New Delhi: Dismissing criticism over the Reliance Jio ads featuring an image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Telecom Minister Manoj Sinha has said there is nothing wrong in someone fulfilling the PM's dream to provide digital connectivity.
He also said the tariff war unleashed by Reliance Jio by offering free voice calls and data at low price is "healthy competition" that will ultimately benefit users.
Sinha, who replaced Ravi Shankar Prasad at the high-profile ministry in the last Cabinet reshuffle three months ago, also countered charges by the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), an association of incumbent telecom operators, that sectoral regulator TRAI is biased, saying "show me a decision taken by TRAI favouring anyone".
In an interview, he said the intention of Prime Minister's Digital India campaign is to bridge the digital divide and use the internet as a growth enabler.
"I think when the Prime Minister launched Digital India campaign, the intention was to end the digital divide in the country. If anyone is giving digital connectivity to people on a large scale, then in a way, he is fulfilling the dream of the Prime Minister... then I do not see any objection," he said.
He was responding to the criticism by political parties, particularly the Congress and the AAP, over the Prime Minister featuring in a full-page newspaper advertisement issued by Reliance Jio immediately after billionaire Mukesh Ambani announced the launch plan at Reliance Industries' annual general meeting.
He hit out at the Congress for "doublespeak", saying, "I have received letters from 10-20 senior Congress leaders complaining that Reliance Jio is not getting points of interconnect (from other operators) and that immediate action should be taken... It is doublespeak."
Refusing to be drawn into the debate on whether or not requisite permission was taken from the PMO for use of the photograph to promote a commercial service, Sinha said, "It will be better if you ask this question to the Prime Minister... whether there was permission or not. I cannot give my opinion on this."
On the price war unleashed by Jio, he said: "Healthy competition in the sector is good for consumers and as a minister, I feel consumer is God."
Asked whether this fierce competition triggered by Reliance Jio's entry was healthy or disruptive, the telecom minister recounted the journey the sector had made from a point when call charges were as high as Rs 15-17.
"There was a time when call rates were Rs 15-17... The journey began from there and then moved to Rs 1, and now to a point where it seems it does not require any money (free calls)," he said.
On September 1, Reliance Industries announced that customers of Reliance Jio - its telecom venture - will get free voice calling and roaming services, bundled with data access for Rs 19 onwards, making the offering one of the "lowest" globally.
These tariff plans come into effect from January 1. Till then, all customers will get free access to unlimited voice calls (local and STD), SMSes and data.
On the ongoing tussle between incumbent operators and the new entrant over the points of inter-connect, he said, "Be it tariffs or points of inter-connect, it comes under the domain of TRAI (and not the telecom ministry)."
"It is alright when someone is testing network whether you should give inter-connect points or not... but once the commercial service is launched, then everyone shares network with each other. I think there are enough rules in place and TRAI will look into it," the minister said.
Asked about allegations of bias against TRAI, he said, "Show me any decision that TRAI has taken (with bias). Without any conclusion in place, it is not appropriate to form an opinion about someone."
The Minister also spoke of trust being restored among investors with the Modi government coming to power.
"Before the Modi government, there was a trust deficit among investors, be it domestic or foreign investors. Now, that trust has resumed. Now, people know there will be a level-playing field. There will be no injustice and bias against anyone," he said.
He listed completion of the Bharat Net project and bridging the digital divide as the government's top priority.
"It (Bharat Net) reaches in rural areas as soon as possible as per government's top priority," Sinha said.
Bharat Net, formerly known as the National Optical Fibre Network, has missed several deadlines in the past. The government now expects to complete the laying of optical fibre across all 2.5 lakh panchayats by 2018.
"I don't know what happened earlier, but now the target of the government to complete phase one of laying optical fibre network in village panchayats will be completed by March 2017 and I am saying this with rigidity and on my responsibility," Sinha said.