The Supreme Court today shot down the Centre's proposal to stagger adjusted gross revenues (AGR) payments owed by telecom companies to the government over a period of 20 years, and ordered that payments should be done quickly.
Using unusually stern and caustic language, the apex court bench led by Justice Arun Mishra observed that the conduct of the parties were against the "prestige of the court".
The court took particularly strong exception to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) allowing self assessment of dues payable. In fact, Justice Mishra observed, "Are we fools? Can’t we understand what's happening? Our judgment has finalised the dues payable. There cant be any backtracking."
Justice Arun Mishra threatened to take action against the DoT Secretary as he thundered at the Solicitor General Tushar Mehta: "Who has the authority to permit this (self assessment)? This is sheer contempt of court." The bench asked the Solicitor General as to why the DoT, which till only a few months back had fought "tooth and nail" for levy of interest, penalty and interest on penalty was now relaxing the dues payable by allowing self-assessment by the telecom companies.
In another thinly veiled warning, aimed at not just the DoT but also the telcos, Justice Mishra said, "If somebody feels they are more powerful than us, they will be in big trouble." Not mincing any words about his opinion of telcos in the matter, he said, "You are usurpers of public money. You have been asked to pay merely a fraction of your earnings."
The bench did not even spare the senior management of telcos observing, "We wont tolerate this. You are hoodwinking us. Every company has violated orders. We will summon MDs (managing directors) of all these companies. We will send them to jail from here. This is subterfuge."
The bench did not even spare the media, noting, "Telcos are sponsoring news pieces in the media. Media is misleading the people of the country. Everyday false news is being published against our judgment. Every day sponsored news is appearing against us. This is the grossest form of contempt." In fact, towards the end of the hearing, in reference to "false news", Justice Mishra warned the telcos that if they didn’t stop "these actions", the managing directors of the companies would be held personally liable.
Expressing frustration, Justice Mishra said, "I am nearing the fag end of my career but have I been this pained about the efficacy of the system. If this is happening under our noses while we are alive, we might as well be dead."
Catch LIVE updates from the AGR case hearing
The AGR case became a bone of contention after the government held that telcos owed them higher dues, basis the Centre's own calculation of their revenues.
As per the government's calculation, Vodafone Idea, Bharti Airtel and Tata Tele owe it Rs 1.2 lakh crore.
The Supreme Court agreed with the government's calculation but came down heavily on it after the latter suggested some relief be offered to telcos.Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel have paid Rs 3,354 crore and Rs 18,000 crore towards AGR dues.