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CBI charges Vodafone, Bharti in telecom case

Charge sheet says ex-telecom secretary and Pramod Mahajan conspired to give undue favour to telcos

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Telecom spectrum trouble, which had rocked the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance-II regime, has now hit the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed a charge sheet on Friday against former telecom secretary Shyamal Ghosh, (now Bharti Airtel), and Sterling Cellular (both now part of Vodafone India) in a case related to additional spectrum allocation to telephone companies when the late was telecom minister. Ghosh and the companies have been accused of criminal conspiracy and criminal misconduct. The court will take cognisance of the charge sheet on January 14.

The investigation agency said Ghosh conspired with Mahajan and abused his position as a public person to show undue favour to beneficiary companies. This caused a loss of Rs 846.44 crore to the exchequer, it said.

ACCUSATIONS
  • Case of criminal conspiracy and criminal misconduct against and three private companies
  • Loss of Rs 846.44 crore to exchequer due to undue favour to beneficiary firms
  • Ghosh eased norms to give additional spectrum to accused companies
  • Undue gains to telcos by charging 1% of their adjusted gross revenue instead of 2% for additional spectrum 
  • Charge sheet highlights late Pramod Mahajan’s involvement in criminal conspiracy, along with Ghosh
THE STORY SO FAR
  • October 23, 2001: Technical committee formed to recommend spectrum of 6.2 MHz, sufficient for  a 0.9 million subscriber base per operator
  • January 31, 2002:  Subscriber level criterion reduced to 0.4 million customers from 0.9 million for grant of additional spectrum to telcos
  • February 1, 2002:  Bharti Cellular, Sterling Cellular and Hutchison Max Telecom allocated additional spectrum based on new condition
  • December 16, 2010: Supreme Court directed to register FIR  for irregularities in spectrum allocation from 2001 to 2006-07
  • January 4, 2011: CBI registers preliminary inquiry into the matter
  • November 17, 2011: CBI registers an FIR against Ghosh and the three companies
  • December 21, 2012: CBI files the charge sheet, does not name any company executive
  • January 14, 2013: Court to take cognisance of charge sheet Source: CBI first information report and charge sheet
Source: CBI first information report and charge sheet

Bharti and Vodafone have not reacted to the charge sheet. Ghosh could not be reached for comment.

Bharti’s stock fell three per cent on the Bombay Stock Exchange on Friday to close at Rs 307.15. The Sensex lost 1.09 per cent to close at 19,242.

The investigation agency alleged the conspiracy led to incidental gains to other telcos, by way of charging additional one per cent of adjusted gross revenue instead of charging the required two per cent for additional spectrum from 6.2 MHz to 10 MHz.

According to the CBI charge sheet, the companies had not achieved the subscriber base recommended by the technical committee of the department of telecommunications. An earlier FIR had mentioned that Ghosh “in conspiracy” with the then deputy director general-telecom, J R Gupta, had relaxed the subscriber base criteria. The charge sheet has not named Gupta as he has turned CBI approver.

CBI has detailed how Mahajan took special efforts and gave a strong recommendation to the Prime Minister’s Office to create a post of administrator, Universal Service Obligatory Fund, so that Ghosh could be re-employed from the day after his retirement, on June 1, 2002. The Cabinet’s appointment committee approved the post for Ghosh for three years from June 1, 2002, “after much reservation and deliberation”, CBI said.

Reacting to the development, the said investigations should take place and the party was open to probe of its activities during the NDA regime also. “But investigations should not happen for political vendetta or for political reason,” said Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, senior BJP leader. Congress leader refused to comment on the CBI investigation but demanded a thorough investigation by the agency.

CBI has not named any official or promoter of the accused companies in the chargesheet, unlike in the 2G licence allocation scam of 2007-08.

In a press statement, the investigating agency said: “The public is reminded that the above findings are based on the investigation done by CBI and evidence collected by it. Under Indian law, the accused are presumed to be innocent till their guilt is finally established after a fair trial.”

On October 6, 2004, the Cabinet committee redirected that fresh procedures be adopted with time. But a bureaucrat argued that the National Telecom Policy (NTP 99) had talked about creation of the USO Fund and that it was not an overnight creation for any particular person.

CBI said that subsequently the post was downgraded to additional secretary level under Central Staffing Scheme and no retired officer was eligible for the post.

CBI has detailed how Mahajan made special efforts and gave strong recommendation to PMO for Ghosh’s post.

The chargesheet said Bharti reached the subscriber base of 0.4 million on December 31, 2001, and 0.5 million by January 31, 2002, while the two other companies had crossed the same number before the said decision was taken.

The technical panel, formed on October 23, 2001, had recommended that spectrum of 6.2 MHz was sufficient for a subscriber base of about 0.9 million per operator. This was reduced to 0.4 million by Ghosh, according to the chargesheet.

CBI had registered a first information report (FIR) in this case under Prevention of Corruption In its FIR filed last year, CBI had alleged that “Ghosh did not even wait for the comments of the then Member (Finance) for deciding the percentage of Adjusted Gross Revenue to be charged from operators on account of allocation of additional spectrum beyond 6.2mhz.” In its FIR, CBI said, “The aforesaid public servants moved the file in such haste and designed manner that the key persons in charge did not even have an opportunity to see the file for their comments.”

CBI said that Ghosh bypassed the wireless advisor for the reason that he was retiring on the said day. And, another member, Telecom Commission, was bypassed on the pretext that he was out of office, CBI has said. But this official was available in the office till the afternoon that day, the FIR has noted.

The final approval on the note was accorded by Mahajan on January 31, 2002.

On February 1, 2002 , immediately after this approval came through, Bharti Cellular, Sterling Cellular and Huthinson Max Telecom were allocated additional spectrum. Sterling was a C Sivasankaran-owned company for the Delhi circle, which was subsequently acquired by Hutch Essar. Later, UK-based Vodafone bought the Hutch shareholding in Hutch Essar.

CBI said in a press statement, “The public is reminded that the above findings are based on the investigation done by CBI and evidence collected by it. Under Indian law, the accused are presumed to be innocent till their guilt is finally established after a fair trial.”

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