Monday, September 8, 2014

INDIA: MAOISTS’ MOBILE STRATEGIES - support people's war !

On August 20, 2014, the Union Cabinet approved the extension of mobile telephonic services to 2,199 locations affected by Left Wing Extremism (LWE) in the States of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The project would be executed by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). BSNL has already installed towers at 363 of these locations.
The Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) would fund the capital expenditure and operative expenditure, net of revenue, for five years. The project implementation cost through the open tendering process is approximately INR 35.68 billion. In 2013, the Cabinet had approved just over INR 30 billion for the project. The project was delayed by more than a year, apparently, because of differences over project cost. The USOF which is administered by Department of Telecom (DoT) was created under the National Telecom Policy of 1999 to help provide telecom services at affordable prices to people in rural areas where no phone facilities are available.
While USOF will provide both capital expenditure and operational expenditure components of the proposed mobile rollout for five years, the ownership of the assets to be created is proposed to be vested with BSNL to ensure long-term continuity of services. The network rollout will be monitored by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA), as it is aimed at beefing up communications and surveillance operations by national security agencies in these regions. It is also learnt that UMHA and the Prime Minister’s Office want the project to get underway immediately as “it is of national importance with security considerations,” and is running a year behind schedule, a top BSNL official told the media. BSNL has already identified a sizeable number of tower sites in consultation with the UMHA. Initially, towers will be erected at places close to security camps and Police stations.
The project to install the towers in the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist)-affected areas was conceived in 2010 when P. Chidambaram was the Union Home Minister, but there was little progress in the matter since then. After the Maoist attack on the State leadership of the Congress party in Chhattisgarh on May 25, 2013, the Union Cabinet approved the project to install 2,199 mobile towers at a cost of INR 30.46 billion, and June 2014 was set as the deadline for completion of the task. Thus far, however, only 363 towers have been installed. Concerned about the delay, UMHA has been pressuring the Telecom Department to expedite installation of towers.
One reminder was sent a week before the March 11, 2014, Maoist attack in Sukma District in Chhattisgarh, in which 15 Security Force (SF) personnel and one civilian were killed. The then Union Home Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, observed, in a letter dated March 4, 2014, “The poor communication network in the Naxal-affected areas is a matter of serious concern.” Stressing the need to have a better communications network in place before the Lok Sabha elections, Shinde emphasised that installation of mobile towers should be expedited, especially in the highly Maoist-affected States such as Jharkhand, Bihar and Odisha, and called for an ‘all-out effort’ to complete the whole process before the Lok Sabha elections.
Shinde’s letter noted, further, “The work was awarded to Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and installation and roll out of mobile towers was targeted to be completed in 12 months.” The difference over project cost, about INR 7.89 billion, between actual requirement and the revised project budget approved by the Cabinet Committee of Economic Affairs, in June 2013, was due to an ‘arithmetic error’, it was claimed. Official sources argued, “There is an arithmetical mistake in annual maintenance contract estimates, omission of certain items that are required for roll out of projects, revision of VSAT bandwidth charges and other. The DoT is studying it.”
Further, there were technical specification issues, such as whether to go for a solar powered 2G network, and whether to go for 20 watts ‘base transceiver station’ (BTS)/cell phone tower or five watts, that delayed the implementation of the project. These issues now appear to have been settled, but the implementation of the project may still be headed for a bumpy ride. First, the tender for the work was initially floated by BSNL in August 2013, but received lukewarm responses, with major global players opting out, and just three Indian players participating. That is unusual in the prevailing economic situation, when companies are struggling to maintain growth and profit margins, and the contract was for approximately of INR 30 billion.
In March 2014, the Telecom Commission asked DoT and BSNL to go for retendering, citing the project’s higher costs and poor response. After two months of the re-tendering exercise, however, the two companies – Vihaan Networks Ltd and HFCL – who had earlier qualified in the technical bidding, were again in the fray, as no other company, Indian or foreign, decided to participate. This was despite the extension of the application deadline by a week in May. A BSNL official noted, “During recent pre-bid meetings, global telecom gear suppliers were reluctant to participate in the bidding as they felt that managing and maintaining mobile networks in Naxal-hit regions is risky.”
A top executive of a leading foreign gear maker conceded that the “additional responsibility of maintaining expensive solar-powered mobile networks in Naxalite hotbeds is fraught with significant business risks”. In such a situation, quality is likely to be first casualty. The second issue is the provision of continuous power supply to the towers. Solar power has its limitations, and even where power supply is not very erratic, BSNL backup batteries start providing insufficient back up, in some cases, within just one year, due to poor maintenance. Solar panels need regular cleaning of the surface, as dust decreases the efficiency of the panels.
Further, 24×7 availability (or at least availability at short notice) of trained manpower is needed for maintenance of batteries, to protected against full discharge. Even three or four full discharges severely affect the efficiency of batteries. Further, the restoration time in case of some fault in solar-power towers is unknown, but is likely to be substantial, as local knowhow is limited. Arranging any outside service in LWE-affected areas will create its own and significant problems. Diesel supplies to run generators are even more erratic, with BSNL managing an inefficient network of its own, whereas private operators generally outsource the service to locals. Media reports indicate that shortages in diesel supplies to mobile towers have long been an issue in existing towers in Maoist-affected areas, with nodal supply points located at long distances from the towers.
In a note sent to the Department in 2013, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs observed, “it has come to the notice of MHA that some existing BSNL towers in the LWE-affected areas remain shut for long periods of time ostensibly due to non-availability of diesel to run the generators etc. Hence, sufficient monitoring mechanisms may be put in place to deliver better services.” It remains to be seen how these issues will be addressed for the much wider network of towers envisaged in the current project. The third issue is the identification of relatively secure locations for the mobile towers. Though towers are initially to be set up close to security camps and Police Stations, given the very poor density of such establishments in Maoist affected areas, it will be difficult to find appropriate locations for such a large number of towers.
Further, the location of security camps and establishments are based on strategic considerations, which may not coincide with the technical requirements of the location of the towers. There is, moreover, the BSNL’s track record of providing poor service even in areas where there is no threat from Maoists. The organisation’s efficiency in Naxalite afflicted regions can only be expected to be poorer. Crucially, moreover, the Maoists recognize the threat that an efficient – or even minimally working – cellular network constitutes to their own security and survival, and have systematically attacked isolated mobile towers wherever possible. According the UMHA, at least 245 such attacks are on record just between 2008 and 2013. The penetration of a public communications networks into their areas of operation has been acknowledged by the Maoists to be one of the crucial elements leading to a decline in their operational effectiveness and recruitment potential. In their Social Investigation of North Telengana, in what was then the worst affected region of Andhra Pradesh, the Communist Party of India – Maoist, observed, as far back as in the early 2000s,
Earlier there was the post and telegraph department in the rural area. Branch post offices were set up in the big villages. In addition to these tele communications also came up rapidly… In the big villages with a population of 5 to 7 thousand, there are 70 to 100 telephones. But the facility is not spread over all the villages… Since phone can be obtained with 600 rupees there are 300 applications from one village… Cell phone facility spread to 60 kms up to Janagama, 40 kms towards Mulugu, and near Bhupalapalli.This network exists in almost the whole area of our operation. The cells are mainly established by the medical, fertiliser, big grocery shops and some rich peasants.
Small contractors, political leaders and police informers also bought them… The middle class is opposing the blasting of the exchanges. The increased communication network facilitated the enemy to receive our information soon… Now if a squad member goes to the village for food and it is exposed, the police from the near by station can encircle us within one hour. We are unable to identify who leaded the information

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