Worker unions of state-owned provider Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) are planning to go on strike for an indefinite period from 3 December over what they see as the government’s favouring of industry newcomer Reliance Jio Infocomm (Jio), the Economic Times reports. The unions accused the government of withholding 4G spectrum from BSNL to prevent it competing with Jio. The group also claimed credit for the firm’s return to profitability, after booking a net loss of INR88 billion (USD1.2 billion) in the 2010/11 financial year, and highlighting the fact that the turnaround was achieved with only 2G and 3G technologies whilst ‘all the private companies are armed with 4G technology’. The unions are demanding the immediate allocation of 4G spectrum as well as changes to pension payment contributions made by BSNL, and revision of wages and pensions of retirees from 1 January 2017.
In a joint statement, the All Unions and Associations of BSNL (AUAB) group accused Jio of using its financial muscle to offer below-cost rates and cripple competition, with the long-term plan of sharply increasing prices once its competitors have been forced out. ‘As of now, the whole telecom industry is gripped with a crisis … All these have happened due to the predatory pricing of the Mukesh Ambani-owned Reliance Jio. The whole game plane of Reliance Jio is to wipe out its competitors, which includes the state owned BSNL … It is a matter of deep concern that Reliance Jio is being openly patronised by the Narendra Modi government.’ As evidence of the government’s alleged patronage of Jio, the unions pointed to the delays in the allocation of 4G spectrum to the cellco and the reassignment of former telecom secretary JS Deepak in 2017. The official was removed as telecom secretary and made India’s ambassador to the WTO shortly after criticising sector watchdog the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to task for allowing Jio to extend its controversial promotional offer beyond the 90 days allowed. In their statement, the unions described the move as JS Deepak being ‘instantaneously shunted out of the DoT,’ which it said sent ‘a clear signal … as to what would happen to anyone who dares to speak against Jio.’ TeleGeography notes that the TRAI had justified its decision at the time, explaining that Jio was not extending its offer but introducing a new – albeit extremely similar – promotion. The new promotion still offered free ‘unlimited’ downloads and calls, but had a fair usage limit of 1GB of downloads per day, compared to 4GB per day under the previous special offer. A similar attempt to effectively extend the promotion by another three months was swiftly nixed by the regulator in early April 2017.