Reshuffle at India's Telecom Infra Fund Places Spotlight on Northeast Connectivity

A recent CAG report has also highlighted execution flaws in the Modi government's plan to provide optical fibre and mobile connectivity in the NER.

New Delhi: The ministry of communications has removed Sanjay Kumar Singh, the head of administration of the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), the government body that finances rural telecom infrastructure.

As per sources in the ministry, Singh was removed from the post for a number of reasons including repeatedly failing to make headway in rolling out complete mobile connectivity in the North East Region (NER), a target the Narendra Modi government sought to reach before the end of its term.

A recent Comptroller and Auditor General report has also mentioned that one of the reasons cited by the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) — the government-owned telecom service provider ,which receives funds from the USOF — for its failure to execute the plan on the ground under the Comprehensive Telecom Development Plan (CTDP), was “delay in release of funds”.    

However, sources said what expedited Singh’s exit from USOF was a letter he recently wrote to BSNL asking it not to go ahead with the project, citing a PIL filed in the Supreme Court last year.

Well-known advocate Prashant Bhushan had filed the PIL on behalf of NGO Telecom Watchdog. It alleged that BSNL was using outdated 2G network in Arunachal Pradesh and two districts of Assam “at a huge cost” in complete contrast to the Centre’s Digital North East Vision 22 policy. Launched in August 2018, the digital policy of the central government reportedly plans to invest nearly Rs ten thousand crore in the region in course of four years to implement about 400 projects. 

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Sources said, “Singh didn’t take either Manoj Sinha, the minister of state for communications (independent charge), or the telecom secretary Aruna Sunderajan into confidence before writing the letter to BSNL.”

Singh has also been under pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) for failing to meet the Centre’s target set for the BharatNet project, people with knowledge of the matter said. Under the government’s ambitious BharatNet Project, launched in October 2011, broadband connectivity was to be provided to all 2.5 lakh gram panchayats. However, the project, funded by USOF, has so far failed to meet the target.

This past week, Singh was replaced by Ansuli Arya, an IAS of the 1989 batch of Bihar cadre, serving as the principal secretary in the science and technology department in Bihar. Announcing the decision, the appointments committee of the cabinet reportedly said, “Orders regarding further posting of Shri Sanjay Kumar Singh are being issued separately.” 

Murmurs of discontent

Sources said Arya has been brought in at the behest of the PMO to expedite the task. This past October, the PMO is said to have pulled up USOF after it received a letter from Ninong Ering, Congress MP from Arunachal Pradesh, accusing BSNL of using “outdated” technology procured at a high cost – similar charges made by the NGO through the PIL.

Ering’s letter said, “The state of Arunachal Pradesh should not be made dumping yard in the name of technology.”

In mid-December, USOF blamed BSNL’s implementation partner Vihaan Network Limited, a Gurgaon based firm, of using sub-standard technology in the CTDF project in the Northeast. “Anything in the name of home-made technology should not be deployed in a government project unless it meets international standards,” Sanjay Singh then told ETTelecom. The firm denied the charge. 

This past November, Ering wrote another letter to the government. While raising other issues, the letter, addressed to the communications minister Sinha, stated that all telecom service providers including BSNL, the main telecom player in Arunachal, “need higher bandwidth of 6 GHz microwave systems and satellite equipment for reaching bare minimum good quality telecom services to the remote areas of Arunachal including many district headquarters”. He requested the minister to consider waiving off the spectrum charges of the microwave and the satellite systems to improve the telecom services in the state.

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On December 16, Ering raised the issue yet again through a starred question in parliament. He sought reasons from the communications minister for the failure of the government to deliver “proper mobile connectivity along the border in the Northeast region”.

The minister, in response, laid a statement on the table of the lower house.

The statement said that the government “is aware of the lack of mobile connectivity in certain parts of North East Region (NER)” and referred to the targets set under CTDP in the NER. Funded by USOF, the targets were to be met by BSNL “to install 2817 mobile towers for providing mobile coverage in 4119 uncovered villages of Arunachal Pradesh and two districts of Assam vide agreement dated January 16, 2018.”

It said, “Another agreement to install 2004 mobile towers in the rest of the region (except Meghalaya) has been entrusted to M/S Bharti Airtel Limited and M/S Bharti Hexacom Limited on December 8, 2017. Further, the Government has approved installation of 2173mobile towers in Meghalaya in May 2008.” 

The issue of the BSNL’s failure to complete the task in the Northeast also met with sharp notings in the recent CAG report.  “…the audit contends that though the project was sanctioned by the Government in September 2014, there was delay on part of both BSNL as well as USOF in finalising the specifications of the equipments. This delay resulted in the project becoming a non-starter even after more than three years of approval by the cabinet,” the report said.

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Though BSNL was to commission inter-district optical fibre connectivity (OFC) transport network within 18 months from the date of signing of the agreement, which was August 11, 2011, it failed to do so. The USOF, at the request of BSNL, extended the roll out period four times since. The last deadline ended in June 2017.

“Even as of June 2017, work was completed in 25 districts and pending in two districts, Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong,” the report said. “Thus, complete roll out of connectivity could not be achieved even after a delay of more than six years.”

The reasons for delay stated by BSNL are “tough terrain, frequent bandhs, lack of skilled manpower, non availability of OFC cable pair for Secondary Switching Areas (SSA), delay in readiness of the sites and delay in receiving funds (from USOF).”

The CAG report said the reply was “not convincing” as BSNL couldn’t complete the task even in the extended time. 

“Due to non-completion of the project, BSNL couldn’t claim USO subsidy of Rs.66.72 crore.”