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Six leading telecom companies under-reported revenues by over Rs. 61,000 crore, says CAG

New Delhi, July 22, 2017 - Six private telecom companies understated their revenues by over Rs 61,000 crore, depriving the exchequer of Rs 7,697.62 crore, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India said in a report tabled in Parliament on Friday.

The auditor has also questioned the Department of Telecom (DoT) for failing to take any “proactive steps to ensure that the licencees disclosed their revenue as stipulated in the licence agreements.”

The interest dues on the short-paid revenue would amount to Rs 4,531.62 crore, the auditor has noted, taking the total potential revenue at stake for the government at over Rs 12,220 crore.

This revenue loss occurred over the five-year period from 2010-11 to 2014-15 for five telcos – Bharti Airtel, Vodafone, Idea Cellular, Reliance Communication and Aircel. For SSTL the findings are for the 2006-07 to 2014-15 period.

As per the CAG, the shortfall in licence fee (LF) and Spectrum Usage Charges (SUC) payments owing to the understatement of adjusted gross revenues by telecom players stood at Rs 2,602.24 crore for the country’s largest telecom player Bharti Airtel.

The same amount was Rs 2,152.95 crore for Vodafone, Rs 1,136.29 crore for Idea, Rs 1,072.68 crore for Reliance Communications, Rs 670.85 crore for Aircel and Rs 62.61 crore for SSTL.

Definition challenged

In its response to the audit finding, the DoT has pointed out that the basic definition of gross revenue and adjusted gross revenue was challenged by the operators in 2002-03.

“Since then, there has been protracted litigation and it is continuing till date.”

As per the auditor, the telecom players suppressed revenues through accounting adjustments for commissions or discounts paid to distributors, promotional schemes like free talk-time, as well as discounts for users of post-paid and roaming services.

The exchequer was also shortchanged by understating revenue by simply excluding forex gains, interest income, sale of investment, miscellaneous revenue and profit on sale of fixed assets and dividend income from their reported aggregated gross revenue, as per the CAG. The telecom operators share a percentage of their aggregated gross revenue with the government as annual LF.

Besides, they are also required to pay SUC for using airwaves allotted to them.

The auditor has pointed out that the gross revenue of the licencee operator, as per the licence agreement with the telecom department, prohibits any set-offs of related expenditure from revenue. “We observed non-conformities with conditions of licence agreement in the accounts prepared by all the six operators covered in audit due to which their gross revenues computed for sharing revenue with the Government was understated,” it said.

It further said that even though computation of the gross revenues was not in compliance with the licence agreement, the statutory auditors had always certified that the accounts were prepared in accordance with the guidelines/norms contained in the Licence Agreement.

“The companies always presented an affidavit to DoT affirming that their GR was as defined in the licence agreements.” These statements, it said, appeared to be only a “perfunctory practice.”

The auditor has calculated that the interest dues on the revenue shortfall from telcos add up to Rs 1245.91 crore for Bharti Airtel, Rs 1178.84 crore for Vodafone, Rs 657.88 crore for Idea, Rs 839.09 crore for Reliance Communications, Rs 555.80 crore for Aircel and Rs 54.10 crore for SSTL.

This is not the first time the CAG has red-flagged telcos’ revenues.

In March 2016, the CAG had indicated a loss of Rs 12,489 crore to the exchequer due to understatement of revenues by six telecom operators for the four-year period from 2006-07 to 2009-10. That report is currently under the consideration of the Public Accounts Committee.

The telecom department in its response to the latest report has told the CAG that demands will be raised with operators based on “the final figures reported by CAG, as per the licence agreement and policy decisions of DoT”.

Reacting to its submissions, the CAG has said that this proves that although the revenue share regime was introduced as part of the National Telecom Policy-1999, the department has not been able to realise its due revenue share as envisaged in the licence agreement even after over 17 years of its implementation.

“It would be pertinent to mention here that when the Government decided to reduce the LF for all operators by two per cent effective from April 2004, DoT expected that the reduction would prompt operators to withdraw the challenges against the Government,” the CAG said.

However, the reduction did not have the expected impact and the operators continue to institute litigations against the Government challenging the definition of GR/AGR and demand notes.

“Thus the private service providers got the benefit of reduction in rate of LF but the Government didn’t get the reciprocal benefit of reduction in litigations,” the CAG said.

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