As the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government completes two years in office, communications & IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad feels that the contours of Digital India are in place. Tele-density at 82.93% and rural tele-density at 50.60% are impressive. Operators have started rolling out 4G services. State-owned BSNL is inching towards a turnaround, posting its first operating profit after around five years. Apart from these indicators, the minister says his biggest achievement is turning around the image of Sanchar Bhavan which is “free of corruption and middle-men and where the working norm is transparency.” In an interview with R Jaikrishna & Rishi Raj, Prasad also says that he’s confident that there would be takers for the highly priced 700 Mhz spectrum in the forthcoming auctions and that spectrum crunch is a thing of the past. Excerpts:
There is an increased concern over the steeply high reserve price for 700 Mhz spectrum in the forthcoming auctions. Will the government take any step to reduce it? Don’t you think there won’t be any takers for this spectrum at such high price, since the eco-system for it is not fully developed?
The Cabinet will take the final call on the reserve price. But let me clarify that everyone will buy spectrum in the auctions. From the first auctions until now, has there been one instance where operators haven’t shed tears on higher spectrum price? Tell me one auction where operators haven’t bought spectrum? They are surely going to buy.
Your ministry’s role is key to many of the flagship programmes of the government such as “Digital India” and “Make in India”. Still the government recently rolled back the duties levied on import of batteries, chargers, speakers and wired headsets. Don’t you think this step runs counter to Make in India initiative?
Not at all. The duties were rolled back only as an interim measure. We did not want to make it expensive for manufacturers making phones in India. Let them first make phones in India at competitive terms, later we would do the same for accessories. If we had not rolled back duties on the accessories, making phones in the country would have got expensive.
Can you give us an update on the electronic manufacturing in the country so far?
This is our biggest and one of the most noticeable success stories. From about Rs 11,600 crore of foreign as well domestic investment in electronic manufacturing when I became the minister, the figure now is Rs 1,21,502 crore. Last year we manufactured 11 crore mobile phones, that’s a rise of 83% on a year-on-year basis. This is important because when we came to office Nokia had shut down its plant. There was a big slump, now all the world leaders are in India. Mobile phones are not being assembled here but made, and all the major players, from Samsung to LG are here. Apple is also very keen to make phones in India.
When you took over as minister, the image of the telecom ministry was not good. What changes did you bring in the past two years?
There is complete change in the image of this building (Sanchar Bhavan). I am sitting on the same chair, where the driving force of 2G happened. Now there is transparency, and entry of middle men is over. Today all the policy initiatives are in place.
Can you give us some sense of what kind of growth the telecom industry has witnessed since your government took over?
There has been an overall increase in tele-density from 75.23% in March 2014 to 82.93% in February 2016, almost 8% plus. The second thing that is assuring is rural tele-density, from 44.01% in March 2014 to 50.60% in February 2016, an increase of 6.5%. Between March 2014 and February 2016, the mobile connection increase is 122.65 million, contrast it with between March 2012 and March 2014, when it decreased by 14.65 million. Net addition to total telephone is 19.36 million, whereas there was a decline of 18.33 million between 2012-14. Mobile has increased a lot, but because of decline in landlines it’s low.
On the optical fibre network front there is an extraordinary achievement. In NOFN since 2011 till our government took over a total of OFC pipe laid was 2,292 kilometres, and OFC fibre was only 358 kilometres. We have data as of May 8, 2016, that means in less than two years, OFC pipe laid is 1,40,742 kilometres, covering 61,066 gram panchayats. On optical fibre front it is 1,12871 kilometres, covering 50,465 gram panchayats. This is our clear contribution.
You talked about turning around the state-owned BSNL.
When the government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee exited office in 2004, BSNL had a profit of Rs10,000 crore. When Manmohan Singh’s government exited in May 2014, BSNL had a loss of Rs8,000 crore. There is a straight difference. In one-year and eight months, it came into operating profit Rs672 crore in FY16, the first time in the last 5-7 years. Revenue rose by 4.1%, and its consumer base is also rising. From 6-8 lakhs in June 2015, it is adding 20-22 lakhs from January 2016. In Trai report of February, it has grossed the highest consumers, leaving behind even Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India and Idea Cellular.