New Delhi: In an interview after the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) started looking into an alleged swindle on allocating telecom licences and radio spectrum, telecommunications minister A. Raja came out fighting against charges that question his role in the controversy. Edited excerpts:
You have been a minister who introduced more competition in the telecom sector. But it has been accompanied by a lot of controversy. How do you feel about it? Do you feel rewarded or do you feel pain for your efforts?
It is not a question of whether it is painful or of feeling rewarded. I do feel that I did my job according to my conscience and according to law established in the department. When I assumed charge as the telecom minister, my categorical assurance that was given to the people at large, even in Parliament as well, is that I will follow Trai (Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India) recommendations, bring competition, reduce tariffs and increase rural tele-density. You have seen the tangible reduction of tariffs and how rural tele-density is coming up. As I promised earlier, local call rates will fall to zero paisa per minute and domestic long distance calls will be 25 paise per minute.
There are several issues that are consistently thrown at the department of telecommunications (DoT) that of the first-come, first-served policy and that the 1 October 2007, deadline was suddenly advanced by five days. It is also said that DoT cherry-picked from Trai recommendations. What do you have to say to that?
Some Trai recommendations need to be consulted with the industry and other stakeholders. You cannot say that whatever recommendations are given by Trai can be implemented at once. Some recommendations may need urgency in being implemented. Maybe a few recommendations are still pending where industry is not accepting it.
Fighting fit: Telecommunications minister A. Raja. PIB
I can share with you the issue of the termination of the access deficit charge. I think this has to be revisited. But when you are revisiting, then controversy definitely comes in because someone’s interest is going to be put at stake. So in such cases, industry should not be divided. Ultimately, there should not be any strike or unrest in the industry. When there is unrest, you cannot have growth. So, foreseeing all these things, one or two Trai recommendations are still being debated in the ministry. That does not mean the telecom ministry or minister is doing cherry-picking. That is not correct.
But what about first-come, first-served?
I’ll come to that later. I cleared this in Parliament as well. Trai’s recommendation said there should be no cap (on the number of licences being issued). They did not tell us how many operators, how are they to be allotted and at that time neither the ministry nor the minister nor Trai knew what type of competitive applications will be filed. The solicitor general of India, who represented the government in cases before the TDSAT (Telecom Disputes Settlement And Appellate Tribunal) and the Delhi high court at that time accepted the department’s 25 September cut-off. Of course, it came to me and I later endorsed it.
The reason behind this was that there were applications (for new licences) already pending before DoT. I can go further and say on record that the Trai recommendation itself was sought on the basis of the pending applications and not on the basis of new applicants. I consulted with the highest law officer in the country also and he said it (the 25 September cut-off date) is a reasonable classification because you cannot process the 500-600 applications.
As far as first-come, first-served policy is concerned, it is not invented or introduced by me. It was inherited in 1994 from the old licence conditions. Even Arun Shourie (communications minister in the previous National Democratic Alliance government) was one of the ministers who permitted some files on the basis of the first-come, first-served policy. To my surprise, I found some of the files negative, which were not in order as per the first-come, first-served policy.
So, commission and omission both have been recorded on the file, which was approved on the basis of the first-come, first-served policy, while the other file (was not) since it did not follow this policy.
The real issue is about the entry fee, which your detractors say that by keeping it at the 2001 rate, you allowed promoters of these newly licensed companies to make a huge windfall gain and pocket thousands of crores as the licence was underpriced and so was the spectrum. What do you have to say about that?
FDI (foreign direct investment) policy is not with me. Only the issue of licences and spectrum is with me. How is the dilution of shares my issue? Stake dilutions were done by Tata DoCoMo, Shyam Telecom or Unitech or some others like Swan. The policy permits companies to offload up to 74% via FDI. The persons (investors) are coming in through proper channels. How can Raja prevent it? I have said in Parliament itself, but I cannot do anything. I had several discussions with P. Chidambaram (then finance minister). I am the first minister in this ministry to send a note to the telecom commission to immediately stop promoters in this regard.
Last week, the Unitech Wireless case (for FDI from Telenor) was approved by the CCEA (Cabinet Committee for Economic Affairs) and not by Raja. The CCEA is headed by the Prime Minister. Windfall gains are not because of Raja.
Your political detractors have even called you the Raja of corruption. What do you have to say on this?
In one sense, I am the real spectrum king. When I took charge as the telecom minister, per month mobile additions were only 7.5 million telephone connections. Now it is 13 million. So, tele-density is going up. What I want to say is that this controversy, these corruption charges is because I don’t want to be a stagnated and stinking pool. When you are flowing water, somebody will drink, somebody will use, somebody will use it for other purpose.
On the other hand, I am the first minister who investigated and coordinated how much spectrum is available and put on record, on the website, that this much spectrum is available. My only thing is I enjoy my confidence with the Prime Minister and the government, and I ensure that there is no deviation in the recommendations that have been made by Trai and the procedure established earlier by all my predecessors.
The CBI has visited DoT, they put out a press release which mentioned that the spectrum had been underpriced and sold at 2001 rates.
The CBI investigation is on so I don’t want to be involved in that. The law will take its own course. But broadly, what I want to say is that spectrum charges and licence fee are two different matters.
The accusation which is being made right from the beginning is that the licence fee of Rs1,650 crore, which was fixed in 2001, has not been revisited. Revisiting the licence fee is not within DoT domain. I am the minister for telecom and if I want to revisit it, shall I fix it at Rs2,010 crore? Then people will say how did Raja arrive at this figure? Would that not be arbitrary? I am not the deciding authority, Trai is the correct body to give recommendations (on such matters). In 2007, Trai said go for new competition, but it did not recommend to go for a new fee.