The TDSAT was created in 2000 with the mandate to hear disputes relating to the telecom sector and appeals from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), and until 2004, the TDSAT performed precisely this function
A marked trend in the functioning of the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) over the past three years has been the exponential increase in the number of broadcasting petitions being heard by the tribunal. A study on the TDSAT carried out by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy found that between 2013 and 2016, about 83% of the petitions filed in the TDSAT were broadcasting matters.
The TDSAT was created in 2000 with the mandate to hear disputes relating to the telecom sector and appeals from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), and until 2004, the TDSAT performed precisely this function.
However, in 2004, a government notification expanded the jurisdiction of the TDSAT to include broadcasting matters, under the broader term of “telecommunications”, as defined under the Trai Act, 1997. Since then, matters arising from the telecommunications as well as broadcasting sector have been coming before the tribunal. Yet, it is only in recent years, and particularly in the tenure of the most recent chairperson of the TDSAT, Justice Aftab Alam (retd.), that the number of broadcasting matters coming before the TDSAT have shot up.
Most of these broadcasting matters are filed for recovering relatively small sums of money in relation to contracts between licensors and licensees. These are usually simple contractual disputes, of no significant pecuniary importance, and do not necessarily involve vital questions of law. The litigants in these matters are typically small or medium-sized local cable operators (LCOs) in the broadcasting industry, located all over India, frequently in smaller towns and villages.
By virtue of their location and size, these cable operators often find it difficult to travel long distances to Delhi to appear before the tribunal, forcing the tribunal to pass orders in their absence. As a result, many parties do not show up at all, choosing to abandon their cases instead.
The government had, at one point, contemplated the need for a regulator in the broadcasting sector, similar to the Trai. The draft Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2006, as proposed, had provided for the establishment of a Broadcasting Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI). The consultation paper accompanying the draft Bill proposed to set up BRAI on the lines of Trai, with powers clearly delineated between the central government, the BRAI, licensing authorities and authorised officers.
The draft Bill had also provided for appeals from decisions of the BRAI to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (a body constituted under the Cinematograph Act, 1952), as well as TDSAT, depending on the nature of the challenge in the appeal. Unfortunately, various controversies accompanied the draft Bill, notably the fear of excessive government control over the media.
Consequently, the draft Bill was never enacted, and the broadcasting industry today functions on the basis of regulations made under the Trai Act, and relies on the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal as a dispute resolution authority.
As the TDSAT awaits its next chairperson, this is an opportune time to consider whether the institution is functioning in the manner originally envisaged, or whether the body ought to be re-structured to cater to contemporary demands.
For instance, if a majority of the cases being filed before the TDSAT are petty contractual disputes, does the tribunal necessarily need to be headed by a retired member of the higher judiciary, who has been trained otherwise to untangle relatively more complex questions of law?
Similarly, if the TDSAT is dealing mainly with broadcasting cases, should the law require that at least one member of the tribunal have specific expertise in that sector? And if present and prospective litigants are coming from far-flung corners of the country, perhaps it would be more sensible, practical and cost and time-efficient to convert the TDSAT into a circulating bench, one that travels to different parts of India, rather than remaining stationary in New Delhi. These are only some of the considerations that can be assessed to re-structure the TDSAT in a manner that makes the tribunal more meaningful to those who are using it the most.
The author is a research fellow at the Vidhi Centre for
Views are personal