India orders telcos to pay dues now, after top court threatens contempt

By Suchitra Mohanty and Swati Bhat
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India orders telcos to pay dues now, after top court threatens contempt

FILE PHOTO: The Vodafone logo is seen at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona

By Suchitra Mohanty and Swati Bhat

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI (Reuters) - The Indian government ordered mobile carriers on Friday to immediately pay billions of dollars in dues after the Supreme Court threatened the companies and officials with contempt proceedings for failing to implement an earlier ruling.

The court, which had ordered companies including Vodafone Idea <VODA.NS> and Bharti Airtel <BRTI.NS> to pay 920 billion Indian rupees ($13 billion) in overdue levies and interest by Jan. 23, last month rejected petitions seeking a review of the order it issued back in October.

"This is pure contempt, 100% contempt," Justice Arun Mishra told lawyers for the companies and the government on Friday.

Later in the day, the Department of Telecommunications called for "immediate payments" from the telcos. A second order instructed relevant offices to stay open on Saturday to "facilitate the Telecom Licensees to make payments or contact them with respect to any matter related to that."

The companies had contested the government's definition of revenues subject to tax and Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel both flagged risks to their ability to continue as ongoing concerns following the October order. They did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment on the new ruling.

The companies, along with Reliance Jio, which is backed by Asia's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, control more than 90% of India's mobile market.

Jio, a relatively new entrant which has disrupted the market with its cut-price offerings, has paid its dues.

Shares in Vodafone Idea, in which Britain's Vodafone Group <VOD.L> owns a sizable stake, closed down 24.4% after the order. The company's future is in doubt, with Vodafone Group having said it has no plans to commit any more equity into India.

Shares in Bharti Airtel rose 4.64%, as many investors expect it will be able to survive the payment, leaving it and Jio with a potential opportunity to win market share and enjoy an effective duopoly in the sector. In a letter to the government, Bharti Airtel said it would deposit 100 billion rupees by Thursday and pay the balance "well before" the next hearing on March 17.

Justice Mishra rebuked the government for having failed to implement the court order on collecting the dues. "A desk officer in the government stays a Supreme Court order ... Is there any law left in the country?," he said.

"We will draw up contempt against everyone," he added, implying that both company and government officials could be fined or jailed if the dues are not paid by March 17.

Analysts said the court's move could harm the government more broadly, as well as the companies.

"It can't be in anybody's interest if a company as high profile as Vodafone Idea shuts shop. Also, the government's own dues from the sector are at risk," said Mahesh Uppal, director at ComFirst, a telecom consultancy firm.


BANKS BURDENED

Indian banks are burdened with nearly $140 billion of bad loans and face another huge hit if Vodafone Idea is forced into bankruptcy.

Banks in India are owed roughly 300 billion rupees by Vodafone Idea, according to a Macquarie report from last year.

"Banks were yet to make additional provisioning for these loans as they were expecting some sort of a relief from the court," said Siddharth Purohit, an analyst at SMC Institutional Equities.

Banks that have the highest exposure to Vodafone Idea include State Bank of India <SBI.NS>, Punjab National Bank <PNBK.NS>, Canara Bank <CNBK.NS> and Bank of India <BOI.NS>, among others, the Macquarie report said.

Vodafone Idea, which owes the government about $4 billion in dues related to the ruling, has seen its shares slide more than 40% since the court ruling in October.

The broader Indian stock market also reversed early gains to trade lower after the ruling as investors worried about the fallout.

Still, some analysts remained hopeful the government could appeal to the court to review its decision.

"Let's see how the government reacts and what they do. If the government appeals to the court they could still settle it out, and we may see some positives emerge for everyone," said a senior industry analyst, who asked not to be named.


(Additional reporting by Promit Mukherjee and Nupur Anand in Mumbai, Sudarshan Varadhan in New Delhi, and Derek Francis in Bengaluru; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman, Philippa Fletcher and Mark Potter)