NEW DELHI: Poor management, policy paralysis, unwarranted political intervention and lack of independent functioning are the major causes for the downward spiral of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), which is India’s only public sector undertaking (PSU) in the telecom sector, say senior officers and sources in the company.

On the condition of anonymity, a senior BSNL officer told The Sunday Guardian: “The problems being faced by BSNL today have been created by the apathy of successive governments. The governments did not allow the BSNL management to function independently. There were frequent and unwarranted interventions by the Ministry of Telecommunication, the Ministers and the Department of Telecommunications.”

Officers and senior employees of the BSNL that The Sunday Guardian spoke to also alleged that for years, government after government ignored BSNL to the benefit of the private operators.

Citing examples of such “apathy” towards BSNL, a senior employee who had been with the telecom operator for 35 years said that the government did not provide BSNL with licences to operate in the mobile segment until 2002, while private companies were issued mobile operating licences in 1995. “Why did the government telecom operator have to wait for seven long years to get its licence when private companies were given the same licence way back in 1995? If this was not to benefit private operators, what was it then?” the senior BSNL employee asked.

BSNL insiders and officers also alleged that BSNL was stopped from procuring any equipment for modernisation and upgrade for six long years between 2006 and 2012 by the then Congress government and its then Telecom Minister, A. Raja.

On the condition of anonymity, a BSNL officer said, “From 2006 onwards, BSNL was asked to stop all its procurements and its upgrades. This went on until 2012. During this period, all the tenders floated by BSNL were cancelled under one pretext or the other. We did not get the equipment we needed to expand and upgrade our network. The then Minister cancelled BSNL’s 45 million line tender in 2007. When again in 2010 BSNL floated tenders to procure 93 million line equipment, the Ministry asked BSNL to cancel those tenders.”

“Why was BSNL being stopped from expanding and upgrading its network? Remember this was the time period (2006-2012) when the telecom revolution in India ushered in mobile services and networks grew exponentially. So why was BSNL stopped from taking benefit of it? BSNL was handicapped by none other than the then government itself,” the BSNL officer said.

While the entire country is enjoying 4G services on their mobile phones and working towards leaping to the ultra fast 5G technology, the government-owned telecom operator is yet to start 4G services for its users. BSNL was granted 4G spectrum license only on 23 October this year, following a Cabinet decision, while private telecom operators had received 4G spectrum almost four years back.

BSNL has been running at a loss for the last one decade and has been pegged as the country’s biggest loss-making PSU. It is estimated that the public sector telecom operator would have made a loss of Rs 13,804 crore until the end of financial year 2019, while having a debt of more than Rs 20,000 crore.

However, the Narendra Modi 2.0 government has recently decided to bail out the loss-making state-owned telecom operator with a package of Rs 74,000 crore (including MTNL). The Ministry of Telecommunications has also decided to cut down on manpower of these companies (BSNL and MTNL) as manpower takes up about 70% of the total cost incurred to these companies.

Regarding cutting down on the manpower of the debt-laden BSNL, the company has announced a VRS (Voluntary Retirement Scheme) for its employees and already more than 70,000 employees have opted for it. The company insider estimates that around 80,000 employees will avail the VRS rolled out by the government. BSNL has 1.50 lakh employees across the country.

However, BSNL Employees’ Union is crying foul over the VRS rolled out by the government and says that the government has not laid down clear-cut procedures as to how the claims of the employees who are opting for VRS would be settled.

Islam Ahmed, president of BSNL Employees’ Union, told The Sunday Guardian, “There are grey areas and apprehensions about how the government will go about with settlement of the claims of its employees. At no stage, did the management or the government take the union into their confidence, many things are not transparent. For months together, they have not deposited the pension contribution and the EPF contributions of the employees, bank loans for which BSNL had taken guarantee of paying their instalments are not being paid, despite being deducted from the employees’ salary. Employees have not got their salaries for months. How are their VRS claims going to be settled?”

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