It is ironical that Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), which is the arm of Department of Telecom (DoT) entrusted with the job of ensuring telecom services in remote and unconnected areas across the country, is the one which is creating hurdles in ensuring proper telecom connectivity to border and remote areas of eights North-Eastern States, parts of Ladakh region, Left Wing Extremism (LWE) affected areas in over a dozen states and in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. If you don’t believe it, read on…
By Sandeep Joshi
Here, the case in point is the ambitious project of connecting eight North Eastern States which was approved by Union Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. It has been over four years, and even after completion of the tedious tender process almost two years back, the USOF led by its Administrator Sanjay Singh has been creating hurdles on path of the government-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL), which is to fulfil about 50% of the project of putting up mobile towers under the comprehensive telecom development plan for the North-Eastern region covering 8621 villages in eight states with an estimate of Rs.5,336 crores. This project is also of great importance in terms of national security as several of these towers are to be installed along international border, particularly on India-China border, to boost security preparedness of defence forces. But that too has been compromised by the USOF.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been repeatedly promising mobile connectivity to the people of North-East soon, USOF has been derailing the entire process. Despite the fact that entire project has Union Cabinet’s approval and a firm backing of Telecom Commission, Telecom Ministry’s highest decision-making body, USOF first delayed the tender process for almost two years and then objected to the choice of technology without conducting any technical study and that too after successful bidding process by BSNL.
Now USOF has written to BSNL not to go ahead with the project citing a PIL in court regarding its project in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. “No further action may be taken till further order…” USOF has told BSNL in view of the court case which is still to be admitted. There are no orders from the court to stop BSNL from implementing the project, but the USOF has gone all out to force the government-owned telecom company not to move forward in the project. There are no indications of the USOF Administrator Sanjay Singh taking Telecom Minister Manoj Sinha and Telecom Secretary Aruna Sunderarajan in confidence while issuing this order. All this will lead to further delay for North-East people getting better mobile services.
Thus, all hopes of seeing seamless mobile connectivity in the North-East before March 31, 2019 are fading fast. It also means that North-East will remain unconnected before the tenure of Narendra Modi’s led government comes to end and promise made by the Prime Minister to the people of the North-East will remain unfulfilled. And if this happens then only one agency – USOF and its Administrator Sanjay Singh – is to be blamed, a fact which the top government authorities swear to.
There are numerous instances when USOF has repeatedly created hurdles in the path of the BSNL, while it gave undue mileage to a leading private operator in the same project. Arunachal Pradesh and two districts of Assam, which are most inhospitable terrains to put towers, were given to BSNL, but comparably easier project and more lucrative were kept for private operators.
By violating all norms of bidding process and competitiveness, USOF gave this project to a leading private operator that too on a single bid. USOF unanimously made yet another exception for this private operator by keeping Meghalaya out of the process as the operator was seeking more money and refused to do the project after bidding process was completed. Instead of penalising this operator, USOF rewarded this operator by giving rest of the North-Eastern states.
Another gross anomaly on part of the USOF is that while it gave project to the private operator without any testing clause, it made mandatory for the BSNL vendor that has won the bid after technical evaluation. This is the same vendor which has already completed a major rural telecom project in LWE areas for BSNL and the project is funded by USOF. Apart from Telecom Ministry and DoT, the PMO and Ministry of Home Affairs has lauded this BSNL vendor for providing top class mobile connectivity in cost effective manner.
Similarly, while BSNL has to take equipment from Indian manufacturer for the project to promote Prime Minister’s “Make In India” initiative, for the private operator this earlier mandatory clause was removed to favour it. For the private operator and the USOF, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to promote ‘Make In India’ holds no significance.
Also, environmental norms have been tampered with. For BSNL and its vendor putting solar-powered towers are mandatory but private operator has been allowed to use diesel-powered generators to run mobile towers. This is in gross violation of the government’s ‘Green Norms’ for telecom sector. So, USOF follows one yardstick for BSNL and another for private sector.
Here another point worth mentioning is that USOF is pushing for a costlier technology for North-East which has no clearance from the Cabinet which approved better voice services for the North-East. Without conducting any financial or technological feasibility study considering the fact that North-East is a tough terrain and has not much population density, USOF is pushing for it and delaying BSNL’s project.
Due to the highhandedness of USOF, BSNL has been the worst sufferer. BSNL, which is already under financial stress, has been looking up to these projects to improve its financial condition and keep pace with private operators. But USOF’s hurdles has made things worse for the government-owned telecom company. It is worth mentioning here is that Sanjay Singh has been delaying mobilisation advance to BSNL to start the North-East telecom project since March 2018 on one pretext or other.
The Union Government has been of the view that major portion of the USOF money should be utilized by BSNL for two reasons – one, the public exchequer money should be handled by government organization, and two, BSNL has been the one which has remained committed to its obligation of providing mobile connectivity to remote and rural areas while private operators have been repeatedly violating telecom license rule by only focusing on cash rich urban areas and ignoring rural and remote regions.
Ironically, USOF was created to fulfil gaps in mobile connectivity left by private operators. Lawmakers knew that private operators will ignore rural hinterland while expanding their telecom footprint so they framed law in Parliament and created USOF to ensure that people living in rural and remote areas are not deprived of mobile services. But now the same USOF seems to working hand in glove with private operators to divert public fund and hitting BSNL hard where it hurts the most.
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