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The government is reading between the lines of todays Supreme Court judgment to put up a strong defence for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former finance minister P Chidambaram. Both have been accused by the opposition of allegedly acting as spectators as their cabinet colleague A Raja granted 122 licences at throwaway prices in an arbitrary manner.
The court makes it clear that A Raja ignored the red flags waved by the finance secretary and didnt consult the finance minister in the run-up to the issue of letters of intent by the Department of Telecom on January 10,2008.
The court has noted that it was the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) which was not in favour of changing the spectrum fee regime for a new entrant. In its August 2007 recommendations,TRAI ruled out differential treatment to new entrants vis-a-vis incumbents stating this would go against the principle of a level-playing field.
The Telecom Commission under DoT approved these recommendations but in the absence of the Finance Secretary,a non-permanent member.
In a November 2007 letter to the DoT Secretary,the then Finance Secretary expressed doubt about how the rate of Rs 1,600 crore determined in 2001 could be applied,without any indexation,to a licence to be given in 2008.
To this,the DoT Secretary replied that the Cabinet decision of October 31,2003 authorised the DoT to finalise the details of the implementation of TRAIs recommendations.
TRAI itself,it may be noted,had not suggested any change in the entry fee or licence fee,and has been pulled up by the court today.
The notice of meeting of the Telecom Commission was not given to any of the non-permanent members. In such matter,it was absolutely necessary for the DoT to take the opinion of the Finance Ministry, the court said. It further pointed out that the telecom minister was very much conscious of the fact that the Secretary,Finance,had objected to the allocation of 2G spectrum at the rates fixed in 2001,he did not consult the Finance Minister or the officers of the finance ministry, it added.
According to the Supreme Court,TRAIs recommendations became a handle for Raja and the officers of the department of telecom who virtually gifted away the important national asset at throwaway prices. Besides not keeping the finance ministry in the loop,the telecom minister also rejected the suggestions made by the Prime Minister for a fair and transparent method for grant of licences in November 2007,stating this will not give them (the new players) level-playing field,the court said.