It has been a long-long wait for the people of Northeast to get better mobile and data services like their fellow countrymen in the “mainland”. Despite repeated reminders by the PMO and the Union Home Ministry, Department of Telecom and the Bharat Sachar Nigam Limited seems to be least bothered in fast-tracking this important project that would not only push Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Digital India” project but also be beneficial for common people and help strengthen security preparedness of forces deployed in remote, terrorism-affected states of the Northeast.

In the series of letters written to the PMO and senior DoT officials including Telecom Minister Manoj Sinha by MPs and other leaders of the Northeast, Arunachal MP Ninong Ering has again written to the Prime Minister alleging that DoT officials were hand-in-glove with HFCL, a bidder company for the project, in sabotaging the project. He has alleged that there have been serious lapses on part of the DoT, which includes violation of CVC guidelines, in favouring HFCL.

Another important letter has the Telecom Equipment Manufacturers Association of India (TEMA) where its Chairman NK Goyal has written to BSNL CMD Anupam Srivastav alleging undue favours to companies in complete violation of tender guidelines and also in complete disregard of CVC manuals. He has asked BSNL to immediately stop favouratism to these companies and immediately award the tender so that deployment of mobile networks could begin in the Northeast and people of the region are no longer deprived of good quality mobile and data services.

In his letter to the Prime Minister, Arunachal Pradesh MP Ninong Ering has said that DoT, BSNL and the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), which is funding the project, “went out of the way” to allow HFCL bids by making post-bid changes during the tendering process. “This is not only against the BSNL’s established process, but also against the CVC guidelines. The entire tender, that would have been finalised in November last year and work would have started by now, is in limbo. It is important to note how some officers of the DoT and the USOF derail the projects. Because of this illegal act of the USOF, DoT and the BSNL, the process is not only being delayed, but is set to go for litigation and deprive the people of the Northeast, especially Arunachal Pradesh, of communication facilities which is the basic requirement for Digital India and financial inclusion,” Mr. Ering stated.

Project conceived in 2010-11
Cabinet approval in August 2014
Tender published on April 8, 2016
Testing completed of 5 shortlisted companies — September 30, 2016

This is not the first time that Mr. Ering has raised the issue with the Prime Minister. Earlier also, he had written to both the Telecom Minister and to the Prime Minister seeking their intervention. “I am sad to inform you that despite my numerous request letters to the Ministry of Communications and follow up letters to your good self, no progress has been made in the mobile tower project. Rather the entire project is set to go for litigation,” Mr. Ering said inhis letter to the Prime Minister.

Ironically, the DoT and BSNL are totally oblivious to the fact that security agencies deployed in terrorism-affected areas of the Northeast and state governments of the region have been demanding better communication facilities so that they could improve and strengthen their preparedness to tackle terrorism. Highlighting this issue, Union Home Secretary Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi wrote to his counterpart in the Telecom Ministry and expressed his dismay over the slow process of strengthening telecom infrastructure in the Northeast. Mr. Mehrishi also pointed out that “lack of adequate cellular coverage in the region has brought a sense of discontentment amongst the youth and general public who despite having means are deprived of benefits of modern means of communication”.

The Union Home Secretary also mentioned that “an analysis of the region reveals that there are communication voids in the areas along the Indo-Myanmar international border especially in the southern Arunachal Pradesh, south-eastern Nagaland, west and southern Manipur and southern Mizoram. It has also been observed that certain sections of society utilize the spill-over signals from Myanmar Telephone Service Providers in the border areas. As reach of such signals is limited, the communications in the region remain inadequate.”

Mr. Mehrishi suggested that the DoT can ask BSNL to immediately set up mobile towers along the international border by utilizing the USOF, a corpus funded by all mobile operators and created to set up telecom infrastructure in remote locations. The MHA also asked the DoT to replicate the model adopted in seven Naxal-affected areas where almost 4,000 mobile towers were set up by using the USOF which has helped in effective tackling the Left wing extremism.

There are 8,621 uncovered villages in the eight Northeastern states – Arunachal Pradesh (2805), Assam (2503), Meghalaya (2374), Manipur (528), Mizoram (252), Nagaland (134), Sikkim (23) and Tripura (2). For this, the DoT has envisaged setting up 6,673 towers in these eight states with an investment of Rs.4,770 crores. The DoT has also earmarked Rs.270 crores for setting up 321 mobile towers for providing telecommunication coverage along the National Highways in the region. But all these projects have been stuck for the past several months due to delays in finalizing the tender process.

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