SC threatens contempt against Bharti Airtel, Voda over non-payment of dues


New Delhi, Feb 14: The Supreme Court on Friday threatened contempt proceedings against top executives of Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and other telecom firms for failing to comply with its directive to pay an estimated Rs 1.47 lakh crore in past dues, and asked whether there was no law left in the country.
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In an order which will have a far-reaching implications for the telecom sector, the apex court expressed displeasure at the "temerity" of a desk officer in the Department of Telecom for "scuttling" its order by issuing a written directive to not take any coercive action against firms for not depositing dues by the January 23, 2020, deadline.

A bench of Justices Arun Mishra, S Abdul Nazeer and M R Shah said the companies have violated its order "in pith and substance" and asked them to clear dues before the next date of hearing on March 17.

"In spite of the dismissal of the review application (filed by the telcos), they have not deposited any amount so far. It appears the way in which things are happening that they have scant respect to the directions issued by this court," they said in the order.

Separate petitions filed by non-telecom firms such as gas utility GAIL and power transmission firm PowerGrid, who were slapped with a demand of Rs 2.65 lakh crore by the DoT, were withdrawn by the applicants after the court said they can represent their case at appropriate forms.

Following the Supreme Court rap, the Department of Telecom withdrew its January 23, 2020 order that had called for no coercive action against defaulting firms and started issuing notices to telcos asking them to deposit dues before midnight of Friday.

While Airtel said it will deposit Rs 10,000 crore out of its dues of about Rs 55,000 crore within a week, there was no word from Vodafone on payment of dues.

Expressing displeasure over an order passed by the DoT's desk officer, which virtually stayed the effect of its verdict, the apex court said this is nothing "but a device to scuttle" its judgment and this case projects a "very disturbing scenario".

It issued a notice to the officer. The bench noted that the desk officer "has the temerity to pass the order "to the effect of issuing a direction to another constitutional authority, the accountant general, "not to insist for any payment pursuant to the order passed by this court and not to take any coercive steps till further orders."

"In the circumstances, we draw contempt proceedings against the desk officer for passing the order and violating the order passed by this court," said the bench.

"The managing directors/ directors of the companies also to show cause why we should not initiate contempt proceedings against them for violating the order passed by this court by not depositing the amount, on the next date of hearing. Let the concerned officer, sitting over the order passed by this court, also file reply," it said.

The top court made it clear that in case its order is not complied with, the desk officer of the DoT and top executives of these companies "shall remain personally present" before it on March 17.

"I am literally shocked. My conscience is shaken the way these things are happening in the country," Justice Mishra said. Hearing the pleas filed by Vodafone Idea, Bharti Airtel, Tata Teleservices and others seeking more time for payment of dues, the bench expressed serious displeasure and said, "How can a desk officer do this to the Supreme Court's order? Is this the law of the country. Is this the way you treat the courts."

"We don't know who is creating this nonsense. Who is generating all this? Is there no law left in the country? I am literally anguished. I feel I should not work in this court and in this system. I am very anguished. I am saying this with a full sense of responsibility," Justice Mishra said.

"I don't get angry like this, but I am totally lost how to work in this system and this country," he said, adding, "It is better not to live in this country and rather leave this country".

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta tendered an apology before the bench and said the desk officer cannot do this. He urged the court to defer the hearing so that the desk officer could file an explanation.

"As the solicitor general of the country, have you asked him (desk officer) to withdraw this? This cannot be tolerated. We cannot function in this fashion. Let us wind up the Supreme Court if your desk officer has this audacity. News reports are being published. Who is sponsoring all this?" the bench asked.

"I never bother about myself. You don't understand me, not even an inch. Your desk officer is staying the Supreme Court order. Is he sitting over the Supreme Court? How?," Justice Mishra said, adding, "How he is still on his chair?".

"A desk officer is writing to the AG (Accountant General). There is so much money power. Is this not the outcome of money power? Let me speak, I do not bother," Justice Mishra said.

"We have to draw contempt against this man (desk officer) and also against these companies. How are they behaving? We had dismissed the review plea and not even a single penny has been deposited yet. The desk officer is staying our order. We are concerned with the health of judiciary, of this country and of this system," the bench said.

The bench asked Mehta that the order passed by the desk officer should be withdrawn immediately otherwise "he (desk officer) will be sent to the jail in the evening today".

When Mehta repeatedly urged the bench not to pass any order to this effect, Justice Mishra said, "I have passed an order. I will not succumb to all this... This is 100 per cent contempt". "Too much has happened in this country. We will not permit all this. For 30 years, it is going on and we are seeing the worst part today," the bench said and asked Mehta whether the court should also say how everything is "hand in gloves" in this matter.

"What kind of applications are being filed? What kind of mentioning is being made? If you want to avoid us, you do it and we will recuse," the bench said.

It observed that the companies have violated its order in "pith and substance" and this shows that they have scant respect for the order of the Supreme Court.

Referring to the desk officer's letter, the apex court bench said, "This is nothing but a device to oblige the companies. This kind of order could not have been passed by a desk officer."

Telecom companies want to negotiate a fresh payment schedule with the DoT, which has issued demand notices to them. The court had on October 24 last year ordered that non-telecom revenues should be included in the Adjusted Gross Revenues (AGR) for calculating statutory dues such as license fee and spectrum charges.

The DoT calculated that Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and others owe as much as Rs 1.47 lakh crore in past dues, including penalties and interest, while non-telecom firms, who had taken some licence from it, owed another Rs 2.65 lakh crore.

On January 16, a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra dismissed petitions of telecom firms seeking review of that order saying it did not find any "justifiable reason" to entertain them.