Congress’s Sidhu moves against Punjab’s Fastway Cable

BY VIPIN PUBBY| IN Regional Media | 29/06/2017
The powerful cable TV empire that Sukhbir Badal was thought to have influence over, is now under attack from Congress and AAP MLAs.
VIPIN PUBBY reports

 

Fastway Cable was literally a household name in Punjab during the heyday of the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Parkash Singh Badal. Punjab's biggest TV transmission Multi-System Operator (MSO), it was the source of television transmission to over 70 per cent of the households in this state.

With a monopoly in the business, it was in an enviable position to control the electronic signals and provide better access to the channels it favoured. The quality of transmission depended on the slots it would provide to the Television channels taking its services. Thus while it could not deny access to "unfriendly" channels, because of the provisions of Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act, it would provide them slots in which the transmission quality was poor and unwatchable. A case in point was the treatment it meted to the Day & Night news channel which had to shut down its operations.

The company, owned by Gurdeep Singh Jujhar, was believed to be backed by former deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal. Although he has consistently denied any involvement with the company, the fact is that Fastway was not friendly towards those channels which attacked the Badal government. Badal did not have any shares in the company, contrary to the popular perception, but some of the directors in Sukhbir's other companies were also holding shares in Fastway. Whatever the arrangements, Fastway was widely perceived to be a company "owned" by Badal.

Even chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh had been referring to the monopoly exercised by the Company in curbing media and have vowed to teach it a lesson if he came to power. However, he appeared to have gone soft on the issue and has so far refrained from initiating any action against it.

Irrepressible Navjot Singh Sidhu, who otherwise holds the portfolio of Local Bodies, took the initiative to bring the focus back on the issue during the recent Assembly session.

In a hard-hitting reference in the House, Sidhu charged the Company with tax evasion to the extent of Rs 684 crore. He accused the Company of concealing the number of its cable connections and illegally digging up roads and poles to lay fibre optic cable networks.

"Irrepressible Navjot Singh Sidhu, who otherwise holds the portfolio of Local Bodies, took the initiative to bring the focus back on the issue during the recent Assembly session."

 

He said notices on evasion of four categories of taxes were being slapped on the Company for allegedly causing loss to the state exchequer. These are entertainment tax, sales tax, use of electricity poles and digging roads to lay cables. Sidhu's ministry has jurisdiction over the last two taxes.

Sidhu said it was "astonishing" that though the company had a huge monopoly in the state with about 80 lakh connections, it had claimed that it has given out only 1.25 lakh connections. He also claimed that Punjab has more than 8000 cable operators out of which 6500 were directly under its control while 1500 were indirectly under the control of the Company.

Alleging that the Company was "posing a threat to national security", Sidhu demanded that it be prosecuted under the National Security Act, 1980. Prodding the CM, who was not present in the House, Sidhu said it was now over to Capt Amarinder Singh to register an FIR and initiate a Vigilance inquiry against the Company.

Fastway Transmissions Private Limited lost little time in responding to the allegations. It issued a press release and inserted advertisements in the media to claim that the charges made by Sidhu were false and mere "propaganda" against the Company. It said that the "false and baseless" charges were aimed to benefit MNCs.

"Fastway Transmissions Private Limited lost little time in responding to the allegations."

 

The release said that Fastway and cable operations were distinct and entirely separate business entities and that Fastway was only a MSO and service provider to cable operators. It also said it had nowhere declared that it had only 1.25 lakh connections. The 12-point release also stressed that the Company was regular in payment of Entertainment Tax and "there are no outstanding taxes due or tax theft by the Company".

Kanwar Sandhu, now an Aam Aadmi Party MLA, who had a long drawn out battle with Fastway when he was the Managing Editor of the Day & Night channel, said he had demanded a CBI inquiry against the Company. He said "rising above party lines" he supported Sidhu on the issue. He said he would again take up the issue with the central government.

Sidhu, who has emerged as the strongest critic of the Badal government, is unlikely to rest the matter even though chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh is yet to react on the issue.  

 

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