Sucheta Dalal :A bullet train for the minister free telephones for others
Sucheta Dalal

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A bullet train for the minister, free telephones for others  

June 6, 2000

Indian politicians regularly make news for their ill-considered policies that disregard the needs of the people and the state of the national exchequer. Last week, their apathy plumbed abysmal depths. The Minister of State for Railways, Digvijay Singh, took the cake. He announced his dream of having high-speed bullet trains burning up the distance between Delhi and Calcutta on specially constructed elevated tracks at 350 km per hour. The cost: a mind-boggling Rs 1,500 billion.

Certainly, Indians deserve bullet trains, but there is the little problem of the Indian Railways being near-bankrupt. Then there are sundry issues such as the falling safety standards and the fact that there is no money to undertake modernisation, electrification and gauge-conversion projects. Further, Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee finds it far more politically imperative to keep passenger fares low and introduce new trains out of her constituency, to worry too much about the financial health of the Railways.

Digvijay Singh thoughts too follow a similar track. He feels there is no need to route the bullet train on the most commercially viable segment in the country: Bombay to Delhi. In fact, the plight of Bombay's commuters is a good example of how little politicians care about paying consumers. While the minister daydreams, commuters in the commercial capital go to work packed like sardines in over-crowded and over-used trains. The trains cannot increase their speed or efficiency because of encroachers, and squatters and hutments are now within hand-shaking distance from the train tracks.

Typically, the rights of the non-paying squatters are superior to those of the millions of paying commuters. This, because the squatters have a set of bleeding heart non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and politicians supporting their cause who argue that it is every person's birthright to demand alternative accommodation for the favor of allowing public utilities to function.

Then there is Ram Vilas Paswan. While paying telephone users are reeling from the huge hike in local telephone tariffs mandated by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), in order to eliminate the subsidy inherent in laying phone lines, the Telecom Minister is a little confused about his constituents. Mistaking well-paid employees of the monopoly telecom companies for his Bihari vote bank, he has announced free telephones for them. In other words, no registration, rental and installation charges for 320,000 lines. The cost: anywhere between Rs 960 million for registration and nearly Rs 1 billion for 75 free calls each or more, depending on who is doing the numbers.

And remember, Paswan is only being one up on his predecessor Sushma Swaraj, who, says the Hindustan Times, gave "institutionalised free telephones" for retired telecom employees. Are the freebies for telecom employees justified? Look at what is happening to the paying consumer before you decide. Last month Bombay experienced an intense pre-monsoon deluge. As many as 35,000 phones immediately went on the blink - a number which is larger than the damage usually wrecked during an entire season. A fortnight later, the telephones remained on the blink because the telephone company could not find the fault. Maybe, Mr Paswan thinks that free phones will improve the fault-finding ability of the employees.

Here is something for those who believe that the Internet will help India catch up with the developed world. Guess what is the biggest deterrent to Internet usage in the country today? It is not the cost of Net access, but the tariff on the local telephone call to the service provider. At a pulse rate of three minutes a call, it costs a Net users anywhere between Rs 25 to Rs 28 an hour, plus Net access charges. These outrageous rates are as high as long-distance charges, but protected by their monopoly position, the telephone companies neither reduce rates nor consider concessions for off-peak time usage.

The high-profile chairman of Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) once agreed with this writer that the call rates were far too high. He was willing to consider a ten-minute pulse per call made to an Internet Service Provider. Nearly a year later, nothing has happened. Until dish antennas or cable operators provide a cheaper alternative, Indian phone companies think nothing of handing out free telephones and shoddy service at exorbitant rates. The telecom regulator looks on.

Finally, there is Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha. No, he has not announced any freebies. In fact, he has triumphantly pushed his Budget through Parliament without rolling back subsidies. Sinha's problem is his obsession with stock market movements as an endorsement of his ministry's actions. And his rush to placate foreign institutional investors (FIIs) at the first sign that their tax holidays were being investigated by the Income Tax authorities for fear of a fall in stock prices.

Well, Mr Sinha, it was only to be expected. Like Caesar's wife, he should have been careful before jumping to make public statements blocking investigations against FIIs. Last week, Mr Sinha addressed a press conference to clarify that he was not going soft on FIIs at the behest of his daughter-in-law who heads Oppenheimer. And that her organisation had not benefited from the relationship.

Mr Sinha alleged that his detractors were trying to get him out of the Finance Ministry by planting fake stories to influence the Prime Minister. The capital press also reports that Mr Sinha was being threatened by the charges made by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP, Kirit Somiaya. If only Mr Sinha would worry a little about investors and hold press conferences to announce that he plans to make the stock markets safer for them. If he did, nobody would trouble him. India needs at least a handful of ministers who will think of India's economic interests rather than their own petty politicking, their pipe dreams and their appeasement of vote banks.

-- Sucheta Dalal