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Tata may get 90b rupees India bill to close phone deal: sources

[MUMBAI] Tata Group may have to pay around 90 billion rupees (S$1.8 billion) in dues to the Indian government to rescue the proposed sale of its mobile-phone business to Bharti Airtel Ltd, people familiar with the matter said.

The department of telecommunications is demanding that Tata Teleservices Ltd clear any obligations to the government before it approves the deal that was struck in October, the people said, asking not to be identified as the information isn't public. Bharti Airtel, helmed by billionaire Sunil Mittal, is unlikely to agree to pay the sum, two of the people said.

Selling its indebted loss-making carrier will ease Tata's exit from a sector that's been ravaged by a scathing tariff war, escalated by the entry of Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd. in 2016. The competitive field has since shrunk from a dozen operators to one dominated by three large players, as smaller rivals quit, merged or went bankrupt.

Emails sent to Bharti Airtel and telecom ministry seeking comments went unanswered. Tata Group declined to comment.

The situation is fluid, and the amount of the dues could change, according to the people with knowledge of the matter. Tata Group has been urging the telecom ministry to reduce the amount it's asking for, one of the people said. The US$100 billion coffee-to-cars conglomerate is also preparing contingency plans to wind down the business in the worst-case scenario, another person said.

Bharti Airtel, which has posted nine straight quarters of declining profit, agreed to acquire Tata Teleservices's airwaves and users in a "debt-free cash-free" transaction, with an understanding that past liabilities will be settled by the Tata group.

Tata Teleservices's subscriber base has since declined from 40.2 million users to 27.6 million users as of May, accounting for 2.44 per cent of the market, data compiled by Bloomberg shows.

The department of telecommunications has raised similar demands for nearly all the deals underway in India's wireless sector. The ministry sought 72.5 billion rupees of dues before signing off on the merger of Vodafone Group's local unit with Idea Cellular Ltd, which will create India's No 1 wireless carrier by users, overtaking Bharti Airtel. The carriers paid the sum under protest last month.

Reliance Communications Ltd - in the midst of closing the sale of its airwaves, towers and fiber to Reliance Jio - was asked to furnish 7.74 billion rupees in bank guarantees for upcoming dues or see its licences cancelled.

For Tata, this will be the second big payout on a mobile-phone business that's long been in decline. The group agreed to settle a dispute over a US$1.2 billion arbitration award in favor of NTT Docomo Inc in early 2017 after their Indian mobile-phone partnership soured.


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