Shourie in a spot over remarks on tribunal order

NEW DELHI APRIL 9. The Communications Minister, Arun Shourie, finds himself in a spot through his observations on the telecom tribunal's order asking the Government to make public files and notings relating to the change in stance on the limited mobility issue.

Far from assuaging doubts raised before the tribunal about the Government's neutrality on the issue, Mr. Shourie stunned telecom sector players and analysts by saying that "the Government has reservations about showing internal notings to business rivals".

Later in the day, he attempted to justify his remarks. "Suppose in case of a defence contract, any arms dealer asks for disclosure of internal notings and seeks a CBI can administration continue like this,'' he told the PTI.

While none will contest his contention that "larger issues were involved" and that even in the Freedom of Information Act, which is yet to be notified, internal notings have been excluded, there is a world of a difference between the defence and telecom sectors.

This aspect, in fact, was dealt with by the tribunal's order. It referred to an earlier judgment which noted that "where a question of national security is involved, the court may not be the proper forum to weigh the matter and that is the reason why a Minister's certificate is taken as conclusive".

In the telecom sector, the Government has no enemy nations to contend with. It also has no business rivals. At one time it did wear three hats — that of policy maker, regulator and operator.

This led to a conflict of interest and there were persistent demands for the separation of the three functions.

As a result, TRAI was created to act as an independent regulator, the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited was carved into a telecom services company and the Department of Telecom was retained as a separate policy making wing.

The tribunal's latest order was also clear about the Government's role. "This dispute is between the licensee, i.e., the cellular companies and the Government as a licensor withholding documents," it noted, adding that "in these days of telecom liberalisation, when private operators have come into the field and there is conflict between the two different types of operators, the Government has to keep a neutral stand and when there is a challenge that the Government has violated the code of neutrality, it is appropriate that the documents are brought on record to justify the action of the Government".

Though the Government and private companies are pitted against each other before the tribunal, it is not because of business rivalry. Private companies are challenging the Government policy allowing fixed service providers to offer hand-held phones.

As a result, analysts are mystified over Mr. Shourie's earlier statement that "the Government has reservation about showing these internal notings to internal rivals".

His claim that he was alluding to the business rivalry between cellular and limited mobility companies does not hold water. One of them could hardly benefit at the expense of the other by merely seeing the files.