The Supreme Court has rejected Vodafone Idea, Bharti Airtel and Tata Teleservices’ plea to review its October 24 verdict widening the definition of adjusted gross revenue (AGR) to leave the three telcos collectively facing over a whopping Rs 1.02 lakh-crore in additional licence fees, spectrum usage charge (SUC), penalties and interest.Last November, the telcos had sought a limited review of the ruling in the hope of softening the AGR blow, and had not challenged the entire SC order or sought an extension of the payment deadline. A bench comprising justices Arun Mishra, S.A. Abdul Nazeer and M.R. Shah, rejected the reviews after an in chamber hearing Thursday.A review always lies to the same bench and hence is accepted in very few occasions. The court has agreed to hear reviews in recent days on its Sabarimala ruling allowing women of all ages to enter the Ayappa temple there. The three telcos had filed separate petitions in the court, seeking a review of penalties and interest on the dues, and had questioned some components of non-core items that the court had said should be included while computing AGR of telcos. Vodafone Idea and Airtel are worst hit by the top court’s order, facing statutory dues of Rs 53,039 crore and Rs 35,586 crore respectively, which they need to pay up by January 23. Tata Teleservices, which has sold its consumer mobility business to Airtel, faces dues of Rs 13,823 crore. Including the three, some 15 telcos need to pay over Rs1.47 lakh crore to the government.Licence fee and SUC are calculated on the basis of AGR.Legal experts said the telcos now have the option to file curative petitions in the top court. It will have to be heard under convention by the five senior most judges of the court though the possibility of getting relief is also rare.The other possible remedy in the absence of any relief from the judiciary is the government stepping in to provide some financial support to ensure Vodafone Idea and Airtel survive.A better option for the sector would be to lobby for a staggered payment scheme from the government or get the government to seek a reference like in the 2G case from the court on the issue.The government has previously said it would ensure the telecom market — where Reliance Jio is the sole private telco making profit – isn’t reduced to a monopoly. It has backed a three private player market. Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel have been desperate to have the penalties and interest waived off, but with the rejection of their pleas, industry experts and analysts believe their very survival is now in question.Airtel though has just raised $3 billion to fund the dues, but Vodafone Idea has said it would have to shut down if forced to pay the entire dues.Shortly after collectively posting combined losses of nearly Rs 74,000 crore in the July-September quarter after provisioning for AGR-related dues, both Vodafone Idea and Airtel had raised doubts over their ability to continue as going concerns if they had to pay the full AGR dues. Vodafone Idea — whose Rs 50,922 crore quarterly loss was the worst in India’s corporate history — had set aside Rs 25,680 crore. Bharti Airtel — which posted the third-worst quarterly loss ever for India Inc at Rs 23,045 crore — provided for Rs 28,450 crore. Industry experts though say the government can ill afford a Vodafone Idea collapse, as it would badly dent India’s image among foreign investors and also lead to huge job losses.The review pleas had been filed last November after the government had made it clear that it was up to the telcos to move court to seek a review of the order to get relief, or if they wanted more time to pay up the dues.Airtel had reportedly filed for a review of interest, penalty and interest on penalty, while Vodafone Idea, besides a review of penalty, had also urged the nation’s top court to relook at sums attributed to notional revenue. The operators had challenged imposition of penalty on grounds that the government had never raised final demands, but merely provisional demands that were legally disputed by them.
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