TDSAT goes into defunct mode as no members left
If you’re wondering why so many telecom cases—and we’re not talking of the 2G one involving ex-telecom minister A Raja—are finding their way into various high courts, the reason is simple: the Telecom Disputes Settlement & Appellate Tribunal process which was meant to provide quicker justice (its judgments are appealable only in the Supreme Court) has been rendered useless. For more than 19 months now, and counting.
Like all courts of law, TDSAT also functions on the basis of majority rules. So when GD Gaiha’s term at TDSAT came to an end in July 2011, the appellate tribunal pretty much became redundant. Sure, its judgments would be relevant if the remaining two members—PK Rastogi and Chairman Justice SB Sinha—ruled the same way, but if they didn’t, the judgments meant little. Which is precisely what happened in the 3G intra-circle roaming case where the telecom ministry argued telcos were breaching the law by offering such services. While Justice SB Sinha, the only judicial member of TDSAT, ruled against the government, PK Rastogi ruled in favour of the government. As a result, the split verdict amounted to a non-verdict. The government decided the split-verdict gave it carte blanche to terminate the intra-circle roaming, it issued the necessary termination notices, which the telcos then got stays from the high court. Similarly, in the case of charging a one-time spectrum fee from telcos, while Vodafone got a stay from TDSAT (both Sinha and Rastogi ruled the same way), Bharti Airtel, Idea and Reliance Communication took no chances and went to the high court instead. Theoretically, it can be argued it doesn’t really matter if TDSAT isn’t functioning, since the regular courts are there—but these aren’t manned by specialists in telecom and their calendars are far more crowded.
In July, when Gaiha superannuated, there was still hope. But in November 2012, Justice Sinha retired and, yesterday, Rastogi followed. So, despite knowing for years that replacements were required at TDSAT, the government did precious little. And while it’s true the chairman needs to be a retired Supreme Court judge or a chief justice of any of the high courts and chosen in consultation with the Chief Justice of India, the procedure for appointing other members is far simpler. The selection committee is headed by the chairman of TDSAT, with the telecom and personnel secretaries as members along with the vice-chancellor of Delhi University. At a time when the sector is in such trouble—apart from intra-circle roaming and one-time licence fees, there is also the matter of what constitutes “adjusted gross revenue”—the emasculation of the sector’s appellate body can only be bad news.