PMO cracks down after repeated delays leave villages in North-East unconnected

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New Delhi | Published: October 18, 2017 5:35:28 AM

Under the comprehensive North-East (N-E) Development Plan, the government aims to provide mobile connectivity in some 8,621 villages and national highways spread across the hilly region through close to 7,000 telecom towers at an estimated cost of around Rs 4,500 crore.

Several DoT officials said phase-1 is unlikely to be completed by the March 2019 deadline.

Following repeated delays in providing mobile connectivity in uncovered villages of North-East, which is of strategic and national importance, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) last week reviewed the status of projects in the region. Sources said the PMO instructed the department of telecom (DoT) to ensure that the project is completed within the stipulated time — March 2019. However, several officers in DoT, who spoke to FE, said the exercise is too little, too late and that the project is unlikely to be completed by the deadline. In fact, they point out that the delays as well as the difficult terrain makes it “highly unlikely” that all the villages in the North-East region will have mobile connectivity by March 2019. Under the comprehensive North-East (N-E) Development Plan, the government aims to provide mobile connectivity in some 8,621 villages and national highways spread across the hilly region through close to 7,000 telecom towers at an estimated cost of around Rs 4,500 crore. In this, N-E Phase 1 will connect 2 districts of Assam and all districts of Arunachal Pradesh, while N-E Phase 2 will connect other states in the region, except Meghalaya. It was approved by the Union Cabinet in 2014.

“It is highly unlikely that N-E phase 1 will be completed by March 2019. It was already late due to equipment being tested twice and delays by USOF and now again the USOF has asked for the equipment to be tested. This is a sheer wastage of time and resources and not to forget that this region is strategically important due to its geographical proximity with China,” an official source said. Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) is the funding agency for the project. Confirming the development, another source said, “What was the need for conducting a third testing? Were the first two testing not right and if that was the case then the tender should have been scrapped and floated afresh. Due to flawed policy execution and lack of coordination in USOF, DoT is facing flak from the PMO.”

The fate of Phase 2 is also on similar lines. When the first tender was floated in September 2016, there were no bidders. Following which, DoT revised the technical and financial conditions in discussion with the service providers, which was also approved by the Telecom Commission (TC) in February 2017. But, when a revised tender was floated in March, only one bid, from Bharti Airtel, was received. The tender was finally awarded to Bharti. Constant delays in the project led to cost overruns and they had to be again cleared by the TC in September. But that’s just the beginning as the successful bidders have to fulfill a lot of conditions like sign MoUs, retest equipment (only for Phase 1), etc.

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