India

Modi govt’s plan to revive BSNL hits financial fraud; enquiry ordered in Himachal Pradesh

Approximately 75 properties managed by BSNL are under investigation in Himachal Pradesh for flouting revenue rules

Dhairya Maheshwari

Even as the Narendra Modi government lends a push to minimise the losses of state-run telecom giant Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), an investigation by National Herald has revealed that the countrywide portfolio of properties managed by BSNL are being illegally mutated from the Department of Telecom.

The allegations, under investigation in Himachal Pradesh, would mean lesser revenues for BSNL, in turn affecting government’s plans to monetise government’s assets.

Official sources have told National Herald that the District Collector of Shimla has sought revenue records from concerned tehsildars to ascertain whether any stamp duty was paid at all at the time of transferring DoT’s properties to BSNL.

It has reliably been learnt that out of approximately 250 properties that BSNL manages in Himachal Pradesh, between 70 and 75 have already been mutated to BSNL without paying any duty. The in turn has caused a huge stamp duty loss to the state government.

Sources say that the remaining 11 DCs in Himachal Pradesh are likely to follow suit and seek records from concerned local authorities. District officials believe that the enquiry could trigger a larger investigation across the country, affecting over 7,000 properties that BSNL manages.

A fine on concerned officials from DoT and BSNL is in order if there is any wrong-doing. In case of BSNL, if its employees are found to have been impersonating DoT officials, then a criminal suit may follow, say sources.

As per official records, BSNL is managing over 7,000 properties, many of them in posh neighbourhoods across different parts of the country. Raising revenue through monetisation of BSNL’s land and property assets is a crucial aspect of raising much needed money for the loss-making PSU.

The revelations emerge as the Digital Communications Commission, under the DoT, actively contemplates leasing out land assets belonging to BSNL to other operators in order to maximise revenue of the loss-making telecom giant. However, officials have questioned as to how such a transfer might take place, since the properties haven’t even been rightfully transferred from the DoT to BSNL as of today.

High-ranking officials have admitted to National Herald that the leasing of properties to other organisations would “technically” be impossible unless the requisite stamp duties are paid to the respective state governments.

AK Kaushik, a retired official at the Department of Telecom, believes that the entire fraud in illegally transferring properties from the DoT to BSNL is being carried out with the involvement of high-ranking officials from the DoT. "Clearly, they want to have under-hand dealings with the private players," he observes. He cites the deal between finalised between the Tata Group and Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited in 2002, as part of which the Tatas acquired 25 per cent stake in VSNL for Rs 1,439 crore.

"Today, the Tatas are virtually managing all the properties on behalf of VSNL, a portfolio whose actual worth is much more than what the Tatas paid," he notes.

"The same strategy is being followed in the case of BSNL. Obviously, the dealings will deprive the government of much needed-revenue which could be pumped into reviving the BSNL," adds the veteran telecom official. Kaushik says that monetisation of assets is one of the most important aspects of the revival plan under this government.

As part of BSNL’s revival plan, the DoT, in consultations with BSNL’s management, is contemplating:

1. Allocation of 4G licenses, a demand by BSNL that’s been long overdue

2. Modernisation of the optical fibre network

3. Monetisation of land assets through leasing out BSNL’s properties (technically DoT’s) to other players

The plans for revival of BSNL have been necessitated by successive years of loss-making by the state-managed giant. BSNL reported a loss of Rs 4,800 crore for the financial year 2017-18.

The financial situation is so dire that the PSU has been loaning money from the banks by mortgaging its revenue accounts in profitable circles in southern India, say officials.

However, it is being warned that the avoidance of stamp duties by DoT could pose serious legal and regulatory hurdles in reviving BSNL.

(This is the second article in a series of two-part investigation by National Herald on the ongoing irregulairites within DoT and BSNL. The first part can be accessed from here).

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Published: 8 Mar 2019, 4:44 PM