SC quashes 122 2G licences; leaves it to a trial court to decide on a possible probe into the role of Home Minister P Chidambaram, then finance minister

In a blow to the government, the Supreme Court yesterday quashed all 122 licences for mobile phone services issued in 2008 and left it to a trial court to decide on a possible probe into the role of Home Minister P Chidambaram, then finance minister.

Unhappy anniversary: Former telecom minister A Raja
completed a year in Tihar jail on Wednesday. The verdict says
Raja virtually gifted away the important national asset of spectrum
at throwaway prices. File pic

In what also comes as a respite to some 45 million phone subscribers covered by the 122 licences, justices GS Singhvi and AK Ganguly ordered that the services will carry on for four months, by which time the telecom watchdog will decide the future action plan.

The licences were issued to companies, which now operate under the brand names Uninor, Loop, Etisalat, Videocon, STel, Tata Tele, Idea and MTS. But not all the licences that are currently with them pertain to the tainted ones awarded in 2008.

The judges virtually thanked the petitioners -- Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy and lawyer Prashant Bhushan -- and said the "misuse and arbitrary use of powers" may not have come to light but for some enlightened citizens seeking good governance.

PIC/Rajeev Tyagi

The court also slapped a fine of Rs 5 crore each on Unitech, Tata Teleservices and Swan Telecom and ordered half of that to go towards the court's legal aid services and the remaining to defence services. It also imposed varying costs on other companies.

"The exercise by the officers between September 2007 and March 2008 under the leadership of then telecom minister A Raja was wholly arbitrary, capricious and contrary to public interest apart from being violative of the doctrine of equality," the verdict said.

"He (Raja) virtually gifted away the important national asset at throwaway prices." The verdict pushed Communications Minister Kapil Sibal into an overdrive. He met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee before a press conference in which he defended the government, saying implementation of policy alone was wrong.

"The court has indicted the 'first come first serve' policy. This was the policy of NDA government," he said. Blaming Raja, he added, "The order says the advise of finance ministry and Prime Minister's Office wasn't followed by then minister." His own ministry was then overseen by Raja, an undertrial who began his second year in jail yesterday.

India's telecom network has grown into the second largest in the world after China, with 926.53 million subscribers, serviced by 15 operators, including two state-run companies, Mahanagar Telephone Nigam and Bharat Sanchar Nigam.

BJP wants Chidambaram to step down
With elections underway in five states, the opposition seized the opportunity to renew its demand for the ouster of the home minister, and said the UPA government under PM Manmohan Singh had no moral right to continue. "The BJP would like to ask Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: Would you take some action against Chidambaram or will you continue to express your confidence in him despite so much evidence?" wondered spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad.

Time to switch!
While around 45 million phone subscribers served by these 122 tainted licensees were left wondering about the fate of their service, experts said they were free to use the mobile number portability (MNP) scheme, which is in full force across the country.