| Sukh Ram in Delhi on Sunday. Picture by Jagan Negi
New Delhi, Aug. 21: Happy birthday ' the mobile phone in India will be 10 years old tomorrow.
The first call was made from Calcutta where a gala commemoration is being organised. One person is missing from the guest list: Sukh Ram.
Communications minister in 1991-95 in P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government, Sukh Ram had to bow out in ignominy over a corruption scandal.
But it was to him that Jyoti Basu, then chief minister, had made India’s first mobile call.
“If I remember correctly, when I had the first mobile call from Jyoti Basu, I told him that after the introduction of telecommunications through fixed telephones, this is the most revolutionary step in this country,” Sukh Ram said today in an interview.
“Those words have come true after 10 years,” he added with a wet glint in his eyes.
Basu is unable to recall the conversation, but he does remember being part of communication history.
In 10 years, mobile telephony has achieved what fixed phones could not in five decades. At the end of July, some 5.91 crore people were using cellular phones.
Sukh Ram recollected how he had jokingly thrown the gauntlet at Sunil Bharti Mittal, owner of Airtel, and Dhirubhai Ambani to take the licence in Himachal Pradesh, which he represented in Parliament. He told them that if they succeeded in Himachal, a tough terrain and backward at that time, they could conquer any place.
“About six months back I made some enquiries about how the operators were doing. AirTel, I was told, has a turnover of Rs 7.5 crore per month. I was told that other operators in the state too are making good profits. If this is the case in a small state, you can imagine what it would be for the whole country.”
By virtue of its takeover of Modi Telstra, which 10 years ago had the Calcutta licence, AirTel has the privilege of spearheading the birthday bash.
“Sunil Mittal started in a humble manner and you see how he and the company has grown,” Sukh Ram said.
“Once Dhirubhai with his sons Mukesh and Anil met me and asked if it was worth getting into the telecom sector' I told him, listen Mr Ambani, today you are making money from oil that involves digging the earth. This is a field (telecom) you will make money from the air.”
Reliance Infocomm, which Mukesh started is now with Anil after the split, is a leader.
Sukh Ram had presided over a messy bidding process for the first licences that were issued with some would-be operators quoting enormous amounts, possibly because there was no experience to fall back upon.
Today, the rulebook has dramatically changed as the industry shares revenue with the government.
“I am fully satisfied today for whatever I contributed in my capacity as the telecom minister of the country. A big revolution has come. I remember, I was jealous of the advancement made by the US and European countries in telecom I found on my tours to attract investment to India,” Sukh Ram said.
“On my return, I asked my officials to prepare the plan that will make India an important power in telecommunications.”
What about the scandal that engulfed him as minister with bags full of cash being found in his home, for which he had to later do time in prison' “It was on account of my bad start. But today I have no complaints.”
Sukh Ram wants mobile phone prices to come down further. “Competition will bring it down and the fittest will survive.”
Call rates have dropped from Rs 16 a minute to 0.50 paise. At that rate, he could expect a call tomorrow from Calcutta.