“Finance Minister clearly understands its importance in fighting Maoists”

With P. Chidambaram back in the Finance Ministry, Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) officials are now hopeful that one of their key projects — setting up mobile towers in the districts in nine States affected by left wing extremism (LWE) — would soon get clearance from the Cabinet.

It has been two years since the MHA started pushing for improving mobile connectivity in the States with Maoist presence, in order to tackle the problem posed by the extreme left in a more effective manner.

Subsequently, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) was approached, which prepared a Rs. 5,800-crore plan for setting up almost 2,200 towers in nine States by the state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd.

However, the Cabinet returned the proposal a couple of months back after objections by the Finance Ministry, then under Pranab Mukherjee, mainly on two grounds — nomination of the BSNL for executing the project without the tender process and the large amount of subsidy sought from the government.

But now sources in the MHA say a revised proposal is likely to be forwarded soon to the Cabinet.

“We are expecting early revival of the project as Mr. Chidambaram, who has been the Home Minister, clearly understands the importance of the project. We do not want to get into technicalities and financial implications of the project. It is for the DoT and the Finance Ministry to decide on these matters. We want this project to get over soon as it will be a boost to our fight against Maoists in around 80 districts spread across nine States. It will allow our security personnel to stay connected in remote areas and also help them track Maoists,” a senior MHA official told The Hindu.

The DoT had “nominated” the BSNL due to the disinterest shown by private players to operate in remote and Naxal areas, since the revenue generated is low. However, the Finance Ministry’s Expenditure Finance Committee (EFC) objected to it by saying that “any assumption about the [lack of] revenue generating potential in the LWE areas should be backed with evidence in the form of field trials or sample surveys.”

While lambasting the DoT for not “providing adequate justification for assigning the work to the BSNL on nomination basis,” it also criticised the BSNL for its “reputation for large delays in execution and shoddy performance” in major projects. However, the MHA officials allege that some private players might have played spoilsport as there were some revenue-generating towns under the project which these companies were eyeing, without touching remote and rural areas.

The Finance Ministry was also not pleased over high costs for installation and maintenance of towers. It objected to the DoT proposal seeking a Rs.5, 809.38-crore subsidy for the BSNL from the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), created for increasing mobile penetration in rural areas, for commissioning and maintaining 2,199 sites (towers) in the LWE areas for five years.

The Finance Ministry also noted that the subsidy being sought is “very large” compared to the total subsidy of Rs. 211.84-crore disbursed till 2011-end from the USOF for creation and maintenance of 7,296 towers and 15,407 base transceiver stations (BTS).

“This huge difference in costs cannot be accepted solely on the basis of estimates provided by the BSNL,” it noted.

Another important objection by the Finance Ministry was to the plea that the services should be free of cost if the towers are utilised by the armed forces or the police.

“Such expenditure should be booked to the accounts of the MHA or the State government rather than being debited to the USOF,” it had noted. However, the MHA officials claim that they never sought free usage for security personnel. “We never asked for any freebies for our personnel… we want early installation of mobile towers to aid our troops in their operations. These towers will also help the economy of rural and remote areas.”

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