TELEPHONE RINGING REPEATEDLY but not answered by an employee sitting next to it? It must be one of the many offices of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), India’s public sector telephone company which has 150,000 employees, with 100,000 eligible for voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) and 77000 already opting for it.
Once part of the Post and Telegraphs Department which runs post offices, it was separated to be a public sector company. The Congress government then split it into two – Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited for Mumbai and Delhi and BSNL for the rest of the country. The BJP-led government is now planning to merge the two again. It also is considering a revival plan for the sinking companies which have been unable to even pay salaries. The VRS is part of that plan, which means almost a lakh of people will be sitting idle and paid pension from tax-payers’ pockets.
While post offices, run departmentally, need not earn to exist, the telephone companies are expected to at least break even, if not make profit. As government staff for long, they became accustomed to a work-culture without accountability. Even with a work force of 1.5 lakhs, phone repairs take ages.
The advent of private mobile phone companies resulted in more and more people doing without BSNL landlines. The only purpose a landline serves for some is as address proof – I know a person paying for a landline and not using it for the last three years. Aadhar card and PAN card now serve that purpose. So many more landlines will be given up. BSNL also has mobile network but faces private competition. It covers rural areas from which the private companies shy away, but its urban network is deficient. Still, BSNL survives mostly on its mobiles and not landlines.
In the mobiles sector there has been a lot of upheaval with the arrival of Reliance Jio of Ambanis. The Telephone Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) appeared to be favouring Jio which was allowed to give free service for three months. One IAS officer, who pointed out that the extension of three more months of free service by Jio may cause revenue loss to government, was immediately transferred.
The other network providers, Airtel and the merged company Vodafone-Idea, have many grievances about the alleged favours shown to Jio and its predatory pricing. Mukhesh Ambani being a fellow-Gujarati and pro-Modi strengthened their case. Jio’s plea to cut inter-usage charges was accepted. It was allowed to reduce the ringing period before a call was ended if not picked up but the same was earlier refused to Vodaphone and Airtel While all others have 4G spectrum, the same was not allotted to BSNL despite promises when BSNL employees’ unions strucki work thrice demanding a level playing field.
After millions of subscribers migrated to Jio, it increased its tariffs, leading to a public outcry and scores of memes on social media. And Reliance spent Rs.1.25 lakh crores of nationalised banks’ (public) money on the project plus a few crores of its own.
When BSNL was approached for much more efficient a fibre-optic net connection with higher speeds, it was said city corporation officials refused permission to dig for laying underground optic fibre cables as BSNL cannot pay bribes but private operators can.
An application for such a connection was accepted but it was not provided even a month after it was paid for. Scores of complaints were sent. BSNL Customer ‘Care’ (Don’t Care?) and even higher authorities did not bother to even reply. Finally It was admitted, by an engineer, that there was no cable and so it was not feasible.
Remember the three-year wait for a telephone connection in the 1960s and 70s?
Or the outdated round-dial instruments when the world was using push-button phones? Visiting the Indian Telephone Industry (ITI) in Bangalore then, I was told: “We have the technology. The government has to allow us to make them.” ITI too cannot bribe.
The telephone industry was always experiencing government and political interferfence. Parliament was told that “only” 10 government departments were authorised to tap telephones. Ramakrishna Hegde lost power on this issue and it has cropped up again with tapping charges against ex-CM H.D. Kumaraswamy’s government.
BSNL says calls after 9 p.m. are free. Most telephones go dead after 9 p.m. Mine does.
After all, what interest will officials show when they are about to retire? One more public sector company needs to be would up. But what is the alternative?