Govt summons urgent meeting on telco relief – Times of India


NEW DELHI: The government has called an emergency meeting on Sunday, including key officials from the telecom and finance ministries and Niti Aayog, as efforts to come up with a bailout for the beleaguered telecom sector gather pace.
The process is being closely monitored by the PMO amidst heightened concerns over the fate of companies such as Vodafone Idea, which stares at a possible shutdown in case it fails to pay the telecom department Rs 53,000 crore as ordered by the Supreme Court.
The sources said the government is “deeply concerned over the worsening position of the telecom industry” with the Supreme Court making it clear that it wants full recovery of the Rs 1.47 lakh crore dues, demanded from the mobile operators.
Relief measures likely to be discussed could include soft loans for telecom companies and easier payment terms for the interest and penalty portion in the AGR (adjusted gross revenues) order, highly placed sources told TOI.
While Airtel, which has to pay around Rs 35,000 crore (it has already given Rs 10,000 crore), has assured that it will deposit the amount before the next date of hearing, Vodafone Idea has expressed inability to meet the demand in the absence of a government bailout.
Sunday’s meeting is expected to be headed by telecom secretary Anshu Prakash, who is also the chairperson of the multi-ministry Digital Communications Commission (DCC). Sources indicated that officials from the PMO and finance will be there, and even Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant will be called in.
The government is keen to work out a bailout formula as the Supreme Court’s next date of hearing in the AGR matter falls on March 17. With companies appearing to be in a precarious position, it is important to help them out sooner than this deadline, a source said.
Vodafone Idea chairperson Kumar Mangalam Birla has already had a series of meetings with top government functionaries, including finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman and telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.
Sources said with the court staying firm on its order for recovery of dues at the earliest, the government wants a relief package readied as soon as possible.
While the “top priority” for the government is adherence to the top court’s order, it is also satisfied by the efforts made so far by the companies to start paying up. Vodafone Idea has so far paid Rs 2,500 crore, while the Tata group has also paid Rs 2,197 crore (its demand is pegged at around Rs 14,000 crore in the AGR order).
“We are walking a tightrope on this matter. The government does not want the sector to collapse and thus we are taking unprecedented steps to help the companies in meeting the orders of the Supreme Court,” a senior official said.
However, even as it works out the relief package, the telecom department officials have also started the process of invoking the bank guarantees submitted by the companies in case they do not pay up before March 17. “We have to follow the licensing agreement which stipulates that in case of a default in payment, we are free to invoke the bank guarantees,” an official said.
Sources also say that if the bank guarantees are found to be insufficient to pay the demanded AGR dues, the telecom department will have no other option but to work towards cancellation of telecom license of the defaulting company. “It will be done only in extreme cases. We hope to find a solution and salvage the industry from this position before that.”

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