Thursday, March 17, 2011

Verdict reserved on plea to cancel 2G licences

The Supreme Court, which is already monitoring the investigation of the 2G spectrum scam, on Thursday reserved verdict on petitions seeking a direction to cancel the licences allegedly issued illegally during the tenure of the former Communications Minister, A. Raja.

The petitions were filed by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation, Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy; the former Chief Election Commissioners, J.M. Lyngdoh, T.S. Krishnamurthy and N. Gopalaswami; and the former Central Vigilance Commissioner, P. Shankar.

A Bench of Justices G.S. Singhvi and A.K. Ganguly reserved verdict at the conclusion of marathon arguments from counsel for the parties, including 11 telecom companies which were granted 2G spectrum licences after January 2008.

Earlier, counsel Prashant Bhushan brought to the court's notice the death on Wednesday of Sadiq Batcha, who was linked with the 2G scam, and sought a CBI probe into his death. Dr. Swami said that, according to his information, the Tamil Nadu government had already recommended a CBI probe. Justice Singhvi said the matter could be taken up after ascertaining the correct position.

Mr. Bhushan said: “Considering the totality of circumstances, it is in the fitness of things that the allocation of 2G spectrum and telecom licences be cancelled. Allotment by the first come, first served (FCFS) method, rather than by an auction, at 2001 prices in 2008 is arbitrary as it caused a huge loss to the public exchequer.”

Subscribers won't be inconvenienced

He demanded that the spectrum be taken back by the government and a re-auction held. The subscribers would not be inconvenienced because of any shift as they could retain the same number.

“If for some reason, a subscriber is unhappy with his new government owned operators (BSNL/MTNL), he can shift to some other operator through Mobile Number Portability (MNP) and can retain the same number.” On the operators' contention that the government was restrained from cancelling the licence on the principle of estoppel, Mr. Bhushan said once the policy was found to be illegal, nothing would prevent the court from cancelling the licences.

On the contention that cancellation would result in economic chaos and prevent foreign direct investments, he said cancellation would send a signal to foreign investors that they could not take it for granted that things could be done illegally in India.

When Justice Ganguly wanted to know whether cancellation would be a setback to information and communication technology, Mr. Bhushan said that with the advent of number portability, subscribers could switch to any operator.

Dr. Swamy argued that when security considerations were involved, the prospect of economic chaos would have no consequence.

Attorney-General G.E. Vahanvati said the FCFS policy introduced in January 2001 was never referred to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) for its opinion.

On whether the TRAI's recommendations were accepted or not, he said, “When the TRAI gave its recommendation that there should be no cap on the number of access service providers in each service area, the DoT did not deal with paucity of spectrum.”

The TRAI's other recommendations made in May 2010 were under government consideration after a committee looked into them and submitted its report, he said.

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