People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Vol. XXXIV

No. 02

January 10, 2010

Workers Come Forward To Foil Anti-BSNL Conspiracy

 

V A N Namboodiri

 

AWAY from the public view, a stupendous conspiracy is on in the country --- the conspiracy to demolish the public sector undertakings (PSUs) in the country and hand them over to private hands at dirt cheap prices. The Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), a telecommunication major and the trend-setter in the field as one of the biggest PSUs in the country, is no exception in this regard.

This, of course, is in line with the neo-liberal policy the central government has been following for the last two decades. As liberalisation, globalisation and privatisation (LPG) have become the chanting mantras for the ruling classes, what else could be the priority for the government other than privatising this behemoth PSU with its assets of astronomical proportions --- of more than forty lakh (40,00,000) crore rupees!? It was the first UPA government that proposed the disinvestment of BSNL but it could not implement the idea due to strong opposition from the Left parties, which were supporting the government from outside, as also because of the sustained struggles of the BSNL workers under the leadership of Joint Forum of BSNL Associations and Unions of Executives and Non-Executives.

Now the situation has changed with the second UPA government in power no more needing the support of the Left parties. Disinvestment of profitable PSUs has become the priority of the government to mop up funds, and the BSNL is one of the foremost companies in its list to be disinvested in this year. Already the BSNL board has adopted a resolution recommending an issuance of IPO (initial public offer), and forwarded it to the government. Before starting disinvestment, they want the BSNL to go down, since it will help the private companies to get its shares cheap. This is precisely what the government did in the case of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL), a navaratna PSU, which was sold for a mere Rs 1320 crore while only the liquid cash it had had at the time amounted to Rs 1200 crore.

 

GOVT WITHDRAWS

CONCESSIONS TO BSNL 

In the meantime, the government has either fully withdrawn or drastically reduced the concessions it had promised to the BSNL at the time of its formation, like reimbursement of licence fee, ADC and allotment from USOF (Universal Service Obligation Fund), etc. Instead of supporting the BSNL, the incumbent operator which has been maintaining the telecom services in the country for the last many decades, the government has been discriminating against it in order to favour the private telecommunication companies. The government has allowed the merger of private companies so that they may strengthen themselves, but is continuously sabotaging the proposal of a merger of the BSNL and MTNL. (While the latter PSU serves Delhi and Mumbai, the former has been giving service to all other parts of the country.) The merger would have benefited both the public sector companies, but the governmentís attitude is a thoroughly negative one.

In the same manner, in the name of security concerns, the BSNL is not allowed to deal with its counterpart Chinese companies but the government closes its eyes when the private companies use the Chinese equipments. Navaratna and maharatna statuses have been given to similar companies, but the BSNL is being denied the same. One of the reasons given for the non-grant of navaratna status to the BSNL is that it is not listed on the stock exchange. However, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has been given the same status though it is not listed on the stock exchange. There is in fact no end to the discrimination against the BSNL which is going down the same way as Air India, which was discriminated against and discredited by the government itself. 

 

CONSPIRACY

AGAINST BSNL 

The way the BSNL, the number one telecom company in India, was brought down to the present position is a sordid story of discrimination, neglect and conspiracy. First the department of telecommunications (DoT) and then the BSNL was denied licence for providing mobile services for six long years. Despite the delay, however, the BSNL managed to reach the second position, just below the Bharti Airtel, and was competing with it inch by inch till 2006. The BSNL floated a global tender of 43 million GSM lines, but the vested interests put all hurdles in its way to stop the process. At last, after the dismissal of the court case filed by Motorola against the tender and when the purchasing order was to be issued, political pressure was brought to get it scrapped. It was only due to the historic strike of the entire executive and non-executive staff on July 11, 2007 that the BSNL board was compelled to order for at least half (2.25 million) out of the 4.5 crore lines. This 50 per cent cut in the order quite understandably resulted in a lines crunch for the BSNL, allowing all the private companies to reap heavy profits during the next two years and advance much at the expense of the defenceless BSNL. The adjacent table shows to what extent the BSNL, the number one telecom company in the country, has gone down due to lack of mobile lines.

 

 

No.

Name of the Company

Land Lines (in crores)

Mobile Lines (in crores)

Total Lines (in crores)

Market

Share (%)

1

BSNL

2.82

  6.07

8.89

16.38

2

Bharti Airtel

0.29

11.60

11.89

21.90

3

Reliance

0.11

 9.09

9.21

16.96

4

Vodafone Essar

 

 8.86

8.86

16.31

5

Idea

 

 5.59

5.59

10.29

 

If the present lines crunch continues for the BSNL, the fear is that it will be pushed down to the fourth position within a short time.

It was to overcome this lines crunch that the BSNL floated yet another global tender for 9.3 crore GSM lines in 2008. One after another, obstacles were created for this tender as well. First, the Nokia-Siemens Network moved the court against its disqualification and an Integrity Panel was asked to enquire into the so called irregularities in the tender issuance process. The Andhra Pradesh High Court dismissed the case and the Integrity Panel cleared the tender. However, just when the purchase order was to be issued after the consequent long delay, vested interests again intervened, asking the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) to enquire into the matter as to how the BSNL management had negotiated for a lesser amount with the Ericsson after the tender was finalised with the company. But the fact is that the negotiation had reduced the costs in favour of the BSNL and it should have been taken in that light. Yet, on the plea of a CVC enquiry, the BSNL board has decided to freeze the purchase order. The future of BSNL is thus in jeopardy --- once again.

Already due to GSM lines crunch and connected issues market share of BSNL has gone down to 16.38 per cent. In mobile services it is in the fourth position and in the third position in case of the total of landline and mobile connections. If the GSM tender purchase order is not issued, the BSNL cannot provide new lines and will further go down. Because of the above situation, the revenue and profit of the BSNL have gone down drastically. The revenue has gone down from Rs 40,000 crore to Rs 35,000 crore or less. The annual profit, which was earlier in the range of Rs 5,000 crore to Rs 10,000 crore, went down to Rs 574 crore in 2008-09. If the present position continues, there may be a net loss of about Rs 4,000 crore in 2009-10.

 

WORKERS ON

AGITATION PATH 

Just like in 2007, when the executive and non-executive workers went on a historic strike on July 11 to stop the cancellation of 4.5 crore mobile lines tender, and this strike at least ensured half of the targeted number of lines, it is high time the workers take up the cudgel to save the BSNL.

Realising the danger, the Joint Forum of BSNL Associations and Unions has decided to organise several agitation programmes in order to ensure that the purchase order is issued and mobile lines made available to provide new connections to the people. Meeting on January 1, 2010, the forum decided to organise demonstrations in all parts of the country on January 5 on the issue. (Report of the dayís protest actions is awaited.) The forum also called upon its branches to send telegrams to the prime minister to urgently intervene in the issue and ensure the issuance of the purchase order. In accordance with this decision, thousands of telegrams have already been sent to prime minister by BSNL workers and their leaders at the circle and district level. If the BSNL is to be saved and improved there is an urgent need for intervention from the prime ministerís side. In fact, the prime minister had already called for a meeting on the BSNL issue on January 6, and it was reported that the ministers for finance and communications, telecom expert Sam Pitroda, secretary of the DoT and BSNL chairman cum managing director, among others, would be participating in it. If the BSNL is to be saved and restored to its past glory as number one telecom service provider in the country, then the prime minister must certainly intervene and set the matters right.

In the other scenario, if the issues are not sorted out in the right perspective, the entire BSNL workforce would be compelled to intensify their struggle to save the BSNL and its services.

 (V A N Namboodiri is general secretary of the BSNL Employees Union.)