This preliminary analysis highlights questions that arise from select issues covered in the judgment of over a thousand pages: Can government policy itself be prosecuted as alleged wrongdoing, as the charge sheet apparently tried to do? The judgment states that the FIR alleged in item 1 that the licence fee in 2008 was Rs 16.58 billion as in 2001, and licences were issued on a first come, first served (FCFS) basis without competitive bidding.
a. These are factual statements in accord with prevailing policies, and licences could be applied for at the fee set in 2001. The charges question the appropriateness of the policies as there was no competitive bidding or auction.2 Arguments for changing the policy to adopt auctions, or to increase fees, appear unconnected with proving wrongdoing.
b. Regarding the FCFS policy, the charges are twofold. One is whether or not there was in fact an established FCFS policy. Another is alleged malfeasance in policy implementation.
Was there an FCFS policy?
The judgment finds that the FCFS policy has been misrepresented in the claim that only one application was processed at a time.3 This is analysed and contradicted in detail. The judgment gives several contrary examples provided by the defence, such as later applicants being processed earlier when there was a problem with compliance by the earlier applicant, of successive applicants given letters of intent (LOIs) on the same day, and applicants with LOIs seeking repeated extensions before letting them lapse. The judgment states that no evidence was presented of a systematic FCFS process for the issue of LOIs and spectrum allocation/assignment in the case of 51 prior licences issued. The finding is that because there was a single applicant at a time earlier, a sequential process was followed, but that this was not a conscious policy. Also, that the evidence from the Wireless Planning and Coordination Wing (WPC) is that priority for spectrum allocation was from the date of application for spectrum, and not from the application for the unified access services (UAS) licence (LOI). The judgment concludes that there was no evidence to prove that there was an FCFS policy in the form as alleged in the charge sheet. The sense one has from the instances cited is that there was a loose policy with no standard operating procedure.
Illustration by binay sinha
Possible malfeasance & evidence
Another allegation in the charge sheet is that the FCFS policy, such as it was, was implemented in a manner that resulted in wrongful gains. From press reports at the time, one expects that this statement of possible malfeasance is the sort for which evidence might be available and presented. So, was such evidence presented?
The FCFS process changed from the date of application for a licence in the order in which it was received to actual compliance with terms of LOI. This meant submitting all requisite information, documentation and clearances together with bank drafts and guarantees. Earlier, the FCFS criterion was the completed application (as in the instance of a later complete application being processed before an earlier incomplete application). The judgment records that consideration of the proposed change to LOI compliance was publicly known well beforehand and was even published in the press.
The counter is that because of a large number of applicants, the criterion was established for serious applicants who complied with the conditions of LOIs, including all clearances and payments. All applicants were apparently well informed of impending developments at the Department of Telecommunications (DoT). The judgment notes: “Everything was leaking in DoT. There was no secrecy or sanctity… In such a situation, no blame can be cast on any of the accused alone.” However, one is left with a sense that this area has not been conclusively explored.
Some questions remain
A broad question: Is there a way to deliver justice while avoiding the infructuous path of dealing with the several hundred thousand pages of documents over seven years and the opportunity cost so far for all involved in just this case? If so, how do we change course going forward? The charges appear to have conflated the questioning of policy with allegations of improper implementation and culpability. Might separating the questioning of policy from establishing wrongful implementation and culpability be more constructive? Could defining narrower culpable allegations, focused on evidentiary material, obtain conclusions beyond reasonable doubt?
* The judgment provides a scathing critique of how no proper evidence was presented on the existence of an FCFS policy. What is the explanation for a weak case by the prosecution?
* The charges sought to prove that there was a conspiracy of all the 17 accused, and that the first indication of it was the letter from the DoT to the solicitor general regarding LOIs for pending applications. Could the charges have targeted other events and activities based on likely availability of evidence, and if so, what might they have found? Examples: Bringing forward the deadline for applications from October 1, 2007 to September 25, 2007, or the lack of orderly standard procedures adopted in changing the priority of applicants from the date/time of application to LOI compliance.
* Regarding wrongful gains, there is no indication if forensic methods were used in tracking transactions and if so, what the methods and findings were.
* What explains the rough-and-tumble process that applicants had to go through in complying with LOIs related to the case?
For the New Telecom Policy in 2018, we must hope to learn from and avoid such adverse situations. One way is to facilitate collaborative and transparent implementation.
1. Delhi District Court judgment: Cbi vs . (1) A. Raja (A1); on 21 December, 2017.pdf
2. The Trai (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) recommended auctions in August 2007 for all spectrum except “2G bands”, but not for licensing. Acceptance by the DoT would have made this the policy, but this recommendation was not accepted.
3. (Ibid) Page 524, Paragraph 753