By Raman Kirpal
THE CENTRAL Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has tightened the noose on former telecom minister Andimuthu Raja and at least two private companies in the 2G scam. Midway into the investigations, CBI sources say that there are sufficient grounds to charge Raja and two private companies — Swan Telecom and Unitech — of criminal misconduct and criminal conspiracy under Section 120B of the IPC.
Lining up on current telecom minister Kapil Sibal’s side in calculating the loss to the exchequer as less than the Rs. 1.76 lakh crore computed by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the CBI’s Anti-Corruption Bureau made its own estimates to claim that the losses amounted to roughly Rs. 22,000 crore.
“Raja and senior telecom officials bent the rules and in fact invented new rules to favour a few private companies. Swan and Unitech made a nearly five-fold profit even before they rolled out the 2G spectrum services,’’ says a senior CBI official. Besides, Reliance Communications apparently had a 10.7 percent stake in Swan Telecom, whereas Department of Telecommunications (DoT) rules say that a telecom operator can’t own more than 10 percent stake in another company operating in the same service area.
Explaining the criminal conspiracy, CBI officials say during Raja’s tenure, there were no competitive bids in the award of 2G spectrum. Instead, the telecom ministry inserted ‘an arbitrary condition’ saying that whoever deposits the fee first would be the first to get licence. The ministry conveniently leaked out the information of these new criteria to only to a few applicants, including Swan and Unitech, thus favouring them. “Since some of the applicants who had this information were ready with the amount, they were able to deposit the fee earlier than others,” CBI officials say.
The CBI used a simple methodology to peg the losses at a little over Rs. 22,000 crore. The 2G spectrum bandwidth was sold to service providers in 122 circles spread across India. The CBI finds that Swan Telecom paid Rs. 1,537 crore for 13 circles and Unitech paid Rs. 1,658 crore for 22 circles.
“These two companies had not even rolled out 2G spectrum services when M/s Swan offloaded 45 percent of its share in the 2G spectrum licence to M/s Etisalat of UAE for Rs. 4,200 crore. And M/s Unitech offloaded 60 percent of its share in the licence to M/s Telenor of Norway for Rs. 6,100 crore. The estimated loss to the government by grant of licences to these two companies alone comes to Rs. 7,105 crore. On prorata basis, the estimated loss for all 122 circles is more than Rs. 22,000 crore,’’ the CBI says.
Interestingly, the CBI says it does not need to unearth Raja’s wealth for proving a case of criminal conspiracy. “Raja may have Rs. 60 to Rs. 70 lakh in his account, but it’s normally very difficult to prove links with the 2G scam. We raided more than 20 places, including six in Tamil Nadu, to track the money made in the 2G scam. But we don’t even need this to prove a criminal conspiracy case against him. It’s all evident in the documents seized from DoT,” say CBI officials.
According to the agency, the conspiracy was hatched on 25 September 2007, when Raja’s ministry announced through newspaper advertisements that it would not entertain applications for unified access service licence (2G spectrum) after 1 October 2007. The ministry had already received several applications before 25 September. With 1 October as the deadline, several prominent and established telecom operators submitted their applications during those six days.
But the telecom ministry ignored all those who applied after 25 September. On 10 January 2008, the ministry issued ‘letters of intent’ to nine service providers in 122 circles and all these nine service providers, including Swan and Unitech, had applied before 25 September. The justification given was that the “application that was received first shall be processed first and if found eligible a letter of intent shall be granted to the applicant”. The ministry also stated that “whosoever complies with the conditions of letter of intent first would be granted the 2G spectrum licence”.
TO TOP it all, the telecom ministry didn’t even revise the rates. “The rates were decided in 2001 and the licences were sold in 2008 at sevenyear- old rates,’’ the CBI officials say.
Interestingly, the CBI says it need not unearth A Raja’s wealth for proving a criminal conspiracy
The CBI is set to file a chargesheet in the 2G spectrum case before 31 March. The scam had caused a stand-off between the UPA government and the Opposition during the winter session of Parliament. The Opposition continues to demand a Joint Parliamentary Committee to investigate the 2G scam, but the government has refused to relent on this.
Sibal more or less gave a clean chit to Raja, saying the loss was notional and the CAG completely misread the scenario. The Supreme Court strongly denounced Sibal for speaking in a case in which the investigations are on. Under its strict vigil, the apex court has directed the CBI to carry on with its investigations.
The CBI probe will take another two months, because the government has asked it to look into all cases of spectrum awards since 2001. The CBI investigators have not found many loopholes before 2004, but they are expected to examine Arun Shourie, communications minister during the NDA rule, sometime in February.