AGR case: SC orders telcos to file balance sheets of past 10 years

Financially stressed Vodafone Idea’s counsel said if it was forced to give a bank guarantee, the company would go down, hitting hundreds of jobs.
The Supreme Court has opened a new front, asking Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea to submit their financial statements for the past 10 years in the long-winded adjusted gross revenue (AGR) case as the two telcos listed reasons for not furnishing bank guarantees and sought a 20-year term to pay their dues. The top court will next hear the case in the third week of July.

In its affidavit, Bharti Airtel on Thursday told the court it had paid a substantial part of its AGR dues, seeking 20 years to pay the rest. Explaining why furnishing a fresh bank guarantee was not necessary, the Sunil Mittal-led telco told the court Airtel was no fly-by-night operator. Financially stressed Vodafone Idea’s counsel said if it was forced to give a bank guarantee, the company would go down, hitting hundreds of jobs. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has sought time from the court to assess the affidavits of the telcos.

Responding to the court’s recent observation that there was no merit in the government asking public sector units to pay Rs 4-trillion AGR dues, The DoT has withdrawn the bulk of its demand. The DoT told the SC on Thursday that it had decided to withdraw 96 per cent of the Rs 4-trillion demand against non-telecom PSUs such as GAIL and Power Grid Corp. In effect, AGR dues worth Rs 3.7 billion have been taken off.  

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the DoT, informed a three-judge bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra that the demand against non-telecom PSUs had been withdrawn. 

Also, as sought by the court, DoT submitted an affidavit explaining the reason for asking PSUs to pay AGR dues. 

Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Vodafone Idea, said the company had already paid Rs 7,000 crore to the DoT, but keeping in mind the “precarious” financial condition, it was not in a position to furnish any bank guarantee. Pointing out that no bank will give it a loan, the company said it would have to fold up if asked to pay the dues upfront. Payment in installment is the only way to remain a going concern, the company stated. 

Vodafone Idea, which has AGR liabilities worth more than Rs 53,000 crore, had earlier pleaded for more time to pay the full dues. The company had on March 6 pegged its total dues to the government at Rs 21,533 crore, while the Telecom Department estimated it at over Rs 53,000 crore. The company said it had paid in two instalments of Rs 3,354 crore and Rs 3,500 crore towards AGR dues. Bharti Airtel, in its submission, said it should be allowed to make the remaining AGR payments in 20 years as the company was a well-established player in the telecom space and not a fly-by-night operator.

In the affidavit, Bharti Airtel and Bharti Hexacon have said that they have already paid a sum of Rs 18,004 crore to the DoT, which is 62 per cent of the total amount received by the department from all operators, in compliance with the judgement.

The two telcos said that no additional security should be charged from them during the proposed 20-year payment period. In a letter to the DoT on March 6, the Bharti companies had explained how these payments discharged the liabilities of the two firms. DoT has Rs 10,800 crore of bank guarantees available with it from the companies.

“The Bharti companies are not fly-by-night operators and have operations in 16 countries having 423 million subscribers,” the affidavit said.

On June 11, the Supreme Court (SC) had directed Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea to file a reply on the roadmap of payment, time to be allowed, and securities.

On the 20-year payment term sought by the telcos, the SC had said recently, “Can’t allow extension based on a gentleman’s promise. How can 20 years be said to be reasonable?”

The SC had on October 24, 2019, upheld DoT’s definition of AGR, ending the 14-year-old legal battle between telecom operators and the government.

According to official estimates, 16 telecom entities owe the government Rs 1.47 trillion in AGR liabilities — Rs 92,642 crore in licence fee and another Rs 55,054 crore in outstanding spectrum usage charges. 

Many of the 16 entities which were sent notices for payment of AGR dues have either shut their business, sold off to others or gone into bankruptcy.

On a self-assessment pattern, Bharti Airtel paid Rs 13,004 crore to the government in two installments. It had also deposited an additional Rs 5,000 crore as an ad-hoc payment to cover any reconciliation differences. However, DoT estimates show the company has to pay Rs 35,500 crore.

Tata Teleservices paid Rs 2,197 crore in AGR dues, followed by an additional Rs 2,000 crore to cover reconciliation differences, against the DoT estimate of the company’s liabilities at Rs 14,000 crore. On June 11, SC had slammed the DoT for including non-telecom PSUs in the AGR case when its verdict of October 24, 2019, was silent on state-owned units.

The DoT had asked PSUs to pay licence fee and spectrum usage charge dues, not only on telecom-related revenues but on total revenues.

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