No network: MHA waits for mobile towers to fight Maoists

In two years, DoT hasn’t set up even one of the 2,199 proposed mobile towers

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | December 1, 2012


Absence of mobile towers means once one enters the Maoist-hit areas all links with the outside world is snapped
Absence of mobile towers means once one enters the Maoist-hit areas all links with the outside world is snapped

Here is a classic case of policy paralysis.

Since 2010, the ministry of home affairs (MHA) is desperately waiting for 2,199 mobile towers to be set up in Maoist-hit areas spread over 9 states. But the telecom ministry that has been tasked with the job has not moved an inch so far. So pre-occupied it seems to be with the 2G scam that even an SOS from home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde has gone without response for two-and-half months.

Shinde’s communiqué, written on September 14 and addressed to telecom minister Kapil Sibal, is self-evident: “Please refer to my predecessor’s letter of even number dated July 25, 2012 regarding erection of mobile towers at 2,199 sites in Left Wing Extremism (LWE) affected areas.

“You would appreciate that, given security concerns, the erection of these towers (2,199 mobile towers) remains high priority area for this ministry. I would once again like to stress that the erection of mobile towers is one of the most important tasks in creating a dependable communication system which is imperative while conducting operations in LWE affected areas.

“You would agree that considerable delay has been caused in resolving various issues related to this project. The work on the ground is yet to be started and any further delay in this direction would adversely affect anti-Naxal operations and also development interventions in LWE affected areas.”

Shinde’s predecessor P Chidambaram was keen to end the isolation of the Maoist-hit areas and also to provide communication links within. In consultations with telecom ministry, his ministry settled for 2,199 sites where mobile towers would be set up. The department of telecommunications (DoT) was given the job, which roped in BSNL, the state-owned telecom service provider. The sites were served and finalised. Funding issue was also sorted out with the DoT agreeing to utilise money lying with the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF).

The problem started thereafter.

According to MHA officials, the ministry kept writing to DoT to get things done but nothing moved for months. Then, DoT woke up one day to say that BSNL couldn’t be given the task since USOF rules called for “open” tendering.

But no tenders were issued for months.

Then DoT told the MHA that since these towers were commercially non-viable, BSNL should be nominated for the task, for which cabinet’s approval was necessary. Accordingly, a cabinet note was prepared in which BSNL quoted Rs 5,200 crore as the cost (i.e., about Rs 2.34 crore for each mobile tower). The finance ministry objected to the non-scientific method of calculating the cost and asked BSNL to make location specific calculations. BSNL hasn’t come back.
Meanwhile, Shinde wrote to Sibal. The letter is yet to be responded to.

But orally, a DoT official told MHA in October that they had decided to (a) set up a committee to examine how best to connect LWE areas and (b) provide bigger gateway for satellite phones in the interim to facilitate communication. These decisions are yet to be officially conveyed to MHA.

“A committee”, said an MHA official in exasperation, “means death of the project. Besides, sat-phones are not needed. It isn’t so much about the security forces but the ordinary men and women in those areas who need connectivity.”

Absence of mobile towers means once one enters the Maoist-hit areas all links with the outside world is snapped, save for those carrying sat-phones. “It is a dark zone”, is how the official described it, stressing how important communication links were for security and development.

But Sibal and DoT don’t seem to bother.

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