SC junks PIL seeking cancellation of Centre’s relief to stressed telecom from paying statutory dues

The Supreme Court has dismissed a PIL seeking cancellation of Centre’s decision of September 15, 2021 to grant relief to the stressed telecom sector from paying statutory dues, saying these are all matters of policy and decision-making is on the basis of experts’ opinion.

In a breather to telecom service providers struggling to pay Rs 93,520 crore of Adjusted Gross Revenue (AGR) related dues, the top court on September 1, 2020 gave them a 10-year period to clear their outstanding amount to the government.

A bench of Justices B V Nagarathna and Ujjal Bhuyan said that no doubt, the apex court by its judgment had issued certain directions with regard to the telecom sector but in the backdrop of the COVID-19 challenges, with huge surge in data consumption, online education, work from home, etc., reform measures were found necessary to boost the proliferation and penetration of broadband and telecom connectivity.

“In our view, these are all matters of policy and decision-making which is on the basis of experts’ opinion and on emerging situations and exigencies, to be made in the interest of the welfare of the people of India having serious technical and financial implications and, therefore, have to be in public interest.

“Hence, we do not think such Cabinet decisions could be lightly interfered with by a Court of law in the absence of there being any particulars or materials brought to the notice of the Court assailing the Cabinet decisions, as being unconstitutional or arbitrary in nature or contrary to law,” the bench said.

Contending that the writ petition filed by petitioner Anshul Gupta was without merit, the top court said any interference at this stage would not only create uncertainty in the implementation of the policy but also jeopardise the policy itself.

“Moreover, the other stakeholders, namely, the telecom service providers are not arraigned as parties to this petition. Therefore, at this stage, we do not think it proper to entertain this petition,” it said.

The apex court said it may appear in a first blush that the Cabinet decision to initiate structural and procedural reforms and provide relief measures for the telecom service providers are contrary to its earlier directions.

“It would have been more appropriate for the central government to have filed an application in this regard.

“But what is to be borne in mind is emerging situations in light of the COVID-19 pandemic that engulfed the world, including India, in the years 2020-2021 and the lifestyle of the people drastically changing on account of the precautions and preventive measures that had to be taken in order to save themselves from being afflicted by the pandemic which resulted not only in deaths but also post COVID-19 disabilities and ill health,” the bench said.

As a result, the people depended heavily on the telecom sector and particularly on the telecom service providers in order to keep in touch with one another as there were lockdowns declared in the country in March 2020, it said.

“In schools and educational institutions, and offices there was virtual study and work from home respectively. Offices were shut and classrooms were being conducted virtually. Even the governments were run on virtual mode and we could emphasise that video conferencing facility and virtual mode was adapted quickly not only by various stakeholders such as government offices, schools, other private organisations but most significantly by law courts which did not cease to function during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“Huge investments were made for establishment and expansion of the infrastructure as there was need for online education, work from home, inter-personal connect, virtual meetings and virtual courts. Since there was a heavy surge of online facilities being put to use and data consumption, the Governments, Courts, education system and corporate sector in the country depended heavily on the telecom sector and TSPs, in particular, for their various activities and for keeping their systems intact,” the bench said.

The apex court said that despite the order passed in 2020, the need was felt by the central government to bring measures and reforms in the telecom sector and in order to make available pertinent reliefs for the sector, the impugned cabinet decision was taken.

“Therefore, taking an overall view of the matter, we feel that it would not be justified on our part to interfere with a well-calibrated decision of the Cabinet solely on the ground that this Court had earlier passed certain orders on September 1, 2020,” it said.

The Union Cabinet in 2021 had approved a big-bang relief package for the stressed telecom sector that includes a four-year break for companies from paying statutory dues, permission to share scarce airwaves, a change in the definition of revenue on which levies are paid and 100 per cent foreign investment through the automatic route.

The measure was aimed at providing relief to companies such as Vodafone Idea that have to pay thousands of crores in unprovisioned past statutory dues.

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