Capital Grapevine
Capital Matters

Capital Grapevine

Virendra Kapoor

Telcos are the lifeline which cannot be allowed to go under

Given half a chance, everyone wants to play god. The three-member SC bench, headed by Justice Arun Mishra, certainly gives the impression that it is averse to revising its controversial edict in the matter of Adjusted Gross Revenue dues of the telecom companies in view of the completely altered conditions in the telecom sector. Worse, it now wants to hold the telecom bosses responsible for what is written in the media. Since when the telecom CEOs have come to double as newspaper editors? Besides, it is insulting to the entire media for a judge to suggest that what is published is tainted with the tar of corruption or outside commercial influences. Of course, the SC assumption is wrong.

Why do honourable judges find it hard to believe that the alternative view might be based on the totality of the state of the telecom sector. The state of finances of the telecom majors are such that forcing them to pay up what the court wants them to would prove a sure recipe for the bankruptcy of the entire sector. After raising highly unreasonable demands, the Government too has come to realize the dire situation. Aside from a big player or two, a number of old and established telcos will collapse. It will be a huge blow to the flow of foreign direct investment into the country. We cannot afford to do this at a time when our concern is to ensure growth, to create jobs, to attract direct foreign investment.

But the way the SC bench came down on the telecom companies and the Government last week, it suggested Their Lordships operate in an echo chamber where no reasonable voice aimed at saving a key sector of the economy from outright bankruptcy can reach.

The problem simply put is this: A has to take money from B but the latter questions the basis on which he has raised additional demands over and above those originally agreed. After a prolonged dispute and litigation, A recognizes the poor state of the finances of the debtor, offering him softer terms of repayment. The other option for A is to insist on the entire money, including the disputed amounts, to be paid here and now. But A is wiser, realizing that insistence on the latter course would not only result in his forfeiting the original amount but it may kill the sector as well. Therefore, giving a life-line to the telcos to make a substantial down payment and to pay the remainder in installments spread over twenty years seems most sensible.

To tell you the truth, the Government is doing the telcos no favour. (Though not strictly relevant, consider how many people have become billionaires since Independence by simply looting the taxpayers, be it through crony licenses and quotas, cheap land, outright write-offs of bank loans, etc). Given the deep red ink running through its balance-sheet, given the fact there are 94 crore cell phone connections, given that it provides employment to millions, the Government cannot be cavalier to lead the entire telecom sector to its graveyard.

Without doubt, the Government was unreasonable in the first place by widening the ambit of AGR to include non-telecom revenues. Initially, the Government was entitled to license fees and a share in the spectrum usage charge only, not other services which the telcos offered later to enhance their brand value and to make their service further attractive.

Significantly, the dispute was settled in favour of the telcos by the industry regulator and the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Authority. Yet, successive governments persisted in the unreasonable demand. And when the telcos took the matter to the apex court, the latter ruled in favour of the government. Aside from commercial reasons, humanitarian grounds, the general state of the economy cries for a mutually agreed settlement. Extorting money from a sector which is not in the best of health can only kill the goose that lays the golden egg. We cannot be so myopic.

Admittedly, a major corporate house which belatedly entered the telecom sector stands to gain immensely if some telcos go belly up. The apex court might be going strictly by law but the government cannot be blind to the overall state of the telecom sector. If the revised demand by the government allowing the telcos to pay over 20 years does not get the nod of the court, a fresh legislation or an ordinance will be a measure of government earnestness to save millions of jobs at a time of the economic slowdown.

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Central Hall in grip of Corona fear

Corona scare is everywhere. Even in the Central Hall of Gossips ..,er… sorry, Parliament. In between proceedings, MPs come in from the two Houses to take a break, chat with fellow politicos and media persons. BJP MP from Jhalawar-Baran constituency in Rajasthan is a regular, though he has his own small group and does not mix much. But there are quite a few, it seems, who after sitting near him without knowing he had attended the birthday party in Lucknow where singer Kanika Kapoor, the one-song wonder, ~Chhittia Kallaiyan Bey, ~ was the main attraction. They are now scared stiff thinking if they too might have contracted the deadly virus. TMC MP Derek O`Brien is only one of the many. O’Brien then went back to the House, interacted with a lot of others. The point is simple: Why keep the Parliament in session when the main business of passing the Budget is complete. Remaining legislative business can be completed in a day, especially when all members are ready to cooperate. It is better MPs fan out in the country, ensuring that the fight against the spread of Coronavirus is won, rather than making a point about their `working’ in Delhi. If social distancing is the first precaution, MPs by meeting in session daily violate it most flagrantly.

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Medical correspondents now

Journalists are supposed to be generalists, knowing less and less of more and more. But in this age of Corona, the need for medical specialists in the media was never greater. Answering the need of the times, the late B G Verghese, the celebrated editor of ~The Hindustan Times~, created a position of a science correspondent in the paper. That was a first. Some years later, Verghese again had the foresight to designate an IIT Graduate who had a keen interest in the environment as the paper’s environmental affairs correspondent. It was Anil Aggarwal who went on to establish Centre for Science and Environment, an NGO, which over the years has done some good work, including forcing the Delhi Government to abandon diesel run buses in favour of a CNG-fuelled fleet. Short point is that newspapers have sports, crime, political, local, foreign, science and environment correspondents. Thanks to the Corona scare, the time may have come to put on the payroll medical correspondents as well to report on developments in the field of medicine and public health, a rising global concern not just now but round the year.

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Govt. alive to corona threat

Speaking from personal knowledge, one can vouch that thus far the central government has shown alacrity in checking the corona pandemic. In my neighbourhood two students returned from Europe only a couple of days before the Government imposed obligatory testing at the airport. They thought they were fortunate to have made it in the nick of time. But they were wrong. Only a day later a team of medicos located their house, took the swabs from their mouths for testing and in the meantime bound them and their parents to remain completely isolated not only from the world at large but even from their immediate neighbours. Parents, both working professionals, were obliged to stay locked up within their flat, while the health authorities visited them again to find out their state of health and to fumigate their house and the nearby surroundings. This is really admirable. We as a people are habituated to deplore our governmental system, to abuse the bureaucracy and politicians. We should have the decency to appreciate when it, for a change, rises to the occasion.

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Facts and views expressed in the article are that of the author

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