By Sunil Garodia
First publised on 2020-02-15 11:08:02
A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court was livid at the way a Department of Telecommunications (DoT) desk officer Mandar Deshpande issued an order, allegedly with approval of PK Sinha, Member (Finance) of DoT, that had the effect of putting a stay on the apex court's earlier order setting a January 25 deadline for telecommunications firms like Airtel and Vodafone-Idea to pay their long-pending licence fee and spectrum usage charges.
On January 23, just two days before the deadline set by the Supreme Court, Deshpande issued an order to the accountant-general asking him neither to insist on payment from telcos nor to take any coercive action if they failed to pay up. Even a layman will make out that how the DoT order superseded the Supreme Court order and how the telcos were provided relief after the government had fought a bitter legal battle lasting several years to recover the dues. The Supreme Court was rightly outraged that this could happen. Justice Arun Mishra, not normally given to show anger, exploded and asked "how can a desk officer do this to the Supreme Court's order? Is there no law left in the country". Justice Mishra also said that he was deeply anguished by the turn of events and wondered how he should work in "in this system and this country".
After the court asked solicitor-general Tushar Mehta if the government had taken any action against Deshpande and threatened to initiate contempt proceedings against all the involved persons, the government moved fast to pacify the court. First, DoT directed all its field offices in the country to issue notices demanding the dues forthwith. Hence, the UP (West) telecom circle issued a notice asking for payment within "11.49 pm" on Friday. This meant that the firms had to pay within 8 to 10 hours of receiving the notice. Then, a show-cause notice was issued to those involved in taking the decision to issue the restraining order to explain why such a lenient view was taken by them despite the Supreme Court's order directing the telcos to pay by January 25.
But the way the government tried to insulate itself from the DoT order was disgusting on the one hand and scary on the other. It was scary because if one believes the government's stand that telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and DoT secretary Anshu Prasad were unaware of the said order then one must seriously wonder how this country is being run. How can a desk officer (even with the 'connivance' of Member (Finance) DoT) issue an order impacting the collection of over Rs 1.4L crore without keeping the minister and the secretary in the loop? Further, did not the minister and the secretary keep themselves abreast of the situation and question the officials about the status of the payment once the Supreme Court mandated deadline passed? The attempt to shield the minister and the secretary was disgusting for this very reason.
The government must make a proper inquiry and punish all those involved in lowering the dignity of the apex court as well as delaying the recovery of such huge dues. Then, it should take a decision to provide as much relief as it can to the telcos, by waiving off penalties and interests, if any and perhaps allow them to pay the balance in installments. The sooner this murky affair is closed, the better it will be for all concerned.