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2G scam: Why I filed a PIL against the telecom minister

Last updated on: September 16, 2010 12:36 IST

2G scam: Why I filed a PIL against the telecom minister

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Paranjoy Guha Thakurta
On September 13, the Supreme Court issued notices to Telecom Minister A Raja and the CBI following a petition -- filed by two activist groups and senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta -- which alleges that the exchequer suffered a loss of Rs 70,000 crore due to the way 2G spectrum was allocated.

Guha Thakurta explains why he filed the petition.

On Monday (September 13), a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices G S Singhvi and A K Ganguly issued notices to Union Minister for Communications and Information Technology Andimuthu Raja and different agencies of the government of India, such as the Department of Telecommunications, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax Department, asking them to respond within ten days to a public interest litigation petition urging the apex court of the country to monitor a CBI investigation into the alleged irregularities in the manner in which second-generation spectrum was allotted to certain mobile telecom companies thereby causing a huge loss to the exchequer.

The three petitioners were 1. A registered society, the Centre for Public Interest Litigation through its general secretary, advocate Prashant Bhushan; 2. Another registered society, Telecom Watchdog, through its secretary Anil Kumar; and 3. the author of this article.

Why did I, an independent journalist with over 33 years of experience in various media -- print, radio, television and documentary cinema -- and an educator, decide to become a petitioner in this case?

First and foremost, I wish to clarify two points. This is the first and only occasion I have become a petitioner in a PIL. Secondly, I am not just a journalist but also a citizen of India who feels very strongly that it is extremely important to curb corruption in high places.

I have been writing about the 2G spectrum scam for some years now.

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Image: Telecom Minister A Raja. Inset: Paranjoy Guha Thakurta
Photographs: Reuters
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The first article on the topic that I had written was published in The Economic Times in November 2007, was tentatively titled (by me) 'Stealing Spectrum for a Song' and began: 'Spectrum, or electromagnetic radio frequencies that are used by cellular mobile telecommunication service providers, is a national resource that is currently in acute short supply (especially in cities) and hence, should be expensive. Right? Wrong!'

'Communications Minister A Raja has bent rules and sought to selectively implement recommendations made by telecom experts including those in the Department of Telecommunications and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. In the process, one player stands to gain the most and the likely loss to the exchequer could be as high as Rs 10,000 crore (Rs 100 billion). Unless, that is, the courts and Parliament intervene.'

I was way off the mark as far as the money involved in the scam was concerned. The actual amount is probably seven times higher or even ten times higher. Soon after the article appeared in ET, a legal notice was served on me by Reliance Communications. But that's another story.

Thereafter, over the next few years, I wrote many articles for different publications including the New Indian Express, the Hindustan Times, Caravan, Current, Realpolitik and Tehelka. I also spoke on the subject on television channels like NDTV India, Times NOW, Headlines Today, UTV-Bloomberg, among others, and was interviewed on the topic by Newsclick.

I was hardly the only journalist writing on the topic. Many others before me had been writing on the same subject, among whom were J Gopikrishnan (Pioneer), Sunil Jain (Business Standard), Shalini Singh (Times of India), Ravi V Prasad (freelance), among others.

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Image: Image used for representational purposes only
Photographs: Reuters
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Some of us later addressed a conference of auditors at an institution run by the Comptroller & Auditor General of India.

When Prashant Bhushan asked me if I would have any objections becoming a petitioner in a PIL case that he and other like-minded persons were planning, I instinctively answered in the affirmative though I had never ever had done anything like this before.

Some of my friends told me: "Why are you getting involved in such extraneous activities? You should stick to journalism."

After I signed a vakalatnama that Prashant's colleague Pranav Sachdeva sent me, I forgot all about the petition.

When, on May 25, the Delhi high court dismissed the PIL, the sceptics -- including one of my important sources of information -- remarked: "Didn't I tell you this would happen?"

It was then decided that a special leave petition would be filed in the Supreme Court and to my pleasant surprise, on September 13, the apex court responded by serving a notice on Telecom Minister A Raja and various wings of the Union government.

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Image: Image used for representational purposes only
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Over the next 48 hours, I received many phone calls and messages supporting the initiative. But this is no personal achievement. Scores of people, among them whistle-blowers -- some of them working at great risk to their personal security -- deserve a lot of credit.

Flashback: Date and time: January 10, 2008. 2.45 pm. Venue: Sanchar Bhavan in central Delhi. The DoT posts an announcement on its Web site saying letters of intent for telecom licences with spectrum would be issued between 3.30 pm and 4.30 pm that afternoon and that application fees (worth over Rs 1,000 crore or Rs 10 billion) would have to be paid immediately by demand draft together with voluminous supporting documentation.

Licences are later given to those who deposited their fees first by even a fraction of a second -- using the infamous 'first-come-first-served' system used to sell cinema tickets.

In the mad melee, a few well-heeled CEOs are manhandled (some of the action is captured on television). A couple of DoT staffers are bashed up before the cops turn up, late as usual!

Question: Was this the best way to allot a scarce national resource like spectrum, Mr Raja?

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Image: Image used for representational purposes only
Photographs: Reuters
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Fast-forward: Date: May 24, 2010. Venue: Vigyan Bhavan. The occasion: A press conference by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He quotes Mr Raja's justification for undervaluing 2G spectrum in his interview to The Hindu on May 22 and quickly adds that if the CBI, which is investigating the allegations against Raja, comes up with incriminating evidence, the government would take action.

'I would like to say that our government has been very clear right from the beginning that corruption is a problem,' the prime minister remarks, adding, 'if I come to know that there is any involvement at any level in corruption, we will take action.'

The synopsis of the petition accepted by the Supreme Court, in part, reads: 'The petitioners... filed a petition seeking a thorough court monitored investigation into the 2G spectrum allocation scam that has caused the national exchequer an estimated Rs 70,000 crore (Rs 700 billion) and huge national outrage. Simply in terms of the scale of money that has been swindled, it is easily the biggest scam that this country has ever seen.'

'A sitting Union Cabinet minister has been found to be directly involved and tapes of his conversations with corporate middlemen are available. The entire investigation being carried out by the CBI has been scuttled to protect vested political interests, corporate and other middlemen involved. That is why to ensure people's right to life in a corruption-free environment and to enforce the rule of law, the petitioners had moved the Delhi High Court.'

'The petitioners had sought a thorough investigation by a court-appointed SIT (Special Investigating Team), or in the alternative, the investigation which is being carried out by the CBI to be court monitored.'

Rediff.com has reproduced the full text of the PIL petition.


Image: Image used for representational purposes only
Photographs: Reuters
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