Mobile carrier Robi yesterday hinted that it may move to an international arbitration body to settle the government’s audit claim worth Tk 867.23 crore if the operator fails to get justice in Bangladesh.
In an interview with a group of journalists at Robi headquarters in the capital, Mahtab Uddin Ahmed, chief executive officer and managing director of the company, said they may take the issue to the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, one of the five agencies of World Bank Group.
He also said they have every respect for the country’s courts and their judgments and that they want the issue to be resolved under the country’s law.
Robi’s shareholders invested in Bangladesh under the Foreign Private Investment Promotion and Protection Act, which allows the investors to move to an international court, Mahtab said.
“Shareholders have that option of taking it to an international court, and as far as we are concerned, this is not desirable. But depending on the situation our shareholders may exercise the option,” said the CEO.
Currently, Malaysia-based Axiata holds 68.7 percent controlling stake of Robi while Indian Bharti Airtel holds 25 percent and NTT DOCOMO of Japan 6.3 percent.
Following an audit in 2016, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) claimed that Robi had owed Tk 867.23 crore for dodging revenue share, taxes and late fees accumulated until December 2014 since its inception in 1997.
The BTRC on July 31 last year issued a notice asking Robi Axiata to pay Tk 867.23cr as dues.
Later on, Robi file the appeal with a lower court in Dhaka seeking an injunction on the realisation of the money by the BTRC but the court turned down the petition.
Robi then moved the appeal to the High Court in October this year.
The HC initially fixed November 3 for hearing the appeal, but it was later shifted to November 14.
Mahtab said they are interested to settle the matter out of the court and willing to show the respect to the decisions taken at the meeting with Prime Minister’s ICT Affairs Adviser Sajeeb Wazed Joy on October 21.
But the telecom regulator didn’t comply with Joy’s directive, he said.
At that meeting, a decision was made that Robi will have to deposit Tk 50 crore in BTRC’s account to review the audit report by a review committee and no case proceeding will move forward, he said.
“We are always ready to deposit for the review as we know that the claim in the BTRC’s audit report will not sustain eventually,” said Mahtab, the first Bangladeshi CEO of a foreign-owned mobile operator.
He said based on the audit claim, the BTRC had halted issuing all kinds of no objection certificates (NOCs) to Robi since July this year.
These NOCs are directly linked to our new investments, network maintenance and upgradation, he said, adding that such restrictions have made it difficult for them to offer quality service to the subscribers.
“As we can’t maintain our network and can’t increase the capacity, our service quality starts deteriorating,” said the Robi CEO.
Robi had a plan to invest $248 million in 2019, but about $150 million may remain unused at the end of the year, Mahtab said, adding that shareholders might slash their next annual budget.
As of September 2019, Robi has 4.82 crore active customers with a market share of 29.49 percent.