Opening lines
Flight into death
Old obligations are costly
Letters to the Editor

While speaking at a conference of state information technology ministers, the Prime Minister announced three major reforms in the telecommunication and information technology sectors. These include a decision to allow competition in the national long distance communications sector � there will no longer be any restrictions on the number of service providers. In a related move, the monopoly power of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited will be curbed significantly since internet companies will now be able to bypass VSNL and be allowed to tap international cables directly. The entry of new players into the internet sector has proved to be extremely beneficial to domestic consumers since prices have come down while the quality of service has improved by leaps and bounds. There is no doubt that the new measures will have a similar effect � consumers will gain at the expense of VSNL.

Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, as indeed several of the chief ministers who were present at the meeting, also expressed dissatisfaction with the slow pace of reforms in the telecom sector. Mr. Vajpayee also commented on the bureaucratic delays which have resulted in several liberalization targets being missed in the past. In a related development, the �introspection workshop� set up by the Congress has endorsed the package of economic reforms initiated by Mr Manmohan Singh. Even strong critics of the economic reforms, such as Mr Arjun Singh, have declared that the process of liberalization is irreversible. It is the constant sniping of various opposition parties which has retarded the pace of economic reforms during the course of the last decade. An unfortunate fact is that the opposition to reforms has been essentially a political ploy, an attempt to obfuscate issues so that the party in power cannot implement the package of reforms. This is clear from the fact that the attitudes of all the major political parties towards reforms depends on whether they are in power or in the opposition � they advocate reforms when they are in power, but fight any move for change when they sit in the opposition benches. That is why the public support of the reform process by the Congress is particularly important because even the decimated Congress remains the largest single opposition party. As soon as there is some political consensus on the desirability of economic reforms, the government can press on with renewed vigour to initiate change in the remaining areas. One of the first priorities of the government must be downsizing itself. A major reason for the bureaucratic delays which have attracted the prime minister�s ire is the large size of the bureaucracy. A reduction it its size will mean that the remaining babus will simply not have sufficient time to meddle in affairs which are not their concern. It is pertinent to recall that the much-maligned pay commission had actually recommended a 30 per cent cut in the size of the bureaucracy. Any concerted effort in that direction was stalled precisely because of strong criticism from political parties.

Perhaps, those efforts will now be successful if the Congress is really sincere in its endorsement of the reform process. Similar initiatives must be taken in privatizing several public sector enterprises. Existing employees will protest because they are certainly better off under the current system. But political parties must refrain from supporting their agitations because there is no doubt that the ordinary citizen will benefit if privatization improves the overall efficiency of the economy.    

The crash of the ill-fated Alliance Air flight CD 7412 has resulted in more than 60 people being dead or injured, including passengers, crew and residents of the block of government flats it crashed into. There is something horrific about every such accident, and no amount of ex gratia payment by the government to the victims� next of kin can ever compensate for the human loss it causes, and the complete shock and bewildered grief that accompany it. The end of flight number 7412 was made more tragic by the fact that it involved people on the ground living three kilometres away from the airport, like a child�s nightmare come true. This has raised a question about the wisdom of having residential areas so close to the airport. Yet it is not the first time the issue is being raised. Although this was a particularly tragic incident, Indian airports are notorious for laxity about safety parameters.

The usual inquiry will be instituted and the specific cause of the accident may even be pinpointed at the end of the process. That may very well turn out to be an immediate cause. But it has to be asked how much fate actually had to do with the accident, and how much of it was caused by indirect human agency. The aircraft was a Boeing 737, which originally belonged to the Indian Airlines fleet. The Indian Airlines acquired it in June 1980, that is, the craft was 20 years old and had flown 44,087 hours when it took off from Calcutta on its way to New Delhi via Patna and Lucknow yesterday morning. There is no way such an old plane should have been carrying passengers, never mind the major and minor checks it had been through recently. The lifespan of a Boeing 737 is 15 years. Using old aircraft is an old sin of Indian Airlines, and Alliance Air, one of its subsidiaries, seems to have inherited this reckless practice. This is one of the more lethal consequences of a lack of competition, which means a lack of accountability. It amounts to this: people may die, but the company being paid to fly them safely can get away with ignoring safety rules.    

Labour unions of the department of telecommunication services vehemently oppose its corporatization since their members would lose their status as government employees with the attendant benefits. To justify their stand they are arguing that a corporation would not have the same commitment to rural telephony that a government department does, and have emphasized that none of the private operators are anywhere close to fulfilling the rural coverage mandated in their licences.

DTS employees are not alone in opposing corporatization. The labour unions of many incumbent operators � British Telecom, France Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, Telecom Italia, Telefonica Spain, and Nippon Telephone and Telegraph � had resisted corporatization. They too had used the argument of universal service obligation to justify remaining government departments operating as monopolies, but were eventually forced to admit defeat.

Theodore Vail, then head of AT&T, developed the USO concept in 1914 to avoid antitrust litigation by the United States�s department of justice. In return for AT&T�s monopoly being continued, Vail proposed that no person who wanted a telephone connection would be denied one, no matter how remote the area he lived in, how much it would cost AT&T to lay a cable to him, or how few calls he made. Irrespective of the cost, AT&T would provide him the same range and quality of services at rates identical to those it charged in metropolises. Other USO terms were providing emergency services at no charge and installing numbers of public payphones.

Eager to prove their pro-poor sympathies, several governments adopted the USO concept. Since the prevailing economic wisdom then was that telecommunications was a natural monopoly, they set up operators as government departments or public telephone and telegraph systems. These PTTs set tariffs according to social objectives, with no relation to fixed or operational costs. They artificially kept tariffs for international and long distance telephony high to subsidize local and rural telephony.

This was in spite of a breakup of capital expenditure being approximately 50 per cent for the local loop, 20 per cent for long distance circuits and 30 per cent for international circuits, the operational cost of a call depending on the volume of traffic at that particular instant.

Since they generated very little traffic, both fixed and operational costs in rural areas were several times that in cities, but they were charged the same tariffs. The capital cost to DTS for providing a new connection is about Rs 20,000 in a metropolis, about Rs 100,000 in a typical village, and several times that in remote areas. Nevertheless, the deposits, installation charges, monthly rentals, and call rates charged by DTS are approximately the same in all regions of India.

Technological innovations in the Eighties enabled several value-added services to be provided over the same phone line, rapidly changing the financial structure of the telecom sector from economies of scale to economies of scope. Legal battles in the US permitted the entry of competitors to AT&T and eventually led to its breakup in 1984. Many countries followed Margaret Thatcher�s lead and opened their telecom sectors to competition. In India too the Athreya committee in 1990 recommended the corporatization and privatization of the department of telecom.

PTTs which faced competition from new entrants demanded compensation arguing that the latter had not incurred heavy expenditure for decades in fulfilling USOs. Since most PTTs had no estimates of how much USO cost them, it has been difficult for regulators to formulate appropriate solutions.

Regulators have attempted several methods, with varying degrees of success. France, Britain and Germany imposed USO on their erstwhile monopolies but not on new entrants. Since it was more probable that a rural subscriber was nearer a switch of the incumbent compared to one of a new entrant, it would be cheaper for the incumbent to fulfil the USO. In addition, their decades of monopoly gave them a headstart which more than compensated for what they had spent on USO.

Conversely, many developing countries with large rural populations imposed USO on new operators but not on their erstwhile monopolies, arguing that the amounts spent by their incumbents on fulfilling USO had not been recovered. And since new operators installed the latest technologies, they would skim off the best paying customers.

Several countries, including India, imposed USO on all operators as part of their licence conditions � failure to implement USO would lead to cancellation of their licences. In practice, this has not worked since operators use their political clout to avoid having their licences cancelled. DTS has installed only 374,600 village public telephones in 120 years.

Even though the 1999 telecom policy mandated that all villages would be provided voice and low-speed data services and that telephones would be available on demand in all parts of India by 2002, 292,000 villages still do not have even a single public telephone. The record of private operators has been far worse. Tata Teleservices has not installed a single village public telephone in Andhra Pradesh; nor have Hughes Ispat in Maharashtra, Essar and Reliance in Gujarat and Shyam Telelink in Rajasthan. Bharti Telnet has installed just 12 of these in Madhya Pradesh. They have all argued that cancellation of their licences would cause great hardship to subscribers. China, though, has implemented this approach successfully, adding around 35 million phones annually in rural areas.

In India, since imposing USO as part of licence conditions has not worked, the 1999 telecom policy proposed the formation of a USO fund: �Resources for meeting USO would be raised through a universal access levy. UAL would be a percentage of the revenue earned by all operators under various licences. This percentage would be decided by the government in consultation with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. UAL is required for providing VPTs and rural telephones and should cover both capital expenditure and recurring expenses. USO for rural and remote areas would be undertaken by all fixed service prov-iders who shall be reimbursed from the funds raised from the UAL.�

TRAI is currently holding public hearings on these issues. Even though India�s private operators are willing to compensate DTS for taking over their USO burden, a USO fund may turn out to be litigious. Operators in the US, Australia and France are in constant dispute with each other and with regulators over reimbursements.

In view of these disputes, Germany, Brazil, Spain and Portugal are currently reconsidering their earlier decisions to start USO funds. In 1994, Chile pioneered a solution which has worked well � auctioning the USO burden. Bidders were asked how much subsidy they required from the public exchequer to provide USO. The lowest bidder in each province was given a licence to provide basic and value-added services. It has cost Chile�s taxpayers only $ 17 million over five years to provide universal service.

The most remarkable success is from Bangladesh where Grameen Telephone Company has provided universal mobile access to 100 million villagers in 70,000 villages. Grameen Bank gave soft loans to village women to purchase cellular handsets, who then charged villagers for making and receiving calls. GTC is one of the few rural telephony companies that are profitable and paying dividends.

India should emulate the successful approaches of Bangladesh and Chile, although they may not work to the same extent in a large country. India should be wary that the UAL, being finalized by TRAI, might lead to further litigation over calculation of USO costs, especially since DTS has not kept accurate accounts.    


Neither forgive nor forget

Sir � The tiger is on the prowl again (�Thackeray snarls as govt puts police on riot trail�, July 16). If his inflammatory editorials in the Saamna in 1992 are reason for the police to proceed against the Shiv Sena chief, his current fulminations that Mumbai will �burn again� should be treated as reason to put him behind bars immediately. For this is a direct incitement to violence, and as Bal Thackeray�s dictate to the Shiv Sena men to �take to the streets� in 1992-93 proved, the human costs of the carnage will be heavy. Thackeray, even now, makes no bones that the violence will be �communal�. Which means it will not end with the mere closing down of shops, destruction of public property or pitched fights with the police � the usual targets in the display of discontent with the government. The plan is more malicious and Thackeray feels no shame in declaring innocent Muslims will once again be made scapegoats in a political game. Should there be any forgiveness after this knowledge?

Yours faithfully,
J. Home Chaudhury, Calcutta

In a different tune

Sir � Jayatsen Bhattacharya, in his article, �Natural death� (July 14), seems absolutely certain that �the days of jibonmukhi are numbered�. He cites a television serial as a pointer to the downfall. One wonders whether his observation is primarily, if not only, based on this tele-serial which is by no means an authentic representation of recent innovations in Bengali music.

In fact, the term �jibonmukhi� is very misleading to start with. Coined by HMV while launching Nachiketa Chakra-borty�s first album, Ei besh bhalo achhi (1993), this highly ambivalent term referred to the existing trend of Bengali music as �maronmukhi� (death-oriented), against which singers like Manna De, Sandhya Mukhopadhyay, Haimanti Shukla reacted strongly. Their reaction was natural, though popular Bengali music was, in general, barring a few exceptions like the songs sung by Jatileshwar Mukhopadhyay, Abhijit Bandyopadhyay, and Salil Chowdhury, still catering to romanticism and sentimentalism.

Efforts to break the stereotypes started in the Forties with the emergence of ganasangeet. Then came the likes of Gautam Chattopadhyay with the group, Mohiner Ghoraguli, and Ranjan Prasad, Pratul Mukhopadhyay in the Seventies. Nagorik, where Suman Chattopadhyay was a lead member and Nagar Philomel came in the Eighties. Jibonmukhi songs were not born out of nothing. They had a natural birth with the purpose of infusing contemporary sensibility into the wasteland of Bengali music. With Suman Chattopadhyay hitting the scene like a meteor in 1992, this genre was formally named.

Marginalizing jibonmukhi as something alien to Bengali cultural tradition is typical of uneducated commentators on music. On several occasions Suman Chattopadhyay has clarified that he sings �Bengali modern songs�, and the term, jibonmukhi is misleading.

Over the last decade this new wave of Bengali music has spread. In due course, one saw the emergence of a new breed of musicians. A temporary threat came from the remake business that had no future. Another offshoot of this new wave is Bengali bands. The writer laments the lack of �Bengaliness� in them. But one can only lament his lack of insight into the matter. The instrumentation aspect is Westernized. So what�s wrong in that? Again it is also a half-truth that Bengali band songs are Western in essence. The lyrics represent everyday Bengali speech, the tunes are often inspired by folk strains and it is only the beginning of a process. How can one overlook the immense input of enthusiasm, creativity and experimentation that is going on in Bengali music now? Besides, one has to take into account that the media-hyped jibonmukhi and modern Bengali song divide is gradually disappearing. Sandhya Mukhopadhyay�s album, Ashchhe shatabdite elucidates this.

Finally, some clarifications. Suman Chattopadhyay does not �dabble� with Rabindrasangeet �today�. He has been singing Rabindrasangeet since his childhood. That Bhattacharya finds it �miserable� and Suman�s voice �untrained�, raises serious doubts about his credentials as a critic. Chattopadhyay�s first record was released in 1971 and it had two Rabindrasangeet numbers. Also, Nachiketa Chakraborty has not �taken to classical training� recently, but for a long time. His career as a singer began with semi-classical ghazal numbers performed in public. It is also entirely wrong to say Anjan Dutta has stopped singing Bengali songs.

Yours faithfully,
Angshuman Bhowmick, Calcutta,

Sir � I completely agree with Jayatsen Bhattacharya. Bengali jibonmukhi music has come to a dead end. One expected that this genre would end the dearth of good music in the industry. Sadly that has not happened. With the onslaught of the remake culture, it is back to the same old situation. This is unbearable. Either the new numbers are takeoffs from old hits, or they are not worth listening to. Why can�t new talents come forward, instead of making their way to the Mumbai film industry?

Yours faithfully,
Joyita Putatunda, Calcutta

Sir � Jayatsen Bhattacharya has, in the manner of a government hospital physician hurrying through a hall full of patients, pronounced Bengali jibonmukhi songs dead. That is his prerogative. But one finds, in his sweeping observations, an unfortunate shallowness. To begin with, the so called jibonmukhi songs do not begin or end with Suman Chattopadhyay and Nachiketa Chakraborty. They have a checquered history dating back to the Sixties, when bands like Mohiner Ghoraguli performed in college campuses and street corners, bringing in a welcome whiff of fresh air to the moribund Bengali music scene. What Chattopadhyay achieved was the stature to give this genre a proper identity and a wider, almost mainstream acceptance. This he did by bringing in a poet�s sensibility in modern Bengali songwriting, and by his brave and often successful attempts to explore different musical idioms, Western and Eastern. The writer�s argument is, therefore, completely unjustified.

Yours faithfully,
Nandita Sinha, Shillong

Emergency matters

Sir � Both Sunanda K. Datta-Ray�s �The great folk myth of India� and S. Nihal Singh�s �Through the glass darkly� (June 25) give the true picture of the days of Emergency. The then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, acted as an autocrat, while her son evicted poor people in the capital to carry out his ambitious plan to beautify the city and castrated a number of young men in the name of population control. Thus both mother and son co-authored one of the bleakest chapters of Indian history. Today�s generation must be made aware of the suspension of democratic rights during this period. The two articles and the editorial, �When the heavens darkened�, are steps in the right direction.

Yours faithfully,
B.B. Akul, Jamshedpur

Sir � Any historical event is analysed in the context of the circumstances prevailing at the time. Indira Gandhi�s imposition of Emergency in 1975 was an unwise action. She was driven by her political ambitions, while her son, Sanjay Gandhi, demanded the achievement of things in the shortest time possible.

The India of today is in a complete mess, with the powerholders only interested in accumulating material benefits and all the organs of the state machinery becoming corrupt. Indians who think they are citizens of a democratic country are deceiving themselves. All forms of corruption have to be weeded out from the polity. Could something in the lines of the Emergency provide the answer to the present problems?

Yours faithfully,
Rina Chawla, Haldia

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