Week of August 31, 2020

Flight tickets are refunded, PM CARES still stands, and the Court helps out the telecommunications industry

Apex Court Weekly is a weekly round-up of judgments, petitions, orders and notices as they develop at the Supreme Court of India (“the Court”). We also occasionally cover High Courts. We cover some stories that gather national attention and some that should. This update is written by Rahul Srivastava, J.D. candidate at Cornell Law School, and supported by the Cornell India Law Center.

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Prashant Bhushan saga ends

The feud between the Court and one of its most famous litigants may be over. On Monday (August 31), the Court fined Mr. Bhushan Rs. 1 for contempt. If Mr. Bhushan does not pay the fine by September 15, he will be imprisoned for three months and debarred from practicing for three years. Given Mr. Bhushan's contributions as a lawyer, both the Court and the Attorney General agreed that he should not be given a strict punishment. Ironically, Mr. Bhushan announced that he accepted the fine with a tweet. 

PM-Cares funds don't move to NDRF

We've previously covered a petition seeking to move funds from the PM Cares Fund (PMCF) to the National Disaster Response Fund. In Centre for Public Litigation v. Union of India, the Court allowed funds at the PMCF to stay there. The Court held that the two funds are separate, anyone can donate to either fund, and the government can use either fund to fight the pandemic. According to the Court, the PMCF is allowed to avoid audits by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) because it's a charitable trust, unlike the NDRF whose statutory authorization includes CAG audits.

The Court seeks compliance from States

The Court was not pleased with Maharashtra and Delhi because they did not show compliance with the Court's directions. The Court had issued an order directing States and Union Territories (UT) to show their efforts in helping migrant workers during the pandemic. The Court noted that most States had complied with the order, except the State and UT with some of the highest migrant worker populations. 


Telecom companies breathe in relief

Ever since the 2G Telecom "scam" of the late 2000's, telecom companies in India have faced extra public scrutiny. Additionally, as most internet usage in India is through mobile, telecom companies occupy a special significance on life in India. 

Indian telecom companies owe the government more than Rs. 1.6 trillion (~$21.8 billion) in "Adjusted Gross Revenue" (AGR) fees. These fees are a portion of the company's entire revenue, owed because of government licensing and spectrum allocation. In Union of India v. Association of Unified Telecom Service Providers of India etc., the Court granted telecom companies 10 years to pay their remaining dues. 

Many telecom companies began insolvency proceedings under India's new bankruptcy code passed in 2016. The Court here considered whether the companies began these proceedings because they wanted to avoid AGR fees and whether the companies could transfer their license/spectrum (and make money from the sales) as part of the resolution process.[1] The Court allowed the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) to answer that question.[2] Nevertheless, the Court mandated that the companies pay their AGR dues to the government.[3]

The judgment notes that the 10-year repayment plan was brought before the Court after much deliberation by the government and considered the potential economic consequences of forcing an accelerated repayment plan on an essential industry in India.[4] The Court then ordered that the companies pay 10% of their dues by March 2021, and the remaining in yearly installments until 2031.[5]


Airline ticket refunds 

Most people have spent plenty of time with airlines haggling over refunds and cancellations. Well, a global pandemic and petitioning the Court will get everyone who booked air tickets (domestic and international) full refunds. In response to a petition arguing for full refunds, the Directorate General for Civil Aviation told the Court that all air travel tickets cancelled between March 25-May 3 will be fully refunded to the customers. 

Vijay Mallya's review petition dismissed

Absconding "billionaire" and infamous defaulter of loans, Vijay Mallya, filed a review petition before the Court for a 2017 judgment that found him guilty of contempt of court. On Monday (August 31), the Court dismissed the petition. The Court also directed Mr. Mallya to appear before the Court on October 5th. Mr. Mallya has resided in the United Kingdom since 2016. 

The show must go on

While India is averaging more than 80,000 COVID-19 cases everyday, the Court dismissed a petition filed by six states that sought a delay of the NEET and JEE exams. According to the petition, 2.5 million students would be appearing before the exams if they went ahead as scheduled and would naturally compromise the guidelines encouraging social distancing and avoiding large gatherings.


Time for some change

India's former finance minister P Chidambaram argues for substantial judicial reforms, including some at the Court. Crucially, he says that the Court should be elevated to exclusively consider constitutional cases or those that are of great public importance. He also suggests that the executive should discourage the Court from interfering in purely policy matters and should not give Justices any "rewards" post-retirement.

Justice Mishra retires

Justice Mishra's farewell from the Court was met with different reactions, depending on who you ask. This article refers to a controversial legacy, citing Justice Mishra's involvement in controversial cases which may have undermined the public's confidence in the judiciary. However, Attorney General KK Venugopal presented him in a brighter light, calling him an "[T]he iron judge of the Supreme Court." 

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[1] Page 8 of opinion; [2] Page 26 of opinion; [3] Page 38 of opinion; [4] Page 42 of opinion; [5] Page 46 of opinion.