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Tuesday, 27 March 2012

2G scam: Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram approved mobile licences, Uninor tells Supreme Court


 

24 MAR, 2012, 07.07AM IST, JOJI THOMAS PHILIP,ET BUREAU
2G scam: Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram approved mobile licences, Uninor tells Supreme Court
 
NEW DELHI: The Indian unit of Norway's Telenor has claimed that the controversial issuance of mobile licences by A Raja had the approval of leaders at levels higher than the incarcerated former minister, an assertion that could be seized upon by anti-corruption campaigners and Opposition parties looking to embarrass the embattled UPA government.
 
Uninor, the Indian arm, has submitted documents to back these claims in a review petition, asking the Supreme Court to reconsider its February 2 order cancelling 122 mobile licences, including those held by it. The documents are intended to "prove that consensus had been arrived at the highest levels of the government between the Prime Minister's Office, finance ministry and telecom department in January 2008 to give out pan-India mobile licences at Rs 1,658 crore (a price fixed in 2001)", the review petition says.
 
The documents, essentially correspondence and file notings by ministers and bureaucrats, are intended to rebut a part of the court's order that held Raja responsible for allocating mobile licences in a "totally arbitrary and unconstitutional manner" and concluded he was solely responsible for this.
 
Chatterji Note, Chidambaram-Raja Meetings Cited
 
The court has not said when it plans to hear the review petition, an overwhelming majority of which are rejected. Instead, Uninor has contended that the Indian government's "failure" to place relevant documents before the court had "impacted the very basis of the apex court's judgement" and added that the "discovery of new, important materials and evidence was an accepted ground for review".
 
 
 
Telenor's Indian operation, with over 40 million customers, was one of the worst affected by the apex court's order to cancel licences issued by Raja. Almost all the documents cited by Uninor in its plea are in public domain. Nonetheless, acceptance by the court of any of the grounds cited by Uninor, when it considers the review plea, could cause fresh embarrassment to the government.
 
Uninor has told the SC that just days before Raja issued letters of intent (LoIs) for new mobile permits, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's then private secretary, Pulok Chatterji, in a note dated January 6, 2008, had said "new operators may be allotted spectrum only up to the threshold level on payment of the normal fees".
 
The petition states Chatterji had acknowledged that the ideal situation was to auction airwaves, but did not advocate this on the grounds that "uncontrolled auction may lead to inflated high bids, unacceptably high prices for the customers and threaten financial stability of the industry". Chatterji's note states that this issue was discussed with the "new telecom secretary". The note was signed by the PM's then principal secretary, TKA Nair, on January 7.
 
The existence of Chatterji's note was first reported by ET in its edition dated August 15, 2011. The petition has cited this note as "proof" that the policy followed by Raja had the implicit sanction of the highest authorities in the government.
 
Uninor has also submitted a "secret communication" dated January 15, 2008, sent by then finance minister P Chidambaram to the prime minister, that had discussed the auction of 2G airwaves, but said this should not be applicable to start-up spectrum. It has further submitted documents describing the outcome of a meeting between Chidambaram and Raja, held on January 30, 2008, where the then finance minister had said "he was for now not seeking to revisit the current regimes for entry fee or revenue shares".
 
The mobile phone company has also provided minutes of meetings on May 29 and July 4, 2008, where Raja and Chidambaram had only discussed pricing of airwaves beyond the start-up limit, to back its claims that both the ministries had jointly decided there would be no change in the Rs 1,651-crore entry fee.
 
Uninor has also submitted a controversial note prepared by the finance ministry under Pranab Mukherjee (dated March 25, 2011), which said Chidambaram did not insist on an auction of airwaves during his discussions with Raja in 2007-08. This note had said the finance ministry under Chidambaram had "implicitly agreed to the imposition of the same entry fee as that prevailing in 2001 for licences allotted up to December 31, 2008', despite opposition from then finance secretary D Subbarao, now the RBI governor. It further added that there was a "consensus" between Raja and Chidambaram not to charge for start-up spectrum.
 

The petition says the documents suggest the findings of the Supreme Court that the finance ministry was not consulted on pricing of spectrum before the issuance of licences were not correct. "Obviously, the Supreme Court, not having had the benefit of the documents, was guided by what was placed before it by the government of India. The impression with court is that the finance ministry was bypassed because of known objection of finance secretary in November 2007. The documents produced before the court present a different story of deliberations and thoughtful application of mind in the government of India to balance revenue maximisation with the public good of creating competition and affordable mobile phone services for mass usage," the telco said.
 
Following the SC order, Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal said the apex court had insulated the prime minister and Chidambaram from the policy decision on 2G licences in 2008, and argued that only Raja was responsible for the mess. "There is no indictment of the prime minister or the then finance minister (Chidambaram) in the Supreme Court's judgement. That is why Raja is where he is," he had said.
 
Uninor, on the other hand, has argued that there was 'sufficient basis to demonstrate that "policy decision not to auction the licences was taken by the government of India in its collective wisdom" and has sought that the SC reconsider its views on the government's decision not to go in for an auction.
 
Some of the documents cited by Uninor were used by politician and anti-corruption campaigner Subramaniam Swamy in his attempt to persuade a Delhi court to charge Chidambaram as a co-accused in the ongoing 2G trial. The court threw out Swamy's plea.
The petition says the documents suggest the findings of the Supreme Court that the finance ministry was not consulted on pricing of spectrum before the issuance of licences were not correct. "Obviously, the Supreme Court, not having had the benefit of the documents, was guided by what was placed before it by the government of India. The impression with court is that the finance ministry was bypassed because of known objection of finance secretary in November 2007. The documents produced before the court present a different story of deliberations and thoughtful application of mind in the government of India to balance revenue maximisation with the public good of creating competition and affordable mobile phone services for mass usage," the telco said.
 
Following the SC order, Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal said the apex court had insulated the prime minister and Chidambaram from the policy decision on 2G licences in 2008, and argued that only Raja was responsible for the mess. "There is no indictment of the prime minister or the then finance minister (Chidambaram) in the Supreme Court's judgement. That is why Raja is where he is," he had said.
 
Uninor, on the other hand, has argued that there was 'sufficient basis to demonstrate that "policy decision not to auction the licences was taken by the government of India in its collective wisdom" and has sought that the SC reconsider its views on the government's decision not to go in for an auction.
 
Some of the documents cited by Uninor were used by politician and anti-corruption campaigner Subramaniam Swamy in his attempt to persuade a Delhi court to charge Chidambaram as a co-accused in the ongoing 2G trial. The court threw out Swamy's plea.