The Supreme Court has rejected a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking cancellation of the government’s decision of September 15, 2021, to grant relief to the stressed telecom sector from paying statutory dues. On September 1, 2020, the apex court gave telecom service providers (TSPs) a 10-year period to clear to pay Rs 935.20 billion of adjusted gross revenue (AGR) related dues to the government.

A bench of Justices B V Nagarathna and Ujjal Bhuyan said that the apex court by its judgment had issued certain directions with regard to the telecom sector but in the backdrop of the COVID-19 challenges, reform measures were found necessary to boost the proliferation and penetration of broadband and connectivity.

The bench said that these are all matters of policy and decision-making is on the basis of experts’ opinions. On emerging situations and exigencies, these decisions have to be made in the interest of the welfare of the people having serious technical and financial implications and, therefore, have to be in the public interest. Hence, it added that such Cabinet decisions could be lightly interfered with by a court of law in the absence of there being any particulars or materials brought to the notice of the court assailing the Cabinet decisions, as being unconstitutional or arbitrary in nature or contrary to law.

Contending that the petition was without merit, the Supreme Court said that any interference at this stage would not only create uncertainty in the implementation of the policy but also jeopardise the policy itself. Moreover, the other stakeholders, namely, the TSPs are not arraigned as parties to this petition.

In 2021, the Union Cabinet had approved a substantial relief package for the telecom sector that includes a four-year break for telcos from paying statutory dues, permission to share scarce airwaves, a change in the definition of revenue on which levies are paid and 100 per cent foreign investment through the automatic route. The measures were aimed at providing relief to companies such as Vodafone Idea Limited (Vi) that have to pay billions in unprovisioned past statutory dues.