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Telecom scam: Go after the corrupt

IT IS welcome indeed that the Central Bureau of Investigation has started digging into the murky circumstances in which fresh mobile telecom
licences were issued in 2008. We hope that the CBI would get to the bottom of the matter, indeed, that the agency would be allowed by its political masters to get to the bottom of the matter. Licences were issued on a 'first-come-first-served' basis and a cut-off date had been adopted in the most arbitrary fashion. The licences were issued for fees that prevailed in 2001.

Subsequently, two companies that obtained a licence sold equity to external investors for princely sums. It has been argued that this additional investment represented fresh capital infusion into the licensee companies themselves and, therefore, their promoters could not lay their hands on the premium that investors were willing to pay for a mobile licence in the world's fastest growing telecom market. There is a fair bit of obfuscation in this argument. Once money comes into a closely held company's reserves, there are various ways in which the promoters can get their hands on that amount, including inter-corporate loans on liberal terms.

If the government had used auctions to issue fresh licences and the spectrum that went bundled with them, the exchequer would have captured the premium that investors are prepared to pay for a licence. True enough, there is a plausible argument for not carrying out auctions and issuing licences on the basis of some other criterion. The number of operators is determined by technology's ability to use available spectrum. Auctions cannot increase the number of competitors, only determine their identity. They push up the up-front capital cost of operations, putting upward pressure on tariffs, something that Indian consumers can do without.

So you could choose licensees even on the basis of a beauty parade. But then, there is no reason to allow a licensee or its promoters to extract windfall gains from the very act of getting a licence. If licences are issued on the basis of criteria other than auctions, windfall premia on the licensees' share transactions should be taxed away. The government should amend its flawed policy as well.

Source:Economic Times


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