'Can't interfere with well-calibrated Cabinet decisions,' SC on relief given to Telecom companies

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The Supreme Court has declined to entertain a plea against the Union government's decision to provide major relief to Telecom companies on Adjusted Gross Revenue upto over Rs 90,000 crore by bringing about structural and procedural reforms, after noting the background of measures undertaken including Covid-19 pandemic which engulfed the world, making the governments, courts, education system and corporate sector to depend heavily on them for the virtual functioning. 

A bench of Justices B V Nagarathna and Ujjal Bhuyan dismissed a petition filed by Anshul Gupta, holding Master's Degree in Computer Science against the Union Cabinet's decision of September 15, 2021 and seeking implementation of the Supreme Court's judgement of September 1, 2020 with regard to recovery of Adjusted Gross Revenue.

"In our view, these are all matters of policy and decision making which is on the basis of experts’ opinion and on emerging situations and exigencies, to be made in the interest of the welfare of the people of India having serious technical and financial implications and, therefore, have to be in public interest. Hence, we do not think 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," the bench said.

The petitioner contended the decision taken by the Union Cabinet vis-a-vis the telecom sector is an instance of clear interference in the payment schedule decided by this Court and is directly benefiting the Annual Gross Revenue defaulters.

He questioned the structural and procedural reforms for being discriminatory against private individuals and the common man. He claimed the Cabinet decision is in favour of the ‘super rich’ and to benefit certain entities. 

The bench, however said that it would not be justified on its part to interfere with a well calibrated decision of the Cabinet solely on the ground that this Court had earlier passed certain orders on September 01, 2020.

"We thus find that this writ petition is without merit. Any interference by this Court 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 Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) are not arraigned as parties to this Writ Petition. Therefore, at this stage, we do not think it proper to entertain this petition," the bench said.

The bench said no doubt, this court by its judgment had issued certain directions with regard to the telecom sector. 

"However, in the backdrop of the COVID-19 challenges, with huge surge in data consumption, online education, work from home, inter-personal connect through social media, virtual meetings, etc reform measures were found necessary to boost the proliferation and penetration of broadband and telecom connectivity. In order to provide competition and consumer choice and for inclusive development and bringing the marginalised areas into the mainstream and universal broadband access to connect the unconnected, nine structural reforms and five procedural reforms plus relief measures for the telecom service providers were provided," it noted. 

The bench said it may appear in a first blush that the Cabinet decision to initiate structural and procedural reforms and provide relief measures for the TSPs are contrary to the directions issued by this Court. It would have been more appropriate for the Central Government to have filed an application in this regard. 

"But what is to be borne in mind is emerging situations in light of the Covid-19 pandemic that engulfed the world including India in the years 2020-2021 and the lifestyle of the people drastically changing on account of the precautions and preventive measures that had to be taken in order to save themselves from being afflicted by the pandemic which resulted not only in deaths but also post Covid-19 disabilities and ill health," the bench said. 

The court further pointed out following the pandemic, the people depended heavily on the telecom sector and particularly on the TSPs in order to keep in touch with one another as there were lockdowns declared in the country in March, 2020 and for successive periods thereafter, in several places owing to the Covid-19 pandemic which necessitated what may be called “social distancing” and as a result there was “distant socialising”. 

In schools and educational institutions, and offices there was virtual study and work from home respectively. Offices were shut and classrooms were being conducted virtually. Even the Governments were run on virtual mode, it pointed out.

"We could emphasise that video conferencing facility and virtual mode was adapted quickly not only by various stakeholders such as Government offices, schools, other private organisations but most significantly by law Courts which did not cease to function during the Covid-19 pandemic. Huge investments were made for establishment and expansion of the infrastructure as there was need for online education, work from home, inter-personal connect, virtual meetings and virtual courts. Since there was a heavy surge of online facilities being put to use and data consumption, the Governments, Courts, education system and corporate sector in the country depended heavily on the telecom sector and TSPs, in particular, for their various activities and for keeping their systems intact," the bench said.

Case Title: Anshul Gupta Vs. PMO

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