2016: Top business groups, bad loans, demonetisation engaged Supreme Court

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Legal issues concerning large conglomerates like Tatas, Birlas, Ambanis and Adanis hogged the limelight last year in the Supreme Court where Narendra Modi government faced the acid test on the legality of its path-breaking policy decision on demonetisation.

Supreme Court2016 also saw the swinging fortunes of some corporate czars like Mukesh Ambani, whose Reliance Jio cleared all roadblocks in the top court to offer voice services on its 4G spectrum, and liquor baron Vijay Mallya, who faced its wrath for fleeing the country.

Mallya’s partner in promoting a Formula One team Subrata Roy, the embattled Sahara supremo, had better luck in the apex court which allowed him to come out of over two years of incarceration in the Tihar Jail to arrange around Rs 40,000 crore for refunding the investors.

Sahara was also in the news for the wrong reasons, along with the Aditya Birla Group, as they were accused by an NGO of allegedly paying bribes to top politicians including Modi, who was then the Chief Minister of Gujarat.

However, the top court, from the very beginning, questioned the credibility of the materials that formed the basis of the allegation, which the NGO claimed was based on documents recovered from the premises of the two business houses during the income tax raid in 2013 and 2014.

But, the fag end of the year saw the NDA government trying hard to defend the pre-midnight announcement of 8 November, 2016 by the Prime Minister declaring cessation of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes as legal tender, as the Supreme Court asked a volley of searching questions over a period of time to push it for taking corrective measures to check the inconvenience faced by the people.

The government, which was initially struggling to justify its demonetisation decision, got a sigh of relief when the top court refused to interfere with it and referred the matter to a five-judge constitution bench to consider nine issues framed by a bench headed by Chief Justice T S Thakur.

Amidst these developments, Anil Ambani’s Reliance ADA Group failed to defend in the top court the order of the Appellate Tribunal for Electricity allowing its Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project (UMPP) to recover Rs 1,050 crore worth of alleged dues from power distribution firms.

Tatas suffered a jolt over the land acquired in Singur in West Bengal for its small car plant for Nano, which was shifted to Gujarat. The verdict came as a huge setback to Tata Motors which had sought Rs 1,400 crore damages from the state for the losses it had suffered at Singur.

Adani Ports and Special Economic Zones Ltd (APSEZ), India’s biggest private port operator which had won the contract for the Rs 6,000-crore Vizhinjam Port Project in Thiruvananthapuram, was also embroiled in legal wranglings in the Supreme Court which paved the way for resumption of hearing before the National Green Tribunal on pleas seeking withdrawal of environment clearance to it.

The apathy of builders in not handing over possession of flats to customers on time, prompted the homebuyers to rush to the Supreme Court which dealt sternly with many of them like Unitech, Parsvnath, Supertech and DLF by making stinging remarks like “sink or die” and directing the realtors to return the money to its investors.

The callous attitude of the builders forced not only the general public, but even the high and mighty like Olympic medallist Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, the Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, to approach the apex court, which in one case directed Parsvnath developers to hand over possession of a flat in Gurgaon to him within two days.

Mallya, the liquor baron known as ‘King of Good Times’, ran into rough weather and fled to the United Kingdom creating a huge controversy here. He was taken to task when a consortium of lending banks moved the apex court which asked him to make a complete disclosure of his properties in India as well as overseas.

The court also pulled up Mallya for not giving details of USD 40 million which he had allegedly received from British firm Diageo Plc in February this year.

Default in payment of loans by big business and corporates was one issue which on regular intervals saw the apex court expressing unhappiness. While dealing with a 2005 PIL, it directed the RBI to provide a list of companies which were defaulters of bank loans of over Rs 500 crore.

Later, after perusing the RBI report, the top court noted that 57 borrowers had defaulted on loans worth a whopping Rs 85,000 crore and asked the central bank why their names should not be made public.

However at the fag end, it said that disclosure of names of such debtors will not lead anywhere as the major issue was to address the “root cause” of accumulation of non-performing assets.

The court, on 14 December, expressed concern over lack of infrastructure, manpower and other facilities at Debt Recovery Tribunals and their appellate bodies, saying lakhs of crores of rupees were NPAs as the recovery mechanism was not up to the mark.

The bench also said it may ask the National Law School and IIM, Bangalore to jointly conduct a study on what “ails” these quasi-judicial bodies — Debt Recovery Tribunals (DRTs) and Debt Recovery Appellate Tribunals (DRATs), meant for recovering bad loans of financial institutions.

The Centre had then said steps, including amending the law governing DRTs and the DRATs, have been taken to strengthen the loan recovery system after which the court reserved its order.

Automobile giants like the German Mercedes-Benz and the Japanese Toyota had to approach the Supreme Court urging it to lift its order banning registration of luxury vehicles having engine capacity of 2000cc and above in Delhi and NCR.

They got a major relief when the court, which had ordered the ban due to a spurt in the pollution level, allowed registration of such vehicles on payment of one per cent of the ex-showroom price of such automobiles as green cess.

All telecom companies had a moment of scare when the Delhi High Court upheld the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) decision making it mandatory for cellular operators to compensate subscribers for call drops, as they rushed to the apex court challenging the verdict.

The top court granted them the relief and struck down the TRAI’s regulation saying it was “manifestly arbitrary” and an “unreasonable restriction” on the fundamental rights of telcos to carry out the business.

In the year gone by, the apex court delivered a landmark judgement with a majority verdict of 7:2 upholding the validity of tax levied by states on goods entering their territory, saying they were “well within their right” to design their fiscal legislations.

The court also dealt with high magnitude 2G spectrum scam which had created a political storm in 2010, as it dismissed the pleas challenging jurisdiction of the special 2G court to try Aircel-Maxis deal case in which former Telecom Minister Dayanidhi Maran, his brother Kalanithi and others are accused.

Similarly, it also agreed to examine the plea filed by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy seeking framing of guidelines for grant of security clearance by the Centre to firms accused of economic offences from taking part in public auctions.

Swamy had said the Delhi and Bombay High Courts had recently taken divergent views on the issue of security clearance by Ministry of Home Affairs while dealing with e- auction process of private FM radio channels.

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