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AGR dues: Reliance Jio meets Supreme Court deadline, Airtel seeks time

The Mukesh Ambani led telco’s dues are a fraction of what its rivals - Vod Idea and Airtel - have to pay.

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Last Updated: Jan 24, 2020, 06.40 PM IST
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MUMBAI | NEW DELHI: Reliance Jio Infocomm became the only phone company to meet the Supreme Court’s adjusted gross revenue (AGR) dues deadline, paying Rs 195 crore on Thursday. Rival Bharti Airtel sought more time to pay since the top court will be hearing its modification plea next week. The telecom department directed circle offices not to take any “coercive action” against telcos that hadn’t paid the dues by the deadline.

Separately, oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan expressed the hope that non-telecom, staterun firms will remain unaffected by the October 2019 court ruling on AGR. The cumulative AGR-related dues of non-telecom companies are pegged at well over Rs 3 lakh crore.

“We are discussing the matter with the Department of Telecommunications (DoT),” Pradhan said Thursday. He said the core business of public sector units (PSUs) such as GAIL, Oil India and Power Grid Corp of India Ltd (PGCIL) was not telecom and the current issue was probably a result of some “communication gap,” which resulted in one government department raising such demands on companies under another government department. They have been asked to pay AGR dues as they hold telecom licences.

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“We have also petitioned the court. We feel these companies won’t be affected by this matter,” Pradhan said.

His comments follow GAIL and PGCIL seeking clarity from the apex court on Thursday on whether the ruling applied to them as well.

Relief for Telcos
None of the state-owned companies were party to the case between the DoT and telecom companies that led to the October 2019 decision. The DoT’s stand came as a relief for the phone companies.

“You are directed not to take any coercive action against the licensees in case they fail to comply with the Supreme Court order, until further orders,” DoT said in a letter to all circle officers on Thursday.

Vodafone Idea owes the government more than Rs 53,500 crore, Bharti Airtel over Rs 35,500 crore and Tata Teleservices nearly Rs 14,000 crore in AGR-related dues.

On the BSE Thursday, Vodafone Idea ended 5% higher at Rs 5.91 while Bharti Airtel was up 1.8% at Rs 523.60.

Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel had urged DoT not to take any action against them for missing the payment deadline. Both said they had plans to abide by the court’s orders. It’s not clear if Tata Teleservices has also written to the DoT. Jio, Bharti Airtel and Tata Teleservices didn’t respond to queries.

Solicitor general Tushar Mehta said on television that there were no instructions from the DoT for proceedings against the telcos that hadn’t met the deadlines. The modification pleas were scheduled to be heard next week and a delay of a few days wouldn’t qualify as contempt, he was cited as saying.

The phone companies are hoping that the apex court will grant them some relief.

“It’s temporary but if the SC rules favourably, it is a big relief because it gives an opportunity to the operators to go back to DoT and ask for an appropriate term for repayment,” said Rajan Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents the phone companies. “It is not a breach of SC deadline since we have sought a clarification already which has been admitted. The intention of the court is not to push telcos to bankruptcy but to help the DoT achieve its objective of getting its money.”

The Supreme Court on January 21 rejected review petitions filed by phone companies last week but agreed to hear the modification pleas. The phone companies have asked the court to allow them to negotiate repayment terms with the DoT.

The October 2019 court verdict widened the definition of AGR to include non-core items.

This meant 15 telcos had to pay additional licence fees, spectrum usage charges (SUC), interest and penalty dues of more than Rs 1.47 lakh crore by January 23. Licence fees and SUC are calculated on the basis of AGR. The DoT took the view that the ruling covered all telecom licence holders, such as GAIL, PGCIL, OIL, Delhi Metro Rail Corp. and RailTel. They hold such licences for the purposes of internal communications, internet access, national long-distance calls, international longdistance calls, V-Sat and captive services, among others.

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