With the government’s deadline for identity verification of mobile subscribers mandated for service providers finally ending on 31 March, a large number of connections are being terminated, or discontinued till they’ve been re-verified. While there will be unwarranted confusion for customers to whom companies sold services aggressively in the first place, a few larger concerns also arise about the tighter documentation norms in the interest of national security. The first: To what extent will the move help weed out anti-nationals using mobile services in furthering their criminal and terrorist agendas in the country, particularly since loopholes in governance have meant getting ‘official’ papers illegally is no tall order? And will the onus of identity checks on the mobile service provider deliver a meaningful outcome?
At the same time, there’s also a concern whether the insistence on identity papers is not going to result in restricted access to mobile telephony for the lower-income groups, many among which are informal-sector workers and depend on such services for improving their meagre earning capacities. If it does happen, it could be a perverse outcome for such existing and potential subscribers. And it may well prove a ‘blessing’ in disguise for service providers as a chance to hive off the less- profitable subsets. (Read the average, small-time plumber/carpenter/electrician who uses his phone more for incoming business orders than outgoing calls.) This may sound like conjecturing, but there could be reason for such doubts to arise.
It has been seen that in the Indian telecom market driven by strong competition, the pressures to sell aggressively are huge. (Indeed, a similar aggressive marketing argument extends to retail banking, with implications of moral hazard—when the seller doesn’t bear full adverse consequences for its actions.) Consider how tough sales targets have led to company representatives resorting to unethical practices in connivance with distributors for creating fictitious identities to claim higher-than-actual subscriptions. This was recently unearthed in the case of Haryana, and such tactics are likely to have been used elsewhere.
To such extent, the government’s position on tighter documenting is a welcome move. There has been a lack of incentive for the links in the sales chain to secure identity proofs. A rough estimate puts the disconnections at roughly one-fourth of new subscriptions for a specific time period for one provider late last year—which indicates how non-serious has been the due diligence on identities.
On the other hand, if we extend the argument of pressure for performance, what stops players from being ‘lax’ in re-connecting subscribers that have already shown up on their systems as the less-profitable (lower average revenue per user) propositions?
Finally, there’s no denying that national security is a valid concern. But documentation can be only a small part of the whole approach on national security. The onus of meaningful checking cannot be put on the mobile service providers. As a CEO in the sector said, the telco can’t be expected to do the job of a security agency. Pertinently, it is the same mobile networks and technologies that may be misused that provide scope for monitoring suspicious activity on the airwaves by the government’s intelligence groups. There’s nothing that stops the latter from honing up their skills and apparatus for more stringent intelligence work.
How can the need for wider access to mobile telephony and security concerns be balanced? Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org