Cries for the privatisation of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), the public sector telecom service provider in India, have been raised from various corners for a while now. Successive central governments – the incumbent BJP regime of 2014 and 2019 and its predecessor, the Congress-led UPA regime – have been trying to dismantle BSNL.
Recently, a BJP law maker took on BSNL employees in public, demanding the privatisation of the telecom company. At a public meeting in Kumta in Uttara Kannada district on Monday, BJP MP Anant Kumar Hegde called BSNL officials “traitors” who were “not ready to work”, going on to slam the “poor” network of the state-owned telecom operator in parts of Karnataka. Hegde claimed there was “idleness” in BSNL and that it had been decided to get rid of 85,000 employees and that disinvestment was the only way to set it right.
“It (BSNL) is a system, which is full of traitors... People know how the BSNL network is. It is still better in Uttara Kannada but in Bengaluru you will not get the network at all. The entire BSNL is a disgrace for the country,” the MP was heard saying in a video which has gone viral. Recalling that he had reprimanded BSNL officials during a recent meeting in Karwar, the former union minister said he told them: “You are not just government officials but anti-nationals too.” The MP said BSNL was a “disgrace” to the country. “We are finishing it off through divestment and are allowing private players to take over the space,” Hegde said.
Hegde said there was a sense of “lethargy” in BSNL which no one could set right, not even the present dispensation. “Government has given you funds. People are in need. Infrastructure is ready but they are not ready to work. There isn't shortage of anything. The PM speaks of Digital India, we are ready to provide infrastructure, technology and funds, but they are not ready to work. There is so much idleness there,” he alleged. “It has been decided to remove 85,000 employees in the entire country. There may be a requirement to remove some more. Whatever is needed, we will do. We will do a major surgery to set BSNL right and privatise it. There is no other alternative,” he is heard saying in the video.
Read more: BSNL: After Package Announcement, Centre’s ‘Revival’ Push Hits the Buffers
However, the BJP law maker conveniently forgot how BSNL has been systematically dismantled by his own government.
“It is an undeniable fact that it is only anti-BSNL and pro-private policies of successive governments at the Centre that have weakened BSNL and pushed it to making losses. On the other hand, patriotic BSNL employees have launched many initiatives to improve the quality of services and to increase customer satisfaction. The ‘Customer Delight Year’, ‘Service With A Smile’, ‘BSNL at Your Door Steps’ are some of the drives launched by the BSNL unions and associations, to improve the efficiency of BSNL and its financial position. Thus, the statement of Shri Anantkumar Hegde, branding BSNL employees as traitors, only exposes his ignorance about BSNL and its employees,” said P. Abhimanyu, General Secretary of BSNL Employees Union and Convener of All Unions and Associations of BSNL (AUAB).
BSNL employees have raised issues within BSNL in various platforms, its employees held multiple protests. However, it seemed the government was never keen on fixing the issues within BSNL. One of the major demands of its employees is to roll out 4G services. Except BSNL and its sister company MTNL, every telecom service provider in the country have been allocated the 4G spectrum, a factor which has affected services.
Following a series of protests, on October 23, 2019, the Central Government had announced a Rs. 69,000 crore revival package for BSNL and MTNL. Among other things, the package included allotment of 4G spectrum to BSNL, asset monetisation and extending of sovereign guarantee, to enable BSNL to raise funds from the market by issuing bonds. However, after nine months – except the implementation of VRS – no other assurance contained in the revival package has been implemented.
The revival of BSNL is unimaginable without rolling out a 4G service, according to unions and associations. BSNL is already lagging behind private operators by four years here. In such a situation, even though employees have requested the Centre to roll out 4G services, it is yet to be done.
The main focus of the revival package was on VRS, which resulted in the retrenchment of 79,000 employees due to the scheme. With the BSNL workforce being halved, the work load of the existing workers had doubled. Along with this, 30% of contractual workers in BSNL have also been laid off. The contract workers have not been paid wages for the past year, as a result of which 12 contract workers have already ended their lives.
“Shri Hegde has stated that the government has given funds and technology to BSNL. This is nothing but a travesty of truth. On paper, the government has allotted 4G spectrum to BSNL. Based on this, BSNL floated a tender in March 2020 to procure equipment to roll out its 4G service at the cost of Rs 9,000 crore. However, soon thereafter, the government directed BSNL to cancel this tender based on a flimsy complaint raised by an inconsequential organisation called TEPC (Telecom Equipment and Services Export Promotion Council),” said Abhimanyu.
Read more: 4 Months after BSNL, MTNL Revival Package Announcement, Silence over 4G, Sovereign Guarantee for Bonds
Condemning the “outburst” by Hedge, AUAB said: “Whenever natural calamities like cyclones, floods, etc., struck the nation, it was BSNL which provided service for relief and rescue operations, while private telecom companies used to shut-down their services.”
(Inputs from PTI)