The spokesmen of the Congress and the government lost no time in posing the rhetorical question at the end of the 2G spectrum auction which yielded Rs9,000 crore last week: “Where is the Rs1.76 lakh crore figure?”
Congress leader Digvijay Singh worded it a little more carefully when he said that the CAG should now revise the loss figure. Minister of state for information and broadcasting, Manish Tiwari, was blunt. The Congress and the government were responding virulently to the Rs1.76 lakh crore loss charge hurled at them by the opposition parties, by civil society activists, by many in the media. It was part of the political skirmish, and there is no time or scope for checking out the facts.
There was nothing solid or sacrosanct about the Rs1.76 lakh crore figure. It was not the sole basis for the conclusion of the CAG report that things were not done in a fair and transparent manner by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) while doling out 2G spectrum in 2008. The Supreme Court too in its judgment did not base its conclusions on the Rs1.76 lakh figure but on the need for fairness in the process of allocation. It suggested auction as a fair means, and in its observation in the presidential reference with regard to allocating natural resources, it was careful to assert that auction cannot be the only way for every natural resource. The CAG did not jump to a conclusion. The Supreme Court did not. It was the political parties and the media which did.
BJP spokesman Prakash Javadekar on Friday conceded that the report had three loss figures, the other two being, Rs1.11 lakh crore and Rs1.33 lakh crore. Asked why the party quoted the higher figure, he replied that the media wanted a single figure. It is true that the media would not have got its meaty headline if there were three loss figures, and there was no certainty which one of the three was the real one. And the CAG report also did not categorically say that this was the loss incurred by the government. It had used the sophisticated accountancy term ‘presumptive loss’. The opposition took it to mean that it was real loss, and that the government and the people of India were cheated of so much revenue. The Congress found it convenient to counter the Rs1.76 lakh loss question. Everyone seemed justified.
After the 2G spectrum auction, the battle lines are being drawn afresh around the magical figure of Rs1.76 lakh. The Economic Times has described the Rs1.76 lakh loss as a myth, Firstpost’s R Jagannathan accepted that the Rs1.76 lakh figure was wrong, but he went on to say that this did not invalidate the rest of the observations of the CAG. Informed public debate would never have been reduced to a single loss figure which comes with a complexity tag of ‘presumptive loss’ attached to it. It was used in a cavalier manner to nail the government and the cornered government is wriggling out of it because of the modest auction yield on Tuesday.
Of course, there is the still larger Rs1.86 lakh crore figure loss mentioned in another CAG report with regard to the coal block allocation but it has not yet become the figure to be thrown about in political debate.
The lazy opposition parties will have to learn to nail the government on something more solid than the little detail in a CAG report. The real issue at stake is that the telecom policy is not in sync with the telecom scene in the country. The government is not too bothered about this and the opposition parties much less. There is a false sense of glory that there has been a telecom revolution in the country based on the exponential growth of the cell phone subscribers mostly. In February 2012, the number of cell phone subscribers stood at 9,111.78 lakh (it was 2424.04 in January 2008). But it would give a distorted picture of the state of the country and of the economy, if the number of subscribers were to be the only criterion of the prosperity of the country. The number of cell phone subscribers does not reflect the actual number of users and it does not reflect the spread of mobile telephony in the country. The February 2012 figures of teledensity show that while the national figure is 78.10% compared to 24.63% in January 2008, the figure for rural areas is 38.57% and 168.98% in urban areas. More people are owning more mobile phones per head in cities and towns in the country, which accounts for about 65% of the population. There is nothing surprising about these differences, but they will give a distorted picture if they are used to speak of the mobile phone prosperity of the country and the people. These are the figures that should figure in a debate on the telecom sector in the country, and not the accountancy number of Rs1.76 lakh crore loss figure. It is time to move on to some real, hard issues which affect the lives of the people more than the venality of those in power, and the hypocritical indignation of those waiting to get into office.
Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is editorial consultant with DNA