'How do we catch hold of you' – India's Supreme Court asks Vodafone Idea and that was just one of the many barbs

Kumar Mangalam Birla, Chairman, Aditya Birla Group and Idea Cellular Limited, and Mr. Vittorio Colao, CEO, Vodafone Group Plc at the Idea Vodafone merger press conference in MumbaiBCCL
  • The Supreme Court bench led by Justice Arun Mishra turned the heat on the government and telecom companies’ counsels during the adjusted gross revenue (AGR) dues cases hearing today.
  • Questioning the reliability of Vodafone Idea, Justice Mishra asked the company’s counsel “How do we catch hold of you”, after calling it a foreign company.
  • Solicitor General Tushar Mehta also bore the brunt of Justice Mishra’s annoyance, and was told “your hands will be cut short”.
  • Check out the latest news and updates on Business Insider.
Vodafone Idea and Airtel want to pay the unpaid spectrum licence fees and usage charges. But even as they hoped that the Supreme Court of India would concede this reprieve, the Justices Arun Mishra-led bench posed a series of thorny questions.

“We want to catch hold of you (Vodafone). There’s so much liability on you. How should we catch hold of you?” asked Justice Arun Mishra and followed it up with a barb that it is a foreign company.

Interestingly, Vodafone Idea’s shares ended the session 1% higher, and Airtel closed up 2%, while the judges put the companies in a tough spot at court.

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Share price of Vodafone Idea and Airtel in the last one weekBSE / Business Insider India / Flourish

Vodafone Idea counsel Mukul Rohatgi had a tough time fending off these barbs from the top court hearing the case on adjusted gross revenue (AGR). The Supreme Court in February this year ordered telecom companies to pay up a disputed amount retrospectively for over a decade. Since then, the appeal has been pending the apex courts’ verdict.


CompanyAGR demand (in crore)
Vodafone Idea₹58,254
Airtel₹43,980

Why is the court so apprehensive about Vodafone-Idea being able to repay the dues?
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Vodafone Idea is the most troubled of all telecom operators in India. The company just posted a ₹73,878 crore loss in just three months, a record for any Indian corporate. The counsel Rohatgi also went on to say that the only asset left with the company is the spectrum.

Yet, Rohatgi highlighted that the company had already coughed up ₹7,854 crore, on account of AGR, despite the mounting losses and tax refunds pending from the government to the tune of ₹8,000 crore.

But the court was more keen on knowing how the company owned by the Aditya Birla Group in India plans to repay the remaining ₹50,339 crore.
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In the previous hearing held on June 18, the Supreme Court bench led by Justice Arun Mishra asked Vodafone Idea, Airtel and other telcos to submit their books of accounts and other financial documents for the past 10 years. This time, too, he reminded both Airtel and Vodafone Idea that he could order that any time now.

Even the government faces the heat

Turning the heat on the Solicitor General (SG) Tushar Mehta who represents the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), Justice Mishra said, “We will reject everything and ask everyone to pay right now. Why are these self-assessments being done?”.
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Justice Mishra also appeared annoyed with the SG, saying, “You are the solicitor general and you cannot do this. You cannot commit contempt on this court? What is this nonsense?”.

“Do not think you have very big hands. We will cut it short,” Justice Mishra was also quoted as saying by Bar & Bench.

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