Prashant Bhushan sees “conflict of interest” in appointment

The Union government on Friday appointed Home Minister P. Chidambaram the chairman of the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) on spectrum, which has a daunting task to accomplish in a matter of days.

With this, Mr. Chidambaram has become the third chairman of the EGoM, replacing Sharad Pawar, who took the place of Pranab Mukherjee

The most important part of the EGOM’s work is to fix the reserve price for spectrum in the 2G auctions scheduled for August.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has recommended a reserve price of Rs.18, 348 crore for 4.4 MHz of pan-India spectrum — a quantum leap from Rs.1,658 crore at which the former Telecom Minister, A. Raja, allocated pan-India licences in 2008.

The industry says a high reserve price will push up the per-minute call tariffs to between 30 paise and Re. 1, while the TRAI’s calculations point to a 4-paise a minute increase, which will decline over the 20-year licence period.

The real challenge for Mr. Chidambaram and the EGoM, which is under the Supreme Court’s watch, arises from the fact that the Telecom Commission, the apex decision-making body comprising the Secretaries of the Department of Telecom, the Finance Ministry, the Department of Information Technology and the Planning Commission, has passed the buck to the EGoM.

So far, the government has not passed any opinion on the TRAI’s recommendations, which are in sharp contrast to the views obtained at the multiple press conferences held on various spectrum issues and policy matters after Mr. Raja resigned in 2010.

Civil appeal

A civil appeal pending against Mr. Chidambaram in the Supreme Court is an additional challenge.

The appeal asks for an investigation into his role in the 2G matter, claiming that he, as Finance Minister, “overruled” the officers of his own Ministry who favoured auction/market-based pricing of spectrum, thereby allowing the 2G scam to take place and the companies concerned to make windfall profits.

The trial court ruled that Mr. Chidambaram had nothing to answer for.

But Prashant Bhushan of the Center for Public Interest Litigation, who has filed this appeal, told The Hindu: “The appointment of a person to the EGoM ... on whom judgement by the SC is awaited, shows the government’s lack of ethical values and sensitivity to conflict of interest.”

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