|UPDATE, 31 May 2011: In response to this story, Dayanidhi Maran has issued a legal notice to Tehelka. Read Tehelka’s response|
IN CASES of corruption involving a nexus between public servants and private persons, investigating agencies always look for evidence of quid pro quo — the private player bribing the public servant, in cash or kind.
In January, the CBI traced out a money trail between real estate tycoon Shahid Usman Balwa and Kalaignar TV. After Balwa’s company Swan Telecom was granted precious 2G spectrum, he had transferred Rs 200 crore to the TV channel owned by Karunanidhi’s family. The agency thought it qualified as adequate evidence to nail Kanimozhi, Karunanidhi’s daughter and owner of 20 percent equity in the channel.
“It was not a genuine business transaction but in the nature of illegal gratification paid in lieu of the UASL (Unified Access Service Licences), valuable spectrum and other undue benefit given by accused public servants to Swan Telecom,” the CBI concluded in its supplementary chargesheet filed on 26 April.
According to sources, the CBI has now trained its guns on a strikingly similar deal — though the quantum is almost four times that of the Balwa-Kalaignar transaction — between Sun TV Group, owned by the family of Union Textiles Minister Dayanidhi Maran, and Malaysian business conglomerate Maxis Group and owner of 74 percent direct equity in Aircel Group, the country’s seventh biggest telecom operator.
In November 2006, then Telecom Minister Maran granted 14 (UASL) for Aircel. The licence, along with the startup 2G spectrum, was awarded at the same price at which later Raja gave away 2G licenses to Swan, Unitech and a host of other players in 2008 — Aircel paid Rs 1,399 crore for 14 telecom circles, the price was arrived at through an auction process in 2001 when the telecom industry was in its nascent stage.
The telecom licences to Aircel were awarded after about two years of ‘unwarranted’ delay on the part of the DoT headed by Maran at the time. Aircel’s applications for new circles were pending since Maran’s takeover as minister for communications and IT in May 2004. According to the report prepared by the one-man committee of Justice (retired) Shivraj Patil constituted to examine the appropriateness of procedures followed by DoT in issuing licences during the period 2001-2009, the DoT kept raising ‘irrelevant’, ‘vague’ and ‘unwarranted’ queries about different aspects related to Aircel and kept the applications pending (Patil submitted his report to present Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal on 31 January).
It was only after March 2006, when Malaysian business tycoon T Ananda Krishnan, whose parents were Sri Lankan Tamils, bought 74 percent stake in Aircel, that its file gained momentum. Until then the company was owned by C Sivasankaran, the chairman of Siva Group (earlier known as Sterling Infotech Group). Krishnan paid Rs 3,390.82 crore for 74 percent equity in Aircel. Today, Aircel is the seven biggest telecom operator in the country with its net worth valued in the range of $7.5-$8 billion.
Six months after Ananda Krishnan’s takeover of Aircel, the ministry granted Aircel the much-vaunted licences in 14 cash-rich circles. This took Aircel from a small regional player to a pan-India operator. If the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) valuation of 2G licences is taken as a yardstick, the value of Aircel licences cleared by Maran would amount to approximately Rs 22,000 crore. But Aircel paid just Rs 1,399 crore.
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Attitudinal change: The Sterling Group are intrigued by the attitude of the DoT and we, who have been dealing with the DoT for a whole decade and more, have never had this kind of frozen feeling. Unable to fathom why there is a complete lack of response from the DoT we brought the issues to your notice. We also followed up our first letter with a reminder to you on May 3, 2005. Yet there has been no progress in our matter, nor is any difference seen in the attitude of the DoT.In this situation we cannot help to conclude that some powerful element in the Ministry/Government seems bent on stifling matters relating to the Sterling Infotech Group. This is our apprehension. We request you call for our records and examine them and satisfy yourself or have them examined by an impartial official so that the government gets proper advice on the issues relating to the group.
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Quite a stranglehold: With equity interest of 74% in Aircel (comprised of 65% direct interest and 9% indirect interest) and 100% subscription of cumulative redeemable non-convertible preference shares in Deccan Digital Networks Private Limited (“Deccan”), the joint venture company incorporated in the Republic of India, this effectively gives the group 99.3% economic returns from the investment in Aircel.
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Dictating terms: You may kindly recall my meeting with you on 1 February 2006 when we had, inter alia, discussed the issue of the Group of Ministers relating to the vacation of spectrum by the Defence. You had kindly assured me that the Terms of Reference of the GoM would be drawn up exactly the way we wanted, which was to focus only on the issue of vacation of spectrum. I am, however, surprised to note that the GoM as constituted has much wider Terms of Reference, some of which I feel impinge upon the work normally to be carried out by the Ministry itself.I shall be grateful if you could kindly instruct the concerned to modify the Terms of Reference as suggested by us, which are enclosed.
And in a curious coincidence, in February 2007, four months after the licences were granted to Aircel, Ananda Krishnan through one of his group companies, South Asia Entertainment Holding Ltd (SAEHL) invested $150 million (roughly Rs 600 crore) in a phased manner in Sun Direct TV Pvt Ltd by acquiring 20 percent equity in the company owned and run by Dayanidhi’s brother Kalanidhi and his wife Kaveri Maran. The equity investment was cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs.
Almost simultaneously, the Maran family was allotted about 12.6 crore additional equity shares in Sun Direct TV to maintain their total equity at 80 percent. But unlike the staggering rate at which the Maxis Group picked up the Sun Direct shares, the allotment to the Marans was made at par value of Rs 10 per share without charging any premium.
One could argue that either the Maxis investment was overvalued, in which case the Marans were the ultimate beneficiary as they were the majority stakeholders and the Maxis deal brought the much-needed cash for the expansion of Sun Direct TV’s business operations. Or the fresh equity allotment to the Marans was undervalued, which again makes them the real beneficiaries. Also, the DTH company was running in losses at the time of this deal. The annual report of Sun Direct TV for the year 2007- 08 showed their aggregate revenue as Rs 61.16 crore while its losses amounted to Rs 73.27 crore.
Between February 2008 and July 2009, the Maxis Group invested Rs 100 crore more in another Maran family-owned company named South Asia FM Ltd which owns Sun FM radio network. Maxis Group subsidiary South Asia Multimedia Technologies Limited (SAMT) invested Rs 50 crore in equity of South Asia FM Ltd and Rs 43.9 crore in preference shares of SAFL.
The million-dollar question is, do Maxis- Sun TV and Maxis-Sun FM deals qualify as quid pro quo on similar lines as the Rs 200 crore Balwa-Kalaignar deal? Both the deals materialised soon after the respective telecom companies were granted the UAS licences and with it the precious 2G spectrum. And in both the cases it’s the companies owned by the extended Karunanidhi family that benefited.
In fact, while A Raja and his family had zero stake in Kalaignar TV, Dayanidhi Maran’s brother Kalanidhi and his wife Kaveri owned 80 percent stake in Sun Direct TV. At first sight, as far as the suggestion of give-and-take is concerned, the dots connect clearer in the case of the Marans than they do in Raja’s.
Unmistakably, the chain of events preceding the grant of licences to Aircel raises a stink about Maran’s policies.
On 5 March 2004, when NDA was in power and Arun Shourie was telecom minister, Dishnet Wireless Ltd (a sister concern of Aircel owned by the same parent group, Siva Ventures Ltd) applied for grant of UASL for eight areas including Madhya Pradesh. Until then Aircel had cellular operations in just two circles—Chennai and Tamil Nadu.
Just one month after the application, the DoT issued the letter of intent (LoI) for all the eight areas. But licences were signed for seven service areas, leaving out Madhya Pradesh. Aircel Ltd was the company holding the licence to operate in Tamil Nadu circle and was also the holding company of both Aircel Cellular Ltd, which held the licence for Chennai circle and Dishnet Wireless Ltd, which held the licence for the other circles. All three companies operated their telecom services under brand Aircel. Aircel Ltd was wholly owned by C Sivasankaran’s Sterling Infotech Group (now known as Siva Group).
On 21 April 2004, Dishnet made applications for UASLs for UP (East) and UP (West).
Though for Madhya Pradesh, LOI had already been issued, on 5 May 2004, for the first time, the DoT raised queries about the aspects of funding and Dishnet’s net worth. As a result, Dishnet’s licence for Madhya Pradesh and its applications for other service areas were withheld.
On 26 May 2004, Maran took over as telecom minister.
In June 2004, Dishnet sent a detailed submission clarifying all the issues raised by the DoT.
On 8 July 2004, Secretary, DoT endorsed a proposal for issuing LoI for UP (East) and UP (West) service areas and also for extending time for signing licence for Madhya Pradesh. The proposal was then put up before Maran for his approval.
On 24 August 2004, the personal secretary to Maran put up a note that he had been directed to seek clarification as to financial and equity holdings between Dishnet and its sister concerns holding licence elsewhere, particularly in Tamil Nadu and Chennai; status of newspapers reports regarding sale of Dishnet or its sister concerns; verification whether Dishnet or its sister concerns had sold licences to another company and legal implications of allegation of company having violated certain licence conditions. Based on the same a notice was issued to Dishnet, who submitted a detailed clarification.
For the next four months, different sections within DoT raised various legal issues. Subsequently, the file was submitted to the Legal Adviser but was withdrawn on 17 December 2004.
On 1 March 2005, Dishnet applied for licences in four more circles — Haryana, Kerala, Kolkata and Punjab.
On 30 March 2005, a note was put up by Secretary, DoT that “As discussed with the minister (read Dayanidhi Maran) the files of the applicant were being returned with a direction that Director should ascertain all the show-cause notices or advisory letters issued to the applicant or its group companies.”
Dishnet’s file moved around between different sections in DoT without any decision being taken. In the meantime, the FDI cap in the telecom sector was increased from 49 percent to 74 percent.
In October 2005, Malaysia-based Maxis Group approached Sivasankaran to acquire Aircel.
On 14 December 2005, DoT announced new UASL guidelines for grant of UAS licence stipulating that there would be no restriction on the number of entrants in any service area and no single company, either directly or through its associates shall have a substantial equity holding (10 percent or more) in more than one telecom company in the same service area.
On 30 December 2005, the acquisition agreement between Aircel and Maxis was signed. Dishnet’s pending applications now acquired urgency in the ministry.
In a letter dated 2 January 2006, Dishnet was asked to furnish information as per the new guidelines, which it did in 17 days.
On 12 January 2006, Aircel applied for UAS licenses in four new circles — Karnataka, Rajasthan, Mumbai and Maharashtra.
On February 2006, the start-up spectrum for Bihar, which was pending since May 2004, was allotted to Dishnet (subsidiary of Aircel).
On 3 March 2006, Aircel applied for three more telecom circles — Delhi, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.
On 13 March 2006, the spectrum for Himachal Pradesh was allotted. This too was pending since Maran’s takeover as telecom minister.
In March 2006, T Ananda Krishnan informed shareholders that the company has completed the deal to buy 74 percent equity in Aircel from Sivasankaran’s Sterling Infotech Group.
On 19 April 2006, a senior DoT official put ups a note enquiring about the status of the showcause notices, as he says the same has to be submitted to the minister.
On 22 May 2006, Dishnet submitted a revised equity structure, FIPB approval, etc.
On 1 November 2006, the grant of issuance of Letter of Intents for 14 circles including Madhya Pradesh was approved. Within a fortnight, all the 14 licences are issued. Aircel paid Rs 1,399.47 crore for these 14 licences and from a small regional player it became a pan-India operator.
Justice Shivraj Patil in his report has come down hard on Maran’s delaying tactics. He has observed: “The clarifications sought (in the case of Dishnet on different occasions) besides being vague, were also irrelevant for consideration of application for grant of UASLs.” Justice Patil has also remarked that on several occasions Maran deviated from the laid down procedures. He said, “Ascertaining of showcause notices/advisory letters was again not warranted in terms of the laid down procedure.”
Was Sivasankaran Arm-twisted into selling Aircel to malaysia-based Maxis group?
So was C Sivasankaran, the chairman of Siva Group (erstwhile known as Sterling Infotech Group), a $3 billion conglomerate with interests in realty, telecom, shipping, energy and software, harassed by Maran? Was he pressurised into selling his telecom company, Aircel Ltd, to Malaysian billionaire Ananda Krishnan? Sivasankaran got $800 million for selling his company to Maxis. At the time of the sale, Aircel was operating in only nine circles while its applications for seven circles were lying in limbo. Also, it is reliably known that Aircel wanted to apply for more circles but didn’t do so simply because their old applications were still lying in abeyance. If Aircel was sold after these licences were granted, the company’s net worth would have increased and thus Sivasankaran could have got more money from the sale. Today, Aircel is a pan- India operator, thanks to the 14 licences given by Maran, and is valued in the range of $7.5-$8 billion.
On 1 June 2005, while Maran was in the saddle, Sivasankaran wrote him a letter alleging that his applications for new licences were being sabotaged by “some powerful element in the ministry”. Though he refrained from putting the blame on Maran, he wrote: “The Sterling Group are intrigued by the attitude of the DoT and we, who have been dealing with the DoT for a whole decade and more, have never had this kind of frozen feeling. Unable to fathom why there is a complete lack of response from the DoTwe brought the issues to your notice…. Yet there has been no progress in our matter, nor is there any difference seen in the attitude of the DoT.”
The letter further read: “In this situation we cannot help to conclude that some powerful element in the Ministry/Government seems bent on stifling matters relating to the Sterling Infotech Group.”
While Maran was minister, DoT not only delayed the issuance of new licences to Aircel, it also delayed the allotment of spectrum for the licences that had already been issued before Maran became the minister. Justice Patil’s report has called this delay as unjustified.
Dishnet was awarded licenses for Bihar and Himachal Pradesh circles (besides five more circles) in March 2004 (during the NDA regime). But it was not allocated the start-up spectrum, which comes with the licence, in Bihar till February 2006 and in Himachal Pradesh till March 2006. Justice Patil in his report has laid out Maran’s delaying tactics in detail.
In his report, Justice Patil says: “On 09.06.2005 a proposal for earmarking 4.4. + 4.4 MHz for Dishnet in Bihar circle was put up for approval within DoT. However, on 14.06.2005 Member (Technical), DoT desired to know if the case was approved by the minister.”
This note goes on to state that despite the spectrum being available for allocation to Dishnet in Bihar, the DoT bureaucrats did not clear the allocation because there was no go-ahead from Maran.
The report says: “Wireless Adviser (who works within DoT) put up a note on 16.06.2005 directing that the approval had to be decided at the level of Special Secretary… the case again having been put up for approval Secretary, DoT on 26.07.2005 desired to know the stage of network planning and identification of sites for main switching centres. Subsequently, several notes were put up for verification of the said aspects and it was only on 4.02.2006 that allotment of initial spectrum was approved.” There was no justification for delay in approval of allotment of initial spectrum despite availability, Justice Patil concluded.
SOMETHING AS small as the request for name change made by Sivasankaran was also not cleared by Maran. On 4 April 2005 Sivasankaran wrote to Maran: “Consequent to change in the name of the company from Dishnet DSL Ltd to Dishnet Wireless Ltd, we have made a request for effecting the change of the name of the company in UAS licence. This is pending for the last eight months. Such a request is normally cleared at the lowest levels in the administration and instantly.”
In the same letter, Sivasankaran further wrote: “I am bringing these unusual occurrences to the Hon’ble Minister’s notice only to show how there appears to be some unspoken convergence in the delays and denials.”
However, Sivasankaran’s repeated pleas made no difference to his prospects as far as DoT’s approvals were concerned. In October 2005, he received an ‘unsolicited offer’ from Malaysia-based Maxis Communications to acquire Aircel. Since the cap on FDI in telecom sector was 74 percent, the remaining 26 percent was picked up by Reddys of Apollo Hospital. On 30 December 2005, Maxis and Aircel signed the agreement.
So was Sivasankaran arm-twisted into selling his company to Maxis Group? So far, Sivasankaran has not levelled any allegation against Maran. In fact, after selling off Aircel, Siva Group formed another telecom company named S-Tel, which was granted licences for six circles by A Raja in 2008. S-Tel is now being investigated by the CBI for suspected illegal gains.
When contacted by TEHELKA, Sivasankaran refused to comment on these issues.
Maxis buys out Aircel; the Company’s fortunes do a Turn-around
In March 2006, Maxis invested an aggregate amount of Rs 7,880.82 crore in Aircel. While Maxis picked up the 65 percent direct equity through its 100 percent subsidiary Global Communication Services Holdings Ltd, it picked up 9 percent equity through another company named Deccan Digital Private Ltd in which Maxis owned 26 percent equity. As per the FDI norms in telecom sector, a foreign company can hold a maximum of 74 percent equity in a telecom company. The amount invested by Maxis through direct equity was Rs 3,390.82 crore ( Rs 3,379 crore + Rs 11.82 crore). However, Maxis invested another Rs 4,490 crore in Aircel by the way of preference shares. The total investment thus amounted to Rs 7,880.82 crore. The remaining 26 percent equity in Aircel was picked up by the Reddy family of Apollo Hospital fame (See the chart on Maxis Investment in Aircel).
The question that arises is that whether such a massive investment done by Maxis in Aircel ( Rs 4,490 crore in preference shares and Rs 3,390.82 crore in equity) gave it virtually full control over the telecom company and was thus a violation of the FDI rules? Compared to Maxis’ Rs 7,880.82 crore of investment, the Reddys merely invested 34.17 crore for their 26 percent indirect equity in Aircel. Reddys invested Rs 34.17 crores for their 74 percent equity in Deccan Digital Pvt Ltd, which in turn held 35 percent equity in Aircel. Deccan Digital picked up the 35 percent equity in Aircel for Rs 1,685 crore, out of which Rs 1,644 crore was financed by Maxis through preference share route (See the chart on Maxis Group Holding Structure in Aircel).
|Total Investment Of Maxis In Aircel|
|Amount (In Crores)||Remarks|
|Equity Shares Of Aircel||3,379||For 65% Equity In Aircel|
|Equity Shares Of Deccan Digital||11.82||For 9% Stake In Aircel (Through 26% Stake In Deccan)|
|Preference Shares Of Aircel||2,846||For 100% Preference Shares Holding In Aircel|
|Preference Shares Of Deccan||1,644||For 100% Preference Shares Holding In Deccan|
In a filing to the Malaysian stock exchange, Bursa Malaysia in March 2006, which was soon after the Maxis-Aircel deal was completed, Maxis made a selfdeclaration of having control of 99.3 percent over the economic returns from their investment in Aircel. Maxis stated: “With equity interest of 74 percent in Aircel (comprising 65 percent direct interest and 9 percent indirect interest) and 100 percent subscription of cumulative redeemable non-convertible preference shares in Deccan Digital, this effectively gives the group 99.3 percent economic returns from the investment in Aircel.”
So have Maxis and their Indian partner, the Reddys of Apollo Hospital, violated FDI guidelines? What was the criterion on which Maxis picked up Reddys as their Indian partner? Certainly financial strength and potential investment that Reddys would bring to Aircel was not a criterion, given the fact that the latter merely invested Rs 34.17 crore in a holding company of Aircel. Were Reddys just a frontman for somebody powerful who could not have directly come into the fray? (Dayanidhi Maran’s father Murasoli Maran underwent prolonged treatment at Apollo Hospital in Chennai in 2003. It is widely believed that Reddys took good care of Murasoli during his hospitalisation and ever since the Maran family and Reddys have become good friends.)
These are the questions for which the CBI is trying to find answers. Pursuant to Supreme Court’s order dated 8 December 2010 instructing the CBI to widen its ongoing 2G probe beyond Raja and include all the licences and spectrum allotments done since 2001, the CBI had registered a Preliminary Inquiry against unknown persons to look into possible criminal aspects in the telecom policy since 2001. According to sources, the inquiry is now close to completion and the CBI will soon decide whether they have enough evidence to register another FIR in the ongoing 2G probe against new players.
In a written statement emailed to TEHELKA, Suneeta Reddy, Director of Apollo Hospitals has stated: “We inform that the Apollo Hospitals and Dr Prathap C Reddy do not have any investments in the telecom sector. We further state that the Sindya Securities and Investments Pvt Ltd promoted by Mr P Dwarakanath Reddy and Mrs Suneeta Reddy have investments in Aircel Entity and this is a strategic investment in telecom sector, which was a growing business opportunity… We therefore state that the investments of Sindya Securities and Investments Pvt Ltd in Aircel Ltd have been in compliance with applicable laws of India and all regulatory consents/approvals, wherever required, have been sought and duly granted by the relevant authorities.” Both Dayanadhi and Kalanidhi Maran did not respond to the detailed questionnaires sent by TEHELKA.
Maxis picks up a substantial equity in Maran family-owned Sun Direct TV and Sun radio
As detailed above, after Maxis’ takeover of Aircel, not only applications for seven circles that were pending for more than two years were cleared, Aircel’s applications for seven new telecom circles that were made after the acquisition were also swiftly given the go-ahead. Aircel paid a total of Rs 1,399 crore for these 14 licenses. As per the CAG’s valuation of 2G licences, these 14 licences could have fetched the government over Rs 22,000 crore, if they had been auctioned in a competitive bid.
In March 2007, which was three months after the award of licences, a Maxis Group company, Astro All Asia Networks through its wholly owned subsidiary South Asia Entertainment Holdings Ltd, announced a joint venture with Sun Direct TV to provide DTH services in India.
On 2 March and 19 March 2007, Foreign Investment Promotion Board and Ministry of Information and Broadcasting gave Astro the required approvals to acquire 20 percent interest in Sun Direct.
On 10 December 2007, Astro completed the subscriptions of 39,677,420 new shares in Sun Direct for a total cash consideration of Rs 315.71 crore. Following the completion of the subscription, Astro had a shareholding interest of 20 percent in Sun Direct.
During the period February 2008-January 2009, Astro subscribed for a further 29,319,882 new shares in Sun Direct for a total cash consideration of Rs 233.3 crore. The new shares were subscribed proportionately with the Maran family’s shareholding in Sun Direct, so Astro’s shareholding remained at 20 percnet equity interest in Sun Direct as before.
On 5 December 2009, Astro subscribed for 6,283,775 additional shares of Rs 10 each in Sun Direct at a total cash consideration of Rs 50 crore at a subscription price of Rs 79.57 per subscription share. Subsequent to the above subscription, the holding of Astro in Sun Direct stood at 20 percent.
On 28 February 2008, a Maxis Group company Astro through its wholly owned subsidiary South Asia Multimedia Technologies Ltd acquired 6.98 percent equity interest in South Asia FM Ltd (SAFL), a FM company owned by the Maran Group, which had licences to own and operate 23 FM radio stations in India, for a total cash consideration of Rs 14.92 crore.
In July 2009, changes to the foreign direct investment (FDI) regulations in the radio industry allowed Astro to increase its direct stake in SAFL to 20 percent in July 2009 in the following manner:
Subscription of 1,922,854 new SAFL equity shares at par at a total subscription price of Rs 19.23 crore on 22 June 2009;
Subscription of 19,389,198 new SAFL equity shares at par at a total subscription price of Rs 19.39 crore on 23 July 2009;
Acquisition of 13,836,296 existing SAFL equity shares from AH Multisoft Private Ltd at par at a total purchase price of Rs 13.84 crore on 23 July 2009; and
Subscription of 43,900, 136 Compulsorily Convertible Preference Shares (CCPS) of Rs 10 each in SAFL at a subscription price of Rs 43.90 crore on 3 August 2009. Denying the allegations of suspected payoffs, Maxis Communication Berhad in a press release issued on 24 May, stated that there was no pressure exerted on Siva Group to sell its stake in Aircel. The company also asserted that there was no linkage between Maxis’ investment in Aircel and that of Astro’s in vestment in Sun Direct TV.
What the CBI is probing in The Maxis-Sun Direct deal?
The CBI has charged Raja for fraudulent implementation of the first-come-first-serve policy of granting licences. The CBI has not faulted Raja for not opting for the auction route, but he has been charged for not revising the 2001 entry fee for different telecom circles keeping in mind the exponential growth in the telecom sector.
According to the CBI, Raja made arbitrary and fraudulent decisions to favour companies like Swan and Unitech and gave them the licences at the 2001 rate and despite several ineligibilities in their applications. And for doing so he and Kannimozhi were allegedly paid a graft of Rs 200 crore disguised as equity investment into DMK-run Kalaignar TV (while many suspected overseas payoffs are also under investigation, so far the CBI has brought only Rs 200 crore Kalaignar deal on record).
The question that arises is whether Maran was also guilty of a fraudulent implementation of first-come-first-serve policy in his alleged bid to favour Aircel, post Maxis buy-out? Or were his dealings with Aircel completely overboard and the apparent give-and-take between Marans and Maxis Group a mere co-incidence?
The CBI in its supplementary chargesheet against Kanimozhi and others have listed as many as 14 reasons to buttress their claim that the Rs 200 crore equity investment/ loan in Kalaignar TV was not a genuine business transaction. The main reasons listed being, I) there was no original shares subscription and shareholder agreement between Cineyug Films Pvt Ltd (Balwa had transferred the money to his subsidiary company Kusegaon Fruits and Vegetable which in turn passed it onto Cineyug and from there it came to Kalaignar TV, II) while Kalaignar and Cineyug claimed that the money was transferred for picking up a 20 percent equity in Kalaignar TV, Kalaignar TV’s balance sheet for year ending 2009 showed a part of this money, Rs 25 crore under head ‘Sundry Creditors and others’, III) in the balance sheet for year ending 2010, Kalaignar TV, the amount of Rs 25 crore was regrouped as unsecured loan, IV) finally the entire amount was not converted into equity but instead shown as loan and was returned, V) the money was returned only after A Raja was asked to join the investigation at CBI headquarters in December 2010.
Will the Maxis-Sun Direct TV and Maxis- Sun Radio equity deals pass the CBI’s litmus tests or will the agency be able to find enough illegalities to prove that these deals were also quid pro quo, along the lines of Balwa-Cineyug-Kalaignar deal?
While the CBI is holding its cards close to its chest, Justice Patil in his report submitted to Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal on 31 January this year, has found Maran lacking on many counts.
Besides the unjustified and unwarranted delay in dealing with Dishnet-Aircel’s applications, the report enumerates a few more instances of Maran’s ad hocism and arbitrariness.
The report says that Idea Cellular was given an extension of one year to rectify the discrepancies in its UASL application (Idea had applied for UASL for Mumbai service area on 3 August 2005). The extension was given without the approval of Member (Finance).
The existing guidelines stipulated that the time for rectifying discrepancies in application could be extended by maximum 30 days and that too with the approval of Member (Finance). But Idea Cellular was given an extension in a clear ‘deviation from laid down procedure’, according to Justice Patil, and was finally issued an LoI on 20 November 2006.
On 14 December 2004, Essar Spacetel Pvt Ltd made applications for grant of UASLs for Assam, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Northeast, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. On 12 January 2005, DoT wrote to Essar Spacetel pointing out deficiencies in its equity structure. The correspondence continued till 18 May 2006. “The information was sought and discrepancies were pointed out in a piecemeal manner,” noted Justice Patil in his report, hinting at Maran’s dubious policies. Letter of Intent was finally issued to Essar on 20 November 2006 for all service areas except Madhya Pradesh. For Madhya Pradesh, LOI was issued on 5 March 2007.
How Maran kept spectrum pricing out of the Finance Ministry’s purview?
Apart from listing the unjustified delay in dealing with Dishnet-Aircel applications and ad hocim shown by Maran in various other licensing related decisions, Justice Patil has also recorded in detail as how Maran kept the critical issue of spectrum pricing out of the Finance Ministry’s purview.
On 23 February 2006, with the approval of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a Group of Ministers (GoM) comprising the Minister for Defence, Minister for Home Affairs, Minister for Finance, Minister for Parliamentary Affairs and Telecom Minister was constituted to look into various issues concerning effective and optimum usage of spectrum. The terms of reference also included suggesting a spectrum pricing policy.
But on 28 February 2006, Maran wrote a letter to Manmohan Singh and asked spectrum pricing to be kept out of GoM’s purview. He wrote: “You may recall my meeting with you on 1st February 2006 when we had inter-alia discussed the issue of the Group of Ministers relating to the vacation of spectrum by Defence. You had kindly assured me that the Terms of Reference of the GoM would be drawn up exactly the way we wanted, which was to focus only on the issue of vacation of spectrum. I am however surprised to note that the GoM as constituted has much wider Terms of Reference some of which I feel impinge upon the work normally to be carried out by the ministry itself. I shall be grateful if you could kindly instruct the concerned to modify the Terms of References suggested by us which are enclosed.”
The PM obliged and the term related to spectrum pricing was deleted in the revised Terms of Reference issued on 7 December 2006. But six months later, on 6 June 2007 (Maran was replaced by Raja on 13 May 2007), the Ministry of Finance sought inclusion of spectrum pricing in the Terms of Reference of GoM. But Secretary, DoT, declined any modification. Thus the precedent set by Maran was continued by Raja. All decisions related to UASL and spectrum pricing were taken by DoT without the concurrence of Finance Ministry that was required under Government of India (Transaction of Business) rules.
Also both the ministers kept the issue of spectrum pricing out of Cabinet and Group of Ministers’ purview. Shockingly, nobody in the government including the PMO raised a flag.
Maran’s three-year-old stay at Sanchar Bhawan was marred by a spate of controversies. He shared an extremely strained relationship with Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Sons. It was widely speculated that Maran brothers wanted to buy a substantial take in Tata Sky but when Tata spurned them, the DOT started putting roadblocks in Tata Teleservices’ expansion plans. The Niira Radia-Ratan Tata tapes which got their way in the media in mid 2010, confirmed Tata’s deep-seated dislike towards Maran and his preference for Raja over Maran as telecom minister.
“The only concern I have is that Maran is going hammer and tongs for Raja. And I hope Raja doesn’t trip or slip,” Ratan was famously heard telling Radia in a phone conversation which happened on 7 July 2009 and which later got leaked in the media.
In February this year, former Telecom Minister Arun Shourie made further dent in Maran’s reputation by blaming him for the genesis of 2G scam.
“It was in Maran’s time that one sentence was put into the guidelines that there shall be no cap on the number of operators in a circle. Such a change could only come in the form of a Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recommendation,” said Shourie.
“This (change) comes in the guidelines of 2005 whereas the TRAI did not recommend it till 2007. So by what horoscope did Mr Maran anticipate these recommendations — two years ahead? That is how some operations were planned that could not go through and then Mr Raja acted on them.”
So, did Maran really lay the foundation of the 2G scam? Was the Aircel-Maxis-Sun Direct TV deal the prototype of payoffs that Raja later followed on a much larger scale? The answer lies in hard evidence and this is where the CBI will be tested.
Ashish Khetan is Editor, Investigations with Tehelka.
Raman Kirpal is Editor, Special Reports with Tehelka.