Probe into telecom policy from 01

Written by Sunil Jain | New Delhi | Updated: Dec 22 2010, 09:34am hrs
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Kapil Sibal deflects Raja heat on to BJP

Telecom minister Kapil Sibal on Thursday pulled a rabbit out of his hat, to turn some of the Raja heat on to the BJP, a move that could either see the BJP getting silenced or which could see it hitting the streets in anger. Instead of answering the BJPs charges of inaction on the Raja scam, right from the CBI not acting fast enough to having a CVC who the courts think should not be there, Sibal has turned the spotlight on the BJPs telecom policies at the time it was in power.

A one-member committee of retired justice Shivraj V Patil has been asked to submit a report on the last decades telecom policies within four weeks. The move will allow Sibal some respite as he can claim he cannot take any action till the report is submitted. BJP leader Arun Jaitley described Sibals move as unacceptable since it is not even a court of enquiry but an executive-appointed committee. Further, it is a breach of Parliament since the announcement was outside it while it was in session.

There are four main policies of the BJP that will come under the scanner, along with one of Rajas predecessor Dayanidhi Maran. The BJP's policies are: Ram Vilas Paswans Limited Mobility in 2001, Arun Shouries Universal Access Service Licence in 2003, Shouries decision to cut licence fees by 2 percentage points and Shourie's granting of 27 licences in 2004 at 2001 prices; Maran had also issued 22 licences in 2006 at 2001 prices. Shourie has already come on record to say that he welcomes any probe, and indeed any debate with Sibal on the issue.

Sibal said that hes segregated the criminal culpability angle of the spectrum scam from the procedural and policy aspects. While the criminal culpability aspect is being looked into by the CBI and the Supreme Court, the policy and procedural aspects adopted by the DoT since 2001 will be looked by this one-man committee, he said.

After the committee submits its report, the government will take a holistic look and examine whether there were any inconsistencies in polices adopted by the DoT and also if there were any deviations in policies in the implementation of the set policy, Sibal said.

All files will be put before the committee and it will call existing and former officials to assist it. While Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari on Thursday made public excerpts of a CAG report saying the BJPs policy of NTP 1999 had caused huge losses to the government, Sibal has chosen 2001 as the starting point of the examination since the first major change in terms of licensing happened then when Paswan allowed mobility, which means firms with fixed land line licences could offer limited mobile phone services. It was using these very licences that two firms started providing full mobility services, albeit under different terminologies under the regime of Mahajan.

Paswans limited mobility policy has been cleared by the courts and no operator had gone to court against Shouries UASL. So, it is not clear what the probe will achieve.

When the Cellular Operators Association of India, the GSM lobby group went to the TDSAT against the policy, it lost the case. Subsequently, it appealed in the Supreme Court and the court told the TDSAT to examine the matter afresh. Later, the TDSAT through a 2:1 judgment approved the limited mobility policy. Shourie, who succeeded Mahajan as telecom minister came up with a universal access service licence (UASL policy) to legitimise limited mobility by asking the firms concerned to pay a licence fee along with a hefty penalty, totalling over Rs 1,700 crore. The COAI once again threatened to move Supreme Court but Shourie negotiated with them by reducing their revenue-share licence fee by two percentage points. Later, under Maran, the licence fee for national and international long distance services were also reduced dramatically, from 15% to 6%.

Another area which would now come under scrutiny is the award of spectrum to GSM operators beyond the licensed 6.2 MHz. This happened mostly under Maran. Spectrum was given by administrative orders of DoT as per a subscriber-linked policy wherein additional spectrum was given as and when any operator reached a certain number of subscribers in each circle. While the CAG has estimated the loss due to this at Rs 36,993, a study by FE found the actual loss on account of the private operators, after taking into account the extra spectrum fees these operators are paying, will be under a couple of thousand crore rupees.

Justice Patil will also focus on the 51 licences given out by Shourie and Maran. As has been pointed out by FE, around half were C circles where there were no bids in 2001 and where even the 3G bids were quite low.