Telecom is widely regarded as one of the success stories of liberalized India. It has not only served the interests of shareholders by creating enormous shareholder value in listed companies, but has also served the interests of stakeholders. The state has benefited through huge revenue collections, while consumers have benefited immensely from one of the lowest telecom tariffs in the world.
This success story could easily have been derailed in its infancy. In his book Connecting India— Indian Telecom Story, S.D. Saxena, who recently retired as director, finance, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL), highlights some of the factors that enabled this success story.
Connecting India — Indian Telecom Story: Konark Publishers, Rs200, 183 pages.
Saxena’s book is as much about the factors that made the success of telecom deregulation possible (indeed, of BSNL as well) as it is a recognition of the unsung heroes of the telecom revolution in India. The author’s mind dictates what he chooses to include in the story, and it’s his heart that speaks.
Saxena rightly says that the success of telecom deregulation owes largely to the fact that it was initiated at a time when Rajiv Gandhi—a pilot by profession who, therefore, knew the value of good communication—came in touch with Satyen (Sam) Pitroda, a go-getting entrepreneur with a “can do” spirit who wanted to contribute to India’s telecom sector. He did so for a salary of Re1 (and even that went unpaid) but was ultimately thrown out because he offended the then Union communications minister by not having received him at the gate of Sanchar Bhawan. Pitroda, then the chairman of the Telecom Commission of India, was with the US ambassador and had not been informed of the minister’s arrival.
In Saxena’s book, people such as G.B. Meemamsi, who was later awarded a Padma Shri, M.V. Pitke and D.R. Mahajan, who made enormous contributions to the success of the telecom story, find little mention. Meemamsi, who was instrumental in developing electronic switching systems in India, was unceremoniously removed from his position as member (technology) in the Telecom Commission. BSNL, too, has not received enough recognition for its work in spreading services to remote areas, found unviable by private players. In Leh, where temperatures do not permit road travel in winter, and where there was electricity for just 2 hours in a day, BSNL had to rely on diesel to run the exchange. In the Andaman and Nicobar islands, BSNL, led by G. Mahato, got the telephone systems up and running a few days after the devastation wreaked by the tsunami in 2004.
BSNL’s birth was unplanned; the Union government’s 143-year-old telecom department was converted on 30 September 2000 into a corporation, six months sooner than expected. Around 350,000 employees were transferred from the comfort zone of a government job with lifetime security into the hurly-burly uncertainty of corporate life. BSNL inherited a legacy as a fixed-line service provider, but soon established an affordable cellular network that grew substantially. It is now the world’s sixth largest telecom service provider in terms of revenue.
BSNL’s operations have been stymied in several ways since it’s fully owned by the Union government. Its procurement procedures are much more tedious than those in a private company, and it is subject to challenge by writ petition. None of these issues are taken up by Saxena in his book. Saxena’s purpose is limited to outlining the story of the telecom revolution and to acknowledging contributions to it by those yet to be recognized.
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