcos. The AGR dues are to be paid with interest and penalty, as previously ordered, the Bench stated.
The Court will hear the Centre's plea for fixing of reasonable time for making payment on the next date of hearing.
The Department of Telecommunications had moved the Supreme Court seeking a modification of the Court's order on the aspect of the timeframe within which the telecom companies were required to pay the dues.
The DoT, in its modification application, floated a formula it had arrived at after "careful and due consideration". This formula stipulates a 20-year period within which the AGR dues can be paid by the telecom companies and other licencees affected by the judgment.
The DoT says that this formula has been arrived at keeping in view "vital issues relating to financial health and viability of the telecom sector and need for maintaining competition and level playing field in the interest of consumers."
In its application, the DoT has highlighted that the telecom companies have begun to make part payments. These service providers cater to crores of consumers in the country and an immediate adverse impact on the functioning of these telcos will not only affect these consumers, but will also have a massive effect on the overall economy of the country, it is stated.
The case was mentioned for urgent listing on March 16, given that the scheduled hearing in the case was fixed for March 17. However, due to the unforeseen Coronavirus outbreak, the Supreme Court decided to restrict its functioning for urgent cases only.
Justice Arun Mishra had remarked that the matter needed to be heard by the same Bench that had passed the order.
In its October 2019 judgment passed by the Bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra, the Supreme Court had granted the telecom companies a period of 90 days to pay the dues in view of the new meaning attributed to Adjusted Gross Revenue.
This period of ninety days was scheduled to lapse on January 24. After the companies approached the Supreme Court seeking a modification of its order, the deadline was extended till March 17 by the Court in its order passed on February 14.