As a student of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and president of the students union of Benaras Hindu University (BHU) in 1982, Manoj Sinha was an odd-ball. Always clad in a dhoti he stood out in the crowd of young Indians, perhaps the earliest generation of aspirational India, eager to recalibrate their dreams and ambitions in a fast-changing world. Sinha combined this modernity with the rustic and irrepressible charm of eastern Uttar Pradesh. His doughty demeanour concealed an amiable nature that won him friends across political spectrum ithough he belonged to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parisahd (ABVP), a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliate.

Elected to the Lok Sabha thrice from Ghazipur (2014, 1999 and 1996), Sinha was first picked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for one of the most daunting assignments as MoS for Railways and then, in July this year, gave him additional and independent charge of another critical infrastructure ministry, telecommunications. In his first interview after taking charge of his new portfolio, Sinha spoke to Firstpost at length about his vision for a ministry that is not just spurring India’s economy but also has the potential to lift India from the grassroots up.

You have just been picked by the prime minister as Union Telecom Minister (independent charge). In his scheme of things, telecom is critical infrastructure for India’s growth. What did he tell you when you took over? What is your mandate?

It is prime minister’s prerogative as to what work he allocates to whom. I am grateful that he trusted me and assigned me this ministry. Of course I have to measure up to his expectation and work in the best interests of consumers. I believe that there is immense potential in this ministry, particularly in this era when digital connectivity is still beyond reach of common people. The rural masses are still bereft of it. This is not a facility just for communication. Through digital connectivity, we will provide world-class education, information about agriculture, health and related services and from entertainment to direct benefit transfer and other social welfare schemes. This will bring about revolutionary changes in all the sectors.

Service providers will install 60,000 towers in 100 days.

This ministry is a symbol of the success story of liberalisation. But consumers are still not fully protected.

I believe that post-liberalisation, this sector scripted one of the biggest success stories. Though there are certain black spots which you are aware of. If you look at it, tele-density of our country was less than 4 per cent before liberalisation. It has shot up to 83/84 percent. More than one billion people are using mobile phones. In terms of numerical or revenue perspective, this sector has contributed immensely for the country’s growth. But for some time now, we have been hearing consumers’ complaints about call-drops. There are various factors or reasons which have contributed to this problem. For instance, inadequate installation of BTS (base transceiver station) towers or transmission towers, lack of investment in critical infrastructure, priority given to data over voice, some technological issues and then what service providers says “lack of spectrum”. All these have contributed in good measure to call-drops.

But having said that, I must say that one of the important reasons for poor service quality is that over the years, service providers have not invested enough in expanding networks and in new technologies. In an industry that is seeing technological innovations by the day, it is critical that service providers keep abreast of the latest advancements. That’s the only way they will be able to best serve their consumers and safeguard their own businesses.

After assuming charge, I called a meeting of all telecom service providers, discussed with them all these issues and tried to resolve the issue with a positive approach. Then I announced that within four months, a significant change would be observed in resolving the call-drops issue. We have worked out an action plan in which service providers would be installing 60,000 BTS towers across the country in hundred days. In one year’s time we will install more than 100,000 BTS towers. About Rs 20,000 crore is being invested by the industry to address to this problem.

Look my position is simple. I am not the minister for just BSNL and MTNL but entire telecom industry. And it is my responsibility to ensure consumers’ satisfaction and protect their interests. Of course, we have the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) that regulates the industry. But I will be satisfied only when the customer is effectively relieved of these problems. I can say with certainty that there has been some improvement in the past one month. In the next four months, you would see a qualitative change in the situation. The biggest complaint of the service providers regarding spectrum scarcity will be taken care of by the upcoming auctions in September. This will be a big auction. And it will resolve the issue of lack of spectrum.

Private operators contribute 90 percent to call-drops problem.

Photo: Naresh Sharma / Firstpost
Photo: Naresh Sharma / Firstpost

I am deliberately delving deep into the complaints of the consumer with regard to the telecom sector. For instance, TRAI decided to penalise operators for unwaned calls but it could not be implemented. Why impose something that you cannot implement?

TRAI is an independent regulator. But I agree with you that unwanted calls or SMSes amount to intrusion of privacy. We have taken note of it and efforts are on to check it. We are considering an action plan to resolve this problem. Once we formulate this plan, we will apprise people about it.

So now you think that the epithet, ‘call-drop minister — normally associated with those handling this ministry — will not stick to you? What are you doing to change the perception?

We have constituted a committee of senior officials who are closely monitoring the entire issue for time-bound resolution of issue and they are directly reporting to me. In reality private operators contribute 90 per cent to the call-drops problem. That ‘s why we called a meeting of all telecom service providers (TSPs) and discussed this issue at length. We discussed how the government can solve their problems, such as installation of BTS towers. Let clarify one thing: there are unnecessary rumours spreading around regarding health hazards from BTS towers. People think that they emit harmful radiation and hence there is resistance to installation of towers near schools, hospitals and in densely populated areas. According to WHO studies, low-level radiation does not cause any health hazard. Additionally, in India, the emission norms are more stringent compared with many other countries. These are the safeguards we have ensured. Sadly, awareness has not been created in this respect — neither by service providers nor by government. Some time back, our ministry organised two seminars in Dehradun and Hyderbad to educate people about the issue. We are planning more awareness drives in the coming weeks. We have also issued directives to state governments and local bodies to help install the BTS towers in order to plug this problem once and for all. We have also taken many policy initiatives in this regard.

Let me make an honest statement to you regarding the problem of this sector. The biggest problem in this sector was trust deficit. Our government has been able to overcome the trust deficit which resulted in increase in investment, both foreign and domestic. We have also taken other policy initiatives like harmonization of spectrum, liberalisation and trading. Those who had spectrum but were not making use of it can now transfer it to others. We also allowed sharing which will help this sector in a significant way. These were issues pending for a long time. I can say with confidence that our government has worked in the best interests of the consumer. That is, by extension, in the best interests of the industry and the government as well.

I told them (cellular operators) that if they want to talk to me they should talk to me directly, not through the media.

Photo: Naresh Sharma / Firstpost
Photo: Naresh Sharma / Firstpost

What about TRAI’s inability to impose fine on telecom operators for call-drops. Do you intend to arm TRAI with punitive powers?

We can consider that possibility, of arming TRAI with new powers, if the situation so warrants. But I think that the steps that we had taken will resolve the of call-drops issue.

What is your view on disruptive innovations like WhatsApp, Messenger or Skype that are being resisted by the industry?

This is a ministry related to technology. Every day new technologies will be invented and people will take benefit of that. So it will be absolutely wrong on the part of the government to create hurdles in technological innovations. Unless there are concerns for national security or national interests, we are averse to the idea of coming in the way of innovations. Nobody should deprive the citizens of this country from the benefit of technological innovations. This is unthinkable.

The government has introduced a broadbad policy to create e-highways across the country. The entire projects does not seem to have taken off as expected. Why is it so?

This is an ambitious plan. And this is to ensure that broadband internet reaches rural areas and is not confined to urban centres. The government has talked about creating e-highways. We plan to take internet to 2.5 lakh villages through the National Opitical Fibre Network (NOFN) which is now called the Bharat Net project. In the first phase we aim to connect 100,000 villages. This will be completed by March 2017. I am sure that this will be completed in time. The remaining 1.5 lakh villages will be connected by 2018. It is true that we encountered certain difficulties at the initial stage with regard to procurement. But now the problem is resolved. From September onwards, we will be able to tell people exactly how many villages we are connecting every day and what will be the end-to-end solutions that we will deliver using this e-highway. We are drawing up extensive plans to ensure that common people in the farthest corners of rural India benefit from this connectivity.

Our policy is very clear. We are not for or against anyone. We will take decisions which are legally right with only one beneficiary in mind: the consumer.

What is the contribution of the private sector in this endeavor? If you look at the figures of net connectivity, only ten top cities are adequately catered to by private players. Is this a major handicap?

Our government firmly believes that these facilities should be made available to common people, more importantly to the rural population. This project will be successful only when the private sector contributes to it. But at the same time, let me tell you this, whether they contribute or not, this ministry has enough resources to accomplish this task. We have to actualise the dream of Digital India and not limit it to a mere slogan. That is why we want to take this facility to the remotest village. The target is fixed and we have to complete it on time. And I believe that we will be able to finish it on time.

How much time would it take for a remote village to hold classes through well-trained teachers from city through e-class?

I believe that we will be able to actualise this dream as we complete the project. I’m saying this because we are taking care to be ready with end-to-end solutions for the citizens by the time connectivity is rolled out in villages.

Optical fibre is the backbone of Digital India mission. How are you doing in fibre-laying?

In terms of distance covered we have attained a lot. But there is still a gap in end-to-end solutions. Because of the monsoon we could not speed up the work. But now with procurement of required equipment, I’m confident we will finish the task within time. To ensure that this happens, we have also constituted a task force which is working relentlessly to facilitate net connectivity. Within a month, we will have a full list of facilities which we will provide to villages. We will launch pilot projects in a few villages across the country.

How many villages do you intend to launch these projects in?

We have not decided the exact numbers yet, but villages where the internet has reached will be considered for the pilot project.

You seemed to be relying heavily on PSUs to roll out this plan. What is the basis of your optimism given the poor condition of BSNL and MTNL? Similarly the Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) tasked with laying fibre optic cable has failed miserably. So what makes you optimistic?

I will not comment on past or on the circumstances in which BBNL was set up. We have brought structural changes and improved it. It is not only BBNL which is doing the work. It is also being done by BSNL, Power Grid and Railtel. Previously, the entire procurement was done by the BBNL, now we have decentralised it. All these three PSUs have enough experience in this. And it is also convenient for them. I am fully confident that it is on track now. I monitor it every 15 days. The way it is progressing, I am certain that we will finish the work before time (March 2017 for phase 1 and March 2018 for phase 2).

We have to actualise the dream of Digital India and not limit it to a mere slogan.

Let me ask rephrase this question. Have you thought about people losing faith in the MTNL and BSNL and how they can be redeemed?

See this sector has become immensely competitive. This is a service sector. Anyone who ensures quality service will be preferred by the consumers. BSNL and MTNL have a lot of legacy problems. When BSNL was formed, a lot of officials and employees of DOT (department of telecom) merged with BSNL. I won’t say that this is the only problem. But the fact remains that of the total revenue generated by BSNL, about 50 per cent goes for salaries and pension. MTNL is worse. More than 70 Per cent of the revenue goes for salaries and pension. Some spectrum which they should not have procured, they had to take out of compulsion of being a government company. MTNL took a big loan whose interest is a burden to pay. Their financial condition kept deteriorating since 2008. And I believe that there has been no investment in these companies for many years.

The prime minister and my predecessor had taken note of these problems and addressed them. The loss incurred by BSNL has decreased and it has been registering operative profits. I believe from next year onwards, it will become a profitable entity. BSNL has also taken many decisions in the interest of customers. One of the concerns that BSNL was grappling with was persistent reduction in landline connections. They initiated certain schemes for the benefit customers such as free-calling from 9pm to 7am. For mobile, they have waived off roaming charges across the country. From August 15, they are going to make landline free on Sundays and provide landline connections at just Rs 49 per month. I feel that the government has helped the BSNL in many respects by giving projects in left wing extremism (LWE) areas and the north-east. BSNL’s financial health has started improving significantly. Now they have also realised that if they do not provide good services in this competitive era, they will not survive in the market. I believe that in the coming years BSNL will be in good shape. In MTNL’s case, we are trying to revive it so that it can stand on its own. I believe that the existence of BSNL and MTNL is required to ensure healthy competition.

But how long will you ensure the survival of such entities artificially?

No, we are not keeping them alive artificially. Employees of MTNL also realise this. The problem is that the average age of employees in MTNL is 54-55. We have to infuse new blood into the organisation. And we are working on that. Our intention is to make MTNL professionally-run, competent and efficient.

There are apprehensions in the industry regarding high reserve price for the September spectrum auction. What is your expectation from this auction?

I believe that in the auction, spectrum other than 700 MH will be sold well. Spectrum of 700 MH will also attract good bidding. If some people are trying to create a negative atmosphere about the reserve price, they will not succeed. They have to understand that people will get good service only when the service provider has enough spectrum. The finance ministry has set a revenue target for us. I am certain that we will meet that.

But operators are cribbing about high reserve price.

Well, we will come to know of it when the auction takes place. The real picture will then emerge. But think of it this way, if we make any changes now, people will say “khel ho gaya (it is bungled)”.

Photo: Naresh Sharma / Firstpost
Photo: Naresh Sharma / Firstpost

From August 15, BSNL is going to make landline free on Sundays and provide connections at just Rs 49 per month.

Your ministry is haunted by a shadow of corruption. How do you intend to exorcise that ghost?

I told you at the beginning that that there was a problem of trust deficit here. But our government has successfully restored confidence. I believe that if decisions are taken without fear, favour or prejudice, such problems will not arise. Whether the autction is small or big, the government policy is very clear, which is to do it in a transparent manner without any bias. And this will be the approach to framing of policies and auctioning. All service providers have met us and we have assured them that we will not pursue any discriminatory approach.

You talk about transparent policy. But the Cellular Operators Association of India (CoAI) is up against TRAI and criticising the regulatory body. How do you see this?

I have already stated my view on this. Some cellular operators came to meet me today (Friday). I told them TRAI has not taken any decision and it is at consultative stage. I also told them in as many words that if they want to talk to me they should talk to me directly, not through the media. I have disabused them of the notion that the TRAI would act in a discriminatory manner. Though TRAI is an independent regulatory authority, the government has a good coordination with it. TRAI has full right to think and work in the interest of customers, seek opinion of people from time to time. Again I would say that the policy is very clear. We are not for or against anyone. The government will take decisions which are legally right with only one beneficiary in mind: the consumer.

If some people are trying to create a negative atmosphere about the reserve price (of September spectrum auctions), they will not succeed.

The telecom sector is beset with litigations hampering its growth. What are you doing to check this?

The bigger question here is related to revenue, what people call AGR (adjusted gross revenue). Its definition still needs to be clarified by the Supreme Court. In this regard, views of our ministry and that of telecom service providers are at variance. But we are rigorously pursuing settlement of this issue and we want a situation where fewer cases are referred for litigation. But wherever there is a clash of economic interest and people feel that they have been wronged, they move court. Once this issue of revenue is settled, then our policies for auction would ensure less of litigation in the sector.

There have been tussles between the TRAI and COAI on unified rate for spectrum usage charge (SUC). How do you intend to resolve that?

Spectrum usage charges should be understood in the context of the fact that in the whole world whether it is revenue or tax, there is an attempt to bring uniformity. We got some things in legacy. Spectrums are of varied types. Some were allotted and some auctioned and some given in trading. Their rates vary. I believe that whether it is TRAI or the attorney general, everyone wants that they should be made uniform. And our government has been working in that direction only. TRAI has been insistent on fixing it at 3 per cent. Our government has decided to bring uniformity in the best interest of industry and consumers.

But what about objections raised by cellular operators?

I do not think that they would have serious objection. Their posturing might be different in the media. But once we move towards uniformity, they will fall in line.

I am not the minister for just BSNL and MTNL but entire telecom industry. It is my responsibility to ensure consumer satisfaction and protect consumer interests.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi regards post office and the postman as a strong symbol of the union government’s connect with people in far off rural areas. How will you revamp this crucial link it since it has been rendered redundant due to technological innovations?

You got it right, the prime minister says that the postman is the representative of the union government in villages. With changing time, there is a need for the postal department to re-invent itself. In last two years the government has taken many initiatives in this direction. Installation of ATMs, getting licence for payment banks are some of these initiatives. Around 22,000 post offices across the country are now providing core banking services.

Another major segment is parcel delivery and post office has very minimal share of it. The railways has around 3-4 percent share of it. Since the railways has the transport and post office has infrastructure in remote rural areas, a meeting was held between member traffic (railways) and secretary posts and telegraph recently. I suggested that they should work out an action plan on how to capture a major share of parcel by synergising operations of posts and railways. They have also entered into the field of e-commerce and are doing good work. Given the permission by the RBI to post office to open payment bank, we intend to start operations by 2017. We will have a network similar or even bigger that of the State Bank of India (SBI) in rural India. People repose great trust in the post office which is reflected in the fact they opt for post office saving more than any other financial instruments. This trust is the strength of this department. And we have to maintain it. With the help of the new initiatives taken by the government, the financial condition of the department will also improve and new facilities will be given to people.