Massive financial irregularities are allegedly being committed in transferring the land and building assets of Department of Telecom (DoT) to Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), an ongoing “mutation” process involving over 7,000 properties all over the country and whose net worth is pegged at between ₹2-3 lakh crore, by the most conservative estimates.
Official sources have confirmed it to National Herald that there is a “direct collusion” at play between high-ranking officials at the Department of Telecom and the top brass of BSNL, a public sector undertaking (PSU) incorporated in 2000 by a cabinet order after merging operations of erstwhile Department of Telecom Service (DTS) and the Department of Telecom Operations (DTO).
As per the land revenue rules, the change in ownership from Department of Telecom to BSNL required the DoT to pay stamp duties in different states.
However, the DoT has so far not paid a single penny to any of the states in stamp duties in the mutation process, despite a cabinet order in 2000 and a presidential directive in 2011 advising the DoT to follow the due procedure.
“In the case of BSNL, the above charges (stamp duty) should be agreed to be paid by the GOI. Thus, there would be no financial implication for BSNL on this account,” stipulated a secret note to the Department of Telecom Services in 2000.
Similarly, a Presidential Order dated 18.04.2011 categorically stated that no “mutation” transfer of DoT’s properties to BSNL was to be carried out without following the due process and taking into the loop the Comptroller of Communications Accounts (CCA) in different states.
From interactions with officials from BSNL, it is understood that state governments are entitled to an average stamp duty of five per cent on all DoT’s properties during the transfer process, roughly translating into ₹15,000-20,000 crore in missed revenues for the states.
The allegations further raise propriety accusations on the roles of Member (Finance) Department of Telecom, Deputy Director General (Assets Management) at the DoT as well as the top management of BSNL, which has been accused in Himachal Pradesh of fraudulently transferring DoT’s heritage property in Shimla to several banks. Records show that the “irregularities” committed by BSNL are being probed after orders from the state’s Director General of Police (DGP).
While the Member (Finance), DoT, is the supervisory authority in charge of ensuring that all financial transactions are carried out in transparent manner, the DDG (assets management) is concerned authority directly responsible for handling the land and building assets at DoT.
It has been learnt that one Saurabh Tiwari was the DDG (assets management) since 2010, only being transferred from his posting earlier this year. “Most of these bungling and the violations of stamp duty rules happened during those years,” point out sources within BSNL. Further, the current Member (Finance) Anuradha Mitra, the Advisor (Finance) PK Sinha are said to have handled the land and assets portfolio of DoT’s properties for most part of these years. All the named officials were contacted by National Herald for a comment but declined to reveal anything on the development. Tiwari was at the DoT headquarters from 2009 through 2018, while Anuradha Mitra has been Member (Finance) since 2016 and has also been the cadre controlling officer of the Indian Communication Finance Service (ICFS). Incidentally, Mitra is also the wife of Union Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra.
“It is a very sensitive matter and is being directly handled by senior officials,” said an official from DoT.
While the DoT was busy compiling a portfolio of properties to be managed by BSNL between 2000 and 2012 and no mutations really happened during those years, it was after the current Chief Managing Director Anupam Srivastava took charge of BSNL in May 2013 that the “illegal” effort was lent an impetus.
In at least three different letters to the circles Chief General Managers (CGMs) over 2015 and 2016, dated 14.07.2015, 01.12.2015 and 09.02.2016, Srivastava expressed disappointment over the slow progress in mutating the ownerships of DoT properties to BSNL.
In his letter dated Feb 2, 2016, Srivastava stated, “While going through the reports received from BSNL field units, I am disappointed to note that only 1,827 properties out of 7,406 have been mutated so far despite several requests and reminders from BSNL. The progress achieved in this matter is only 24.67 per cent.”
In another letter dated July 4, 2018, this time from DK Singhal (GM, BSNL) to CMDs, the writer stated that “only 4,490 land parcels” out of a total of 7,576 had been mutated as of then.
No stamp duty has been paid on any of the 4,490 properties transferred in BSNL’s name by the Government of India to the concerned state governments, say official sources.
It is pertinent to note here that BSNL’s top brass lauded the performances of Mumbai and Andhra Pradesh circles in achieving a target of 50-100 per cent. Currently, Mumbai and Andhra Pradesh are among BSNL’s circles where all of DoT’s properties have been transferred in BSNL’s name without paying any stamp duty.
How the illegal property transfers have been taking place?
The Comptroller of Communications Accounts (CCA), posted under the Department of Telecom, has been entrusted with ensuring that the mutation of properties are carried out in different states by following a due procedure. “The heads of CCA units shall be the administrative head of the assets being retained herewith,” reiterated an order from the Government of India on April 19, 2011.
However, in several states, including Gujarat, the CCAs have expressed written objections over the ongoing transfer of properties.
The total worth of these properties across the country is said to be the to the tune of approximately Rs 2 lakh crore, by the most conservative estimates, previously undisclosed records show.
The police in Himachal Pradesh, where the fraudulent transfer of properties is under investigation, have found that that officials from BSNL have allegedly been colluding with local authorities at the time of transfer of properties, while the role of CCA had been completely overlooked.
“Officials from BSNL have been approaching the land department, posing as those from CCA, while carrying out the transfer process,” say sources.
It is understood that such a modus operandi, where BSNL officials have been fraudulently posing as those from the DoT to make the land transfers, has also been followed in Gujarat, Maharashtra and a few north-eastern circles, among others. In each of these cases, objections expressed by the CCAs have been ignored by the top brass of the BSNL.
The Chief Secretaries of all the states and UTs have been apprised of the matter by their relevant CCAs, though little or no action has been initiated so far.
The transfer of properties to BSNL puts a big question mark on several high-profile properties which have been leased out to other operators, including the Central Telegraph Offices (CTOs) in Shimla and Mumbai’s Fort area.
Nearly 20,000 square feet of CTO office in Mumbai was rented out to the state government to develop five new courtrooms for the Bombay High Court, at a rent of ₹ 9 crore per year.
“It was BSNL who lent out these office spaces, even though they weren’t the rightful owners. Now, a court is illegally function from the same building,” point out government officials.