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The steeply sloping playing field

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The official demand for returning the money paid by the government telecom arm, BSNL, for third-generation (3G) spectrum (turned down, for now, by the Union finance ministry) is an illustration of why the state should be kept well away from running a business — it is not possible to be both player and umpire. BSNL was actually given the 3G spectrum free two years before, while private players were told they’d have to bid for these at an auction. The early start to the government side was excused on the ground of public interest and a promise that when the auction happened, BSNL would be asked to match the winning bids. The auction took place only recently and BSNL duly paid Rs18,000 crore, in line with that promise. Then, just weeks later, first the BSNL management and then the communications ministry decided the money should be returned, since the poor thing was shouldering social obligations and couldn’t afford to pay. In this column, we’d noted this argument was untenable on factual grounds. And, recalled that the same argument had meant BSNL was earlier absolved of any payment of entry fee for a cellular licence and also in paying for the earlier-generation (2G) spectrum.

Now comes a threat from all the BSNL staff unions of a nationwide strike from September if the money isn’t returned promptly. Their argument: it is unfair to be made to pay for 3G, since BSNL was deprived of an opportunity to choose where to bid! That shows the contempt they have for facts and grasp of these: BSNL was allotted 3G wherever it operated, without payment, in a field free of competitors, on a promise that it would be made good later. Do you need any more illustration of what happens when you allow the state to be both umpire and player? These people, unable to compete, demand a right to be so protected, in their jobs and as a privileged organisation; if they still can’t handle the situation, they will have the rules changed midway. All in the name of public welfare and the public interest. Bear in mind, too, that the telecom revolution — of universal access to cellphones and the internet at a rate everyone can afford — is not a creation of the government monopoly. It began to happen when that ended. The mentality which kept that state stranglehold in place rules still.

For the full editorial piece in the New Indian Express, click here

This says it all. And, I'll say it for the nth time - the government has the more important function of facilitation and regulation to perform, and when it becomes a player in addition, its functioning as the facilitator and regulator gets adversely affected.

Muralidhar Rao



Naveen's picture

What demands !

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BSNL mgmnt, staff & the communications ministry are all clearly being highly unreasonable. Whilst they have already promised to pay up & have been given the advantage of a two year lead (which was also uncalled for), they still have the gall to justify demands of return of the license money, quoting public welfare - what a joke !

Further, BSNL's services can no longer be classified as a necessity to meet social obligations or for public welfare. The demand for govt largesse is not only unethical, but also criminal since it bleeds the exchequer.

The finance ministry as also the CAG's office must never permit this since the era of meeting social obligations & public welfare in telephony are long over now. comment guidelines

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