With general elections just a year away, the Union government is keen to project the proposed installation of around 3,000 mobile towers in nine Naxal-affected States as one of the major achievements of the the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government.

For the Rs.3,000-crore project that would give mobile coverage to India’s most backward districts and remote villages covering over 80 Left Wing Extremism (LWE)-affected districts, the DoT wants Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who is also the chairperson of the UPA, to kick-start the ambitious plan by the end of 2013 or early 2014.

Cabinet yet to give nod

While the Telecom Commission, the DoT’s decision-making body, has cleared the proposal, the Cabinet is yet to give the go-ahead for the project, which is being pushed hard by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) as it would give an edge to security forces in their fight against Maoists. It is expected that within the next four to five months, the state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) would commence work on the project.

Dr. Killi Kruparani, who was sworn in as Minister of State for Telecom in the last Cabinet reshuffle, has suggested to Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal that the project be kickstarted from Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, the Lok Sabha constituency which she represents. Srikakulam is among the LWE-hit districts that will benefit from the project.

“Installation of 3,000 towers under USOF [Universal Service Obligation Fund] in the Left Wing Extremism-affected areas in the country is a flagship programme of the government of India. The tribal areas of Srikakulam have been affected by LWE for a long time and as such it would be in the fitness of things if the project is launched from Srikakulam. It will go a long way in sending a message that the government wants to overcome the problem of extremism through the developmental approach,” Dr. Kruparani wrote to Mr. Sibal.

It was in February this year that the Telecom Commission approved a fund of over Rs.3,000 crore for the project, of which Rs.1,469 crore would go for setting up of 2,199 cellular towers, while around Rs.1,600 crore would be incurred on operating these towers over the next five years. The project is being funded by the DoT’s USOF where all telecom operators contribute for promotion of mobile infrastructure in backward and remote areas, while the BSNL has been nominated for execution of the project.

782 towers for Jharkhand

Of the 2,199 towers to be installed in nine States — the maximum number will come up in Jharkhand (782 towers), followed by Chhattisgarh (497), Odisha (253), Andhra Pradesh (227), Bihar (184), West Bengal (96), Uttar Pradesh (78), Maharashtra (60) and Madhya Pradesh (22). The DoT cleared the project after much hiccups.“The MHA has been pushing the project since P. Chidambaram was heading the ministry…but objections from the Finance Ministry led to the delay. Later, differences between the BSNL and the USOF on cost issues created more problems. While the BSNL sought Rs.5,807 crore for installing and operating the towers, the USOF pegged the figure at Rs.3,792 crore — a difference of a whopping Rs. 2,015 crore. Later, the Telecom Commission intervened and the project costs were finalised,” said a senior MHA official.

Pointing towards the benefits of the project, the official said it would not only boost development in the naxal-affected States but also give operational advantage to paramilitary forces and the State police who are fighting hard to end the dominance of Maoists. “Over 80 LWE-hit districts in nine States have no mobile coverage because no private operator ever bothered to set up its network as these areas do not have much potential to generate revenue for them. Whatever little mobile infrastructure is there in some pockets, it has been set up by the BSNL…but this too is being targeted by naxals. Once these towers come up, security forces will be deployed to protect them to ensure uninterrupted mobile connectivity,” the official added.

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