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March 12, 1999


When the going gets tough... Justice Sodhi challenges government to explain reasons for putting phone tariff revision on hold.When the going gets tough... Justice Sodhi challenges government to explain reasons for putting phone tariff revision on hold. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has asked the government to share with it the reasons as to why the hike in telecom tariffs announced by the Authority has been put in abeyance.

Email this story to a friend. A letter to the effect was written to the telecommunications secretary ''so as to better understand the purpose, scope and nature of the government's directive'', TRAI Chairman S S Sodhi told reporters in New Delhi today.

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Sodhi said the government has been requested to enlighten TRAI on whether the decision has been taken by invoking its powers under Sub-Section (1) or Sub-Section (2) of Section 25 of the TRAI Act.

If it is under Sub-Section (1), then which of the particular aspects are meant to be addressed... sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, the letter asked.

If the directive has been issued under Sub-Section (2), TRAI believes that prior mandatory consultations ought to have taken place because the order is to be implemented only from April 1, the letter that was sent out last evening said.

It explained that the issue of putting the TRAI directive on hold is all the more important because the directive is about the TRAI's function of fixing tariff.

This function lies exclusively within TRAI's jurisdiction and has been discharged by it through the order in the most transparent manner after detailed consultations at the highest level, including those with members of Parliament and the Department of Telecommunication, the letter claims.

Sodhi says the government has also been requested to share with the TRAI the nature of the policy questions covered by the directive in the context of the tariff rebalancing exercise being undertaken.

The letter says the related policy aspects, namely low-user concerns, and differential treatment to rural and urban subscribers, have been covered by the order, which again has been based on consultations with MPs and DoT.

Maintaining that the directive issued by the government has ''undermined the credibility of TRAI'', he says ''it will affect investors' confidence and in turn foreign direct investment and the domestic investment".

The TRAI has come out with its order in the best interest of the country, Sodhi claims. He does not agree that the tariffs announced by TRAI are anti-poor. He explains that TRAI has after all based its order on data, 90 per cent of which has been supplied by DoT.

''The ball is now in government's court,'' Sodhi points out. He maintains that eventually, the Parliament has given TRAI the powers to determine tariffs.

Counterpoint in the Rajya Sabha

On the other hand, the upper house of Parliament today expressed concern over the TRAI order.

The issue was raised as a special mention. The discussion focused on TRAI proposals that sought to hike service rates for small telephone users and make local calls expensive.

The Rajya Sabha members alleged that corporate users are being pampered by making local long-distance and international subscriber dialling facilities less expensive.

Gurudas Das Gupta of the Communist Party of India pleaded with the government to not push DoT, which has created most of the telephone network of the country, to the same pathetic position that the Posts and Telegraph department is in.

The government, he alleged, is following a casual policy. The new policy has to suit India's economic needs. He also took strong exception to the attitude of the government in keeping the Rajya Sabha in the dark regarding the proposal of the TRAI to hike tariff or the subsequent government action of withholding it.

Das Gupta alleged that the TRAI proposal would only help industrialists, share brokers and gamblers.

Nilotpal Basu of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) criticised the attitude of the TRAI, which it charged is discriminatory towards the small telephone users, breaking all norms and policy parameters.

No purpose could be achieved in taxing the low-end users when the country's telephone penetration is just 36 connections for 1,000 of the population. In the name of transparency, the TRAI, he charged, has attacked the small users and there should be an amendment to the TRAI Act to remove grey areas.

Sanjay Nirupam of the Shiv Sena said the government should seek the advice of the alliance partners while effecting changes to the tariff structure and the government should have control over the fee structure and not the TRAI.

The proposal would neither help consumers nor the DoT but only the business houses. The DoT, he said, would incur a revenue loss of Rs 20 billion. Therefore the proposal should not be accepted, he added.

B P Singhal of the Bharatiya Janata Party, however, supported the proposals and said the telephone user is not the common man and there should be no hurdle in the way of generating revenues for development.



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