The legal proceedings in the tariff order dispute between Star India and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) are all set to go back to square one, after the recusal of judges hearing the matter in the Madras High Court. While Star India and the central government had completed their submissions before the court, TRAI was in the process of making its submissions through its counsel, P Wilson.
The next step in the proceedings was the intervention of All India Digital Cable Federation (AIDCF) following which Star would have been given the opportunity to counter-argue. However, the new bench, which will now be appointed by the Chief Justice to look into the matter, will begin to hear the arguments from the concerned parties all over again. As a result, Star India and AIDCF will have to make their submissions once more.
In early March, while permitting TRAI to notify its tariff order, the Supreme Court had directed the Madras HC to dispose the case within a period of 60 days. The two-judge bench had already spent more than 30 days adjudicating the matter. Justice Indira Banerjee, who was sworn in as the Chief Justice of the Madras HC on April 5, is expected to nominate a new bench to preside over the case by Friday.
The resolution of the dispute will depend greatly on the pace and urgency exhibited by the new bench in settling the matter. It is Star India and Vijay TV’s contention that TRAI has violated the Copyright Act and overstepped its jurisdiction by pricing content through its tariff order. TRAI, on the other hand, has maintained that it is well within its powers to regulate the broadcasting sector and the pricing. With the publication of the tariff order in the Gazette of India on April 3, TRAI’s ruling is slated to come into force on May 2.
Earlier this week, an “anonymous petition”, described as a “ghost letter” by our sources, led to the voluntary recusal of Justice S Nagamuthu and Justice Anita Sumanth from the case. The petition alleged that Star India’s counsel and former finance minister P Chidambaram was approached by Justice Nagamuthu to be appointed as a judge. As the proceedings lay scuttled, for now, a source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, claimed that the damning objections could not have come from the side of Star since no petitioner would downgrade its own counsel.
The recusal of the judges came as a “huge surprise” to all those who were closely following what has been a long-drawn battle between broadcasters and the regulatory body. In October last year, TRAI came out with the first draft of the Telecommunication (Broadcasting and Cable) Services (Eighth) (Addressable Systems) Tariff Order, 2017. The order outlined the seven genres, which each channel had to identify itself with, besides prescribing genre-wise price caps. After receiving a nod from the Supreme Court in March, TRAI notified the tariff order but handed out some concessions to broadcasters, which included doing away with genre-wise price ceilings.