April 06, 2020
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Is There Anybody In There?

A 'lame-duck' Paswan feels he's more sinned against than sinning

Is There Anybody In There?

There is always a buzz around the corridors of Sanchar Bhawan, the headquarters of the Department of Telecom (DoT) on Delhi's Parliament Street. Rumours abound of private companies paying off bureaucrats and ministers and there's often talk of threatened agitations by DoT employee unions centring around wages and the proposed corporatisation of the department. But on the evening of May 31, there was hushed silence. Everybody knew it was crunch time. The next morning, IAS officer Vinod Vaish was to take over as secretary, Department of Telecom Services (DTS), from Indian Telecom Service (ITS) officer P.S. Saran. A turf battle the ITS was determined not to lose.

At about eight in the evening, Ashok Kumar Sinha, president of the Indian Telecom Service Association (ITSA), had just finished dinner when he got a call from Shyamal Ghosh, secretary, DoT, asking him to come to his office. There, a bewildered Sinha was met by the entire top bureaucracy of the ministry: Ghosh, additional secretary Dhanendra Kumar and N.R. Mokhriwale, member, services.

A worried Ghosh put just one question to Sinha. "I believe members of your association plan to physically stop Vaish from entering his office tomorrow morning?" A surprised Sinha denied the charge and promised that nothing of that sort would happen. But if the ITS officers are to be believed, Vaish played safe by getting into office by 8 am and even asked for some police support. Something that infuriated the ITS further.

But where were Union communications minister Ram Vilas Paswan and minister of state Tapan Sikdar during all this? Nursing their political constituencies in Bihar and West Bengal, respectively. "The fact that I was in Bihar during those days is coincidental," Paswan says in defence.

Perhaps his presence wouldn't have made much difference. For soon, the ITSA went on a work-to-rule agitation and gradually telecom exchanges across the country began collapsing due to lack of maintenance. The ITSA also threatened a strike from June 28. Finally, it was the prime minister who managed to stop the strike, in his last act before he boarded the flight to Rome on June 25.

Even as other ministers bade him farewell on the tarmac, Paswan was a little late in arriving. When he did, the PM was already in the aircraft and Paswan ran up the stairs. If the grapevine is to be believed, the PM ordered Paswan to halt the agitation by creating a new department, the Department of Telecom Operations, which would run the telecom operations and be headed by an ITS officer. After all, the last thing a PM travelling abroad and wooing investors wants are headlines that the country's telecom infrastructure is grinding to a halt. Paswan did as he was bid, but the next day the press went to town accusing him of increasing government expenditure by creating a new department. "If not in telecom, Vaish was going to be accommodated within the government in any case. And no new staff is being recruited for his department, so why am I being blamed?" asks an injured Paswan.

By Paswan's own admission, the ITS vs IAS conflict wasn't the first time he was being accused of something he hadn't done. Take the recent controversy surrounding free phones for DoT employees, allegedly at a cost of Rs 1,200 crore. Only after Paswan had taken the flak from the media did it emerge that in September 1998, during her tenure as communications minister, Sushma Swaraj had decided to give free phones to retiring DoT employees who had served for more than 20 years. And with the department's proposed corporatisation in October this year, most of the 4.3 lakh employees of the department-which froze recruitment in 1983-would be deemed as retired and would thus be getting free phones in any case. According to Paswan, it was the Telecom Commission which decided to give free phones to the few DoT employees who retire with less than 20 years of service at a cost of Rs 68 crore. Says he: "This was decided by the Telecom Commission in ITS meeting on May 15. I only came into the picture when the file came to me. I am getting the blame because unlike others, I am transparent in my dealing."

So, if the minister's either in Bihar, going by Telecom Commission recommendations or following orders from the PM, what is he doing as minister? "Nothing," is the answer from virtually everyone, ranging from DoT employees and senior officials and private sector executives who deal with the DoT on a regular basis. "The minister neither has the inclination nor the ability to understand telecom. He is just interested in nurturing his votebank," says a senior DoT official. For instance, most MTNL exchanges and some of DoT's are unmanned. Paswan's been pushing to turn them into manned exchanges so as to provide jobs. "How can an exchange function if it's unmanned? When the electricity goes in Bihar, you need somebody to switch the generator on, otherwise the telephones won't work," rationalises Paswan.

Clearly, it's issues like these which are his priority. What of corporatisation, which is what DoT is currently grappling with? "Turning DoT into a company is the government's policy and I'm committed to it," says Paswan. But adds in the same breath, "You need to create the correct atmosphere for that. People still need to be convinced of the benefits of economic liberalisation. My move to give free phones to employees is an attempt to build the right atmosphere."

That's something he's not finding easy. Despite his best efforts to woo the unions, they are still upset with him. "The move to corporatise the DoT is against public interest and we will move the court on that ground if we need to," says the ITSA's Sinha. Adds O.P. Gupta, secretary general, National Federation of Telecom Employees, which has 3.2 lakh of DoT's employees on ITS rolls: "We've given up three days' bonus money, equal to Rs 30 crore, in exchange for installing phones in our homes. So, it's actually a deal that we have struck. Why is the minister taking credit for it?"

So if the unions don't support him, who does? Apparently, not the PMO either. Both the IAS officers, DoT secretary Shyamal Ghosh and DTS secretary Vaish, are rumoured to be PMO appointees. The rationale being that if an ITS officer were at the helm, he would try and block the corporatisation of the department. Instead, the PMO's move only strengthened the resolve of the ITS officers. Hemmed in by the ITS on one side and the PMO on the other, Paswan is really a lame-duck communications minister.

For instance, Paswan's ministry should ideally have had a hand in the drafting of the ice Bill, which has been totally hijacked by i&b minister Arun Jaitley. Paswan's response to his views not being sought on the ice Bill: "What can I say about it?"

To add to that, the PMO has further undermined Paswan's authority by setting up the Group of Ministers to resolve problems relating to DoT's corporatisation. Says a resigned Paswan: "If I am willing to liquidate my department, why should I worry about losing power?" And now, Paswan has officially absolved himself of responsibility in deciding Vinod Vaish's job responsibility. "That's something that will be decided when the prime minister comes back from Europe." Recognising this, the ITSA has sent ITS charter of demands to the cabinet secretary and not Paswan.

At the end, the DoT is a royal mess. A powerless minister, two IAS secretaries who don't have the support of the DoT employees, who themselves are agitating against government policy. And work is suffering. Till June 30, MTNL chairman and managing director C. Rajagopalan's last working day, the government had not named his successor. "What message does it send out to MTNL's gdr holders? Won't this deter foreign investors from investing in Indian psus?" asks the senior executive of a multinational telecom company.

Things could get worse. "The profitability of DoT's basic phone services is going to come under a lot of pressure due to the convergence of voice to data. Plus, with tariff rebalancing brought about by an independent regulator and competition, the large monetary surplus DoT generates won't last," says Rajagopalan.

Most experts agree that to compete in tomorrow's telecom market, DoT needs to free itself from government control and become a nimble-footed corporation in touch with the latest telecom technologies. That's a difficult task for anyone. The problem is, nobody knows how, least of all the minister.

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