AGR Dues: Vodafone CEO Meets FM Sitharaman, Ravi Shankar Prasad

Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read is learnt to have sought government assistance to keep Vodafone Idea afloat.

4 min read
Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read met Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Friday, 6 March.

Beleaguered Vodafone Idea Ltd on Friday, 6 March, put its total dues to the government following a Supreme Court order at Rs 21,533 crore - less than half of what the Telecom Department has estimated, even as the Vodafone CEO indicated keenness to make a “new, good beginning” in India.

Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read met top ministers, including Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, and informed them that UK telecom giant's India joint venture, Vodafone Idea Ltd is “exploring” options to make additional payment towards its outstanding statutory dues.

Earlier in the day, Vodafone Idea in a statement said it has already paid Rs 3,500 crore out of the “self-assessed” liability of Rs 21,533 crore.

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT), following the Supreme Court ruling in October last year which said that all kinds of income generated by telecom companies will be considered for calculating government dues, had estimated Vodafone Idea's liabilities at over Rs 53,000 crore.

Govt Wants Vodafone to Survive in India

Sources said during his meeting with Read, Prasad made it clear that the government is against a monopoly in the telecom sector, and wants Vodafone Idea to survive and remain invested in India.

Read is learnt to have sought government assistance to keep Vodafone Idea afloat, the sources added.

Relief measures for telecom firms are a work in progress, government sources said, adding Vodafone Idea will have to pay at least the principal amount of its AGR dues at the earliest.

Government is keen to ensure that companies remain in business and but much would depend on the telcos showing their commitment to pay the Supreme Court-mandated dues. The apex court is set to hear the AGR matter on 17 March.

Sources maintained that any relief package worked out by the government will be for the sector and not for any one player and will need to be approved by the Cabinet.

Telecos’ AGR Dues

On 4 March, Minister of State for Communications & IT Sanjay Dhotre, in a written reply to a question in the Lok Sabha, stated that Idea Cellular owed the government Rs 15,230.37 crore and Vodafone Group of Companies another Rs 37,808.23 crore. Out of the total Rs 53,038.6 crore due from Vodafone Idea, a sum of Rs 3,500 crore has been received, he had said.

On Friday, the company, which was formed following the merger of Idea and Vodafone, in a statement said it has "filed its self-assessment of the AGR liabilities with the Department of Telecommunications. The self-assessment discloses the company's AGR liabilities to aggregate Rs 21,533 crores including a principal amount of Rs 6,854 crores for the period from FY 2006-07 to FY 2018-19 and interest up to February 2020."

"The company has already paid a sum of Rs 2,500 crores on 17 February, 2020, and a further sum of Rs 1,000 crores on February 20, 2020, towards this liability," VIL added.

On a similar self-assessment pattern, Bharti Airtel paid Rs 13,004 crore to the government in two installments. It had also deposited an additional Rs 5,000 crore "as an ad-hoc payment (subject to subsequent refund/ adjustment) to cover differences, if any, arising from the reconciliation exercise with the DoT," it had said on 29 February.

The total payout by Bharti Airtel was half of Rs 35,586.01 crore liability estimated by the DoT.

Dhotre in the reply had stated that Bharti Airtel owed Rs 21,682 crore in licence fee and another Rs 13,904.01 crore in spectrum usage charges.

Similarly, Vodafone Idea owed Rs 28,309 crore in licence fee and another Rs 24,729.23 crore in spectrum charges.

According to the DoT, 16 telecom companies owed the government a total of Rs 146,336.98 crore as a fallout of the Supreme Court ruling.

Emerging from the over 30-minute meeting with Prasad, Read refused to comment on whether the British telecom giant will exit India, saying, “No comments.”

Vodafone Idea has been at the forefront of seeking a bailout package from the liability imposed by the Supreme Court ruling.

It had recently told the government that it would not be able to pay the full dues unless state support is extended to survive the crisis. The company has made a strong plea for setting off Rs 8,000 crore of GST credits against part of the liability.

For the remaining dues, it wants payment to be staggered over 15 years at a simple interest rate of 6 percent after a three-year moratorium. It also wants drastic cuts in licence fee and fixing of a minimum price for calls and data.

Vodafone Idea Chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla has held multiple rounds of discussions at the telecom and finance ministries over the last few weeks to look for a solution to keep the company’s operations on track.

In December, Birla had said Vodafone Idea may have to shut shop if there is no relief on the statutory dues. "If we are not getting anything, then I think it is the end of the story for Vodafone Idea," Birla had said. "It does not make sense to put good money after bad... We will shut shop."

Even Read had recently stated that the situation in India is critical, following the Supreme Court's AGR ruling.

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