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`Mahajan effect' speeds up village telephony

G. Rambabu

NEW DELHI, April 15

THE Union Communications Minister, Mr Pramod Mahajan's warning to Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) and the private basic operators to deliver on their targets of providing village public telephones (VPT) seems to be having an impact.

As per the latest statistics available with the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), the total number of VPTs installed by BSNL during the year 2001-02 has jumped to 70,755 as against the target of 35,866. In sharp contrast, during the previous year (2000-01), the number of VPTs installed was only 34,317 as against the target of 70,000.

A closer look at the figures stands testimony to the "Mahajan effect". In August 2001, before Mr Mahajan became the Communications Minister, the total number of VPTs installed by BSNL during the month was 564. He took over in September and started cracking the whip. The number jumped to 882 in September, 2,225 in October, 4,331 in November and 8,737 in December.

The next three months have seen a flurry of activity on this front, with 13,680 VPTs installed in January 2002, 16,318 VPTs in February and 22,183 VPTs in the last month of the fiscal year.

The performance by the private operators too has perked up after he warned them of revoking their licences. From just around 510 VPTs installed by the six private operators — Tata Teleservices, Reliance Telecom, HFCL Infotel, Hughes Tele.com, Bharti Telenet and Shyam Telelink — during 2000-01, the figure has now jumped to 846 by end March 2002.

Bharti leads the pack having installed 348 VPTs in Madhya Pradesh, followed by Shyam (209 in Rajasthan), Hughes (160 in Maharashtra), Tata (107 in Andhra Pradesh) and HFCL (20 in Punjab). Reliance Telecom, which operates in Gujarat, has the worst record having installed only two VPTs to date.

In fact, during the last three months, after Mr Mahajan started frowning at the private operators, the number of VPTs has gone up by 171, from 675 in December 2001. What is more, Tata Teleservices has even announced that it plans to set up more than 1,000 VPTs by June this year.

However, this slow progress by the private operators is not without reason. Much to their disappointment, the DoT guidelines for universal service obligations, effective from April 2002, has denied them any reimbursement for these expensive tasks. In fact, they argue that this is in gross violation of the National Telecommunication Policy (NTP'99).

"The six operators were migrated to NTP'99 in July 1999 after paying all the charges. It was very clear in 1999 itself that they were not in a position to meet the terms of agreement and that is why migration was introduced. But now the DoT has started asking for VPTs as contracted in 1995 without any reimbursement," the operators have noted.

They also point out that all the new basic operators have different terms and are not required to put up any VPTs, which has not been offered to the existing operators.

And, this is against the recommendations of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, they say. "This is a clear violation of the level playing field. It is as though DoT wants to maintain two different regimes in basic services, which is against NTP `99 and migration," they say.

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