The Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) has started examining the inordinate delay by the Department of Telecommunications (DOT) in taking action on a Rs 3,000 crore fine on three telecom companies for violation of licence agreements.
In October 2016, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had recommended to the DoT that penalties totalling Rs 3,050 crore should be imposed on the three operators for not providing points of interconnections (POIs) to Reliance Jio.
In a telecom network, calls from one network to another is transferred through POIs. If there are not enough POIs between two operators, calls will drop frequently.
In February 2019, The Wire reported on the circumstances surrounding the contentious delay behind the DoT taking action on TRAI’s recommendations.
In September 2018, Prabhash Singh, the-then telecom commission member (technology) and chairman of the committee constituted to examine TRAI recommendations, wrote a note to the secretary Aruna Sundarajan, accusing some committee members of being hand-in-glove with the defaulting TSPs so that no decision could be taken on TRAI recommendations.
According to sources, two weeks ago, the CVC received a complaint regarding this matter and has directed the DoT’s chief vigilance officer to examine the issue.
One committee, two reports?
In his note, Singh alleged that certain telecom ministry officials, in connivance with the defaulting telecom service providers (TSPs), delayed proceedings of the committee.
These officials apparently asked defaulting TSPs to write letters at the eleventh hour for further hearings thus “wilfully hampering the logical conclusion of the said penalty case.”
He pointed out that the same story was repeated when his predecessor G.K. Upadhyay was chairman of the committee.
While submitting his report, Singh wrote: “The said report has been signed by undersigned as the chairman of the committee along with two senior most members ….. the said remaining four members of the committee are neither inclined to sign nor have given any reasons for not signing the said report as yet.”
Later, the new member (technology) S.S. Singh directed remaining four committee members to either sign the report or submit a separate report.
The four junior members of the committee submitted a report that questioned TRAI’s powers to recommend a penalty. Their report does not tackle in-depth the merits of the case, but instead challenges the powers of the telecom regulator in imposing penalties.
In the report signed by these four members, they have recommended that this issue is under the jurisdiction of the TDSAT. Their report overrules Attorney General’s opinion on this issue and a Supreme Court verdict.
According to the opinion of the telecom department’s legal advisor, the recommendations this case comes under the jurisdiction of TDSAT is misplaced.
In December 2016, on a question from DoT, the attorney general (AG) opined that the department can issue a show-cause notice for imposing a financial penalty and impose penalties on service providers as recommended by TRAI.
A Supreme Court judgement from December 2018 – in the case of CCI vs Bharti Airtel – reinforced TRAI’s jurisdiction on this issue.
The apex court upheld a judgement of the High Court: “…..the issues arising out of contract agreements, terms and clauses and/or the related issues are to be settled by the authority under the TRAI Act in the first instance and unless these issues are decided, there is no question of initiating any proceedings under the Act. In a nutshell, it is held that insofar as contracts, etc. which are regulated by the TRAI Act are concerned, in the first instance, it is the authority under the TRAI Act which has to decide these questions.”
Opinion of the legal advisor of DoT
Furthermore, the DoT’s legal advisor opined that TRAI has the requisite jurisdiction and powers to make recommendations and is in fact obligated to do so in this case. He further said that it is incumbent upon the telecom department to act on the TRAI recommendations and impose the penalty and not delay the matter any further since it will cause loss to the exchequer.
He has upheld the report signed by three members – Chairman of the committee and member (technology), advisor (finance) and Sr DDG (TEC). On the report separately submitted by four-members, he has said that their view, that matters relates to a dispute between two service providers and hence should be referred to TDSAT, is misplaced and that they have misquoted two judgements.
Loss to exchequer
Currently, questions are being raised over the delay in deciding one way or the other. The department’s legal advisor has also pointed out that any further delay will cause loss to the exchequer.
The DoT had sent the matter to Digital Communication Commission (DCC), formerly Telecom Commission, for approval in the last meeting in February 2019.
“It is obvious that eyebrows will be raised for taking such a long time in taking a decision in a simple administrative matter,” said a former member of telecom commission.
In the last DCC meeting, sources say that revenue secretary Subhash Chandra Garg sought more details on the matter.
The DCC is the highest policy making body in the telecom sector. Generally, the secretary to the Government of India in the Department of Telecommunications is the ex-officio chairman.
The full-time members are member (finance), member (production), member (services) and member (technology).
The part-time members of the commission are CEO, NITI Aayog, secretary (department of economic affairs), secretary (ministry of electronics and information technology) and secretary (department of industrial policy and promotion).―The Wire