Shed a tear… for BSNL and for us

Frederick Noronha

It started as an innocent query on Facebook.  Basil asked a question: “Anyone in Borda, Margao, facing BSNL broadband issues where every 5 to 10 minutes it comes and goes?  And if it’s working, pages take ages to open.”

Some 129 comments later, there was a lot of heat and dust over the issue. Of course, anyone using the Internet in Goa would have used the state-run (once behemoth) BSNL’s services. They either currently do so, or have done in the past.

So the BSNL story is one that almost all of us are familiar with.  It was born in our times (mostly).  It grew in the same period.  Now, it seems to be languishing, if not dying, while we are still around.

Which telephone user in Goa, or the rest of India, in the 1980s, did not wait in a public queue for two to four hours to make a “trunk call” to Bombay? Who among us was not relieved when Sam Pitroda (who we thought to be a Rajiv Gandhi stooge initially), managed to dramatically change the telephone reality in India within just a few years?

One night, I was taking the bus along the dusty road to Bangalore, when the truth hit home. All the theories made sense. One had been reading how, instead of hiring an army of government servants, Pitroda and team thought of giving a 25 per cent commission to those barefoot capitalists who ran pay-phone booths all along urban and rural India. (He also decided to build Indian-made telephone exchanges which were hardy and rough, rather than import costly French equipment that would probably not survive the Indian conditions.)

Due to this, at almost 10:30 p.m., some village entrepreneur was facilitating me to call home, and say the journey was smooth. No queues, no delays and at affordable costs.

BSNL changed our lives, especially those of us who depend on communication. First, the exchange was in the next village, almost 4-5 kilometres away. It was tough when the phone went dead. Later on, exchanges came to many more villages. The staff showed signs of getting more used to the technology.  Faults were rectified more easily, except during the heavy monsoons, or when lightning struck our unmanned exchange.

For those of us whose work had anything to do with communications, the phones played a key role.  BSNL, or Goa Telecom as it was sometimes called, served many of us. Many could work out of their homes.

Around the mid-1990s, in 1994 actually, Goan diaspora communities first took to the internet. At that time, nobody seemed to know what a modem or email address was.

But because of the ex-pat Goans, a lot of lobbying was done. Those settled away from home stressed that they need to keep in touch with Goa. Because of this, Goa got an internet node as early as in 1997, among the first ten places in the country to get access to cyberspace.

Over the years, the BSNL has been slowly killed.

It is facing financial problems. This has led to a staffing crisis. Private players have entered the field, and the government-promoted once cash-rich giant is looking like a poor cousin.

Today, there are too few men to man the BSNL system. If anything goes wrong, you could have to wait for days or weeks to get the fault rectified. In our village of Saligao, a once lively exchange is now almost totally unmanned. This is the situation elsewhere too, as we read of “golden handshakes” to get rid of BSNL staff.

For a long time, it looked as if the consumer was going to benefit.  But, there too, slowly the
tide turned.

Some private companies found the fees and debt burden too heavy to bear. There have been mergers
and closures. Other firms have a reputation for over-charging. In a monopoly situation, the once sharply-declining internet and phone charges are on the rise again.

From what one hears, the BSNL has taken on some private contractors to help with maintenance. I had a good experience when one visited home last week and proved to be quite efficient. The problem is, there are not enough of such persons to service all the needs.

Hence, what might be a simple problem like a loose contact, can take a long time to fault-find and repair. In the meanwhile, it irritates the life out of
a BSNL user.

The response from users ranges from dismay and frustration to suggestions of switching over to some other ISP (internet service provider). In a minority of cases, the earlier reliance and reasonable charges of BSNL is noted.

Sometimes, one suspects that there have been deliberate attempts to sabotage the functioning of networks like these so that other interests could grow. Whatever the reality, it is sad to see the birth, rise and decay of an institution which played an important role in our very lives.