AGR Case: Supreme Court Reserves Order On Granting Telecom Operators Time To Pay

Supreme Court says it won’t allow the government or operators to recalculate AGR dues.

Customers gather outside a multi-brand mobile phone store displaying signage for Airtel and Vodafone in the old Delhi area of New Delhi. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)
Customers gather outside a multi-brand mobile phone store displaying signage for Airtel and Vodafone in the old Delhi area of New Delhi. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

The Supreme Court reserved its judgment on petitions by telecom operators seeking more time for paying thousands of crores worth of statutory dues stemming from the top court's October 2019 verdict that upheld the government's calculations.

Lawyers representing the carriers and the Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta sought more time during the hearing that saw the court pull up the Department of Telecommunications for trying to recalculate the pending payments.

The Supreme Court in October ruled that non-core revenue must be included while calculating statutory levies, ending a 14-year-old legal battle between mobile operators and the government on the definition of adjusted gross revenue. That increased the liabilities of Bharti Airtel Ltd. and Vodafone Idea Ltd. to more than Rs 90,000 crore.

Recalculation Will Amount To Contempt, Says Court

According to the bench, the government's correspondence showed that it was considering recalculating the dues. Any attempt to do that will amount to a blatant contempt of its order and will be strictly dealt with, the court said.

"Such big hands, that are going against our orders. We will cut them short," Live Law quoted Justice Arun Mishra as saying. "

"First you said self-assessment and now call it recalculation. You are the solicitor general and you cannot do this," he said, according to a Bar and Bench reported. "You cannot commit contempt on this court? What is this nonsense?"

The top court earlier said the operators won't be allowed to self-assess the dues.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Telecom Ministry, said there is no attempt to recalculate dues, and operators, too, denied it.

Bharti Airtel and Tata Teleservices Ltd., however, questioned the amount, saying the DoT was incorrect to include spectrum usage charges within the AGR. The court rejected the argument, saying it won't change the amount due.

According to the latest numbers provided by the government, Bharti Airtel has paid around Rs 18,000 crore and still owes Rs 25,000 crore. Vodafone Idea has to pay around Rs 50,000 crore more.

Vodafone Idea Seeks 15 Years

The telecom companies have been seeking more time to pay and even the DoT, according to an affidavit filed, is willing to accept staggered payments over 20 years.

At Monday's hearing, the top court said it's not in favour of allowing 20 years.

Tala Teleservices told the court that a period of 7-10 years will be reasonable for clearing the dues, while Bharti Airtel sought 15 years.

After the court rejected the request for 20 years, Senior Advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Vodafone Idea, said that "with folded hands" he was seeking "a 15 year window for making the payments".

Mehta, however, said the proposal for staggered payments over 20 years was considered by the cabinet and he will continue with the request. The government’s decision, he said, was taken keeping in mind its impact on the economy.

The top court asked the solicitor general on how the government will secure the dues if any of the companies decide to go under liquidation during this period. Mehta said the government can cancel the spectrum and auction it.

The court also expressed its intention to look into the insolvency proceedings initiated against telecom operators who were party to its October verdict and asked for details. It will examine the bona fides of the decision to go for insolvency proceedings to ensure that it wasn't done to escape AGR dues, the court said.

The Supreme Court will next hear the matter on Aug. 10.