The Union Minister spoke about challenges facing his ministry, censorship and creative freedom, and the Dadri lynching.
This edition of the Express Adda was hosted by hospitality partners Tote on the Turf, Mahalaxmi Race course, Mumbai. It saw Union Minister for Communications and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad in conversation with The Indian Express National Opinion Editor Vandita Mishra and National Bureau Chief Maneesh Chhibber. Prasad took questions from a select audience, speaking about the call drop issue, Udta Punjab, and why people in public life need to have a sense of humour .
On the challenges of his ministry
When I took oath, my office was in news for all the wrong reasons. And I was advised I should change my chair because I was told that one of my esteemed predecessors had gone to jail and others may follow soon. I took a vow that I won’t change the chair but the texture of the chair. And today I can say that middlemen are completely banned from Sanchar Bhawan. Rules that were not decided for eight to 10 years — spectrum sharing, spectrum trading, liberalisation, harmonising — have been cleared by me. I am happy that the telecom sector has been able to receive Rs 27,000 crore of FDI in the last two years. Telephone density and investment is rising. I am particularly satisfied with the BSNL turnaround story. When the Vajpayee government left office, it was of a profit of Rs 10,000 crore, when the Manmohan Singh government left office it was in a loss of Rs 8,000 crore. Within one-and-a-half years, it earned an operating profit of Rs 6,000-8,000 crore.
On being called minister of call drops
I have cleared all policy initiatives pending for the last five to 10 years. I have been speaking publicly on this whole uncalled for menace of radiation, which has no medical basis. I have been telling the operators, you need to do your job. I can tell you that because of our persuasion, they have installed one lakh new sites in India. I am telling them clearly that for the success of Digital India, good connectivity is important and it is in your interest to do so. And I must acknowledge the role of telecom operators for having spread telephony in the entire country. I think they have the ability and the potential. We are working together. Things have started improving, they need to improve further. (On the Supreme Court intervention in this issue) We are proud of our judiciary but I would like to gently remind that the Supreme Court in the famous Kesavananda Bharati case said that separation of powers is also a basic structure. Governance is a part of the government, and governance should remain the preserve of the Executive.
On the SC striking down his NJAC Act
While holding the concept of independence of judiciary dearly, accountability of judiciary is very important too. And why did we go for the National Judicial Commission? It was my decision. About three-four Parliamentary Standing Committee reports, administrative reform recommendations, law commission recommendations and the late J. S. Verma himself publicly said the collegium system needs a rejig. The entire Parliament spoke in one voice. Now the judgement has come. I cannot make any further comment. But surely the National Judicial Commission architecture was a well-thought one, with extraordinary unanimous political consensus by lawmakers?
On Udta Punjab and a scissor-happy CBFC
I have been the I&B Minister under the Vajpayee government and let me say very clearly, we fully respect creative freedom. There is a proper legal procedure. If there are any wrong cuts, you can go for review, you can go to the Appellate Tribunal. Comments like these (CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani saying he likes being called a chamcha of the PM) need to be avoided. Our Prime Minister has always described himself as the pradhan sevak of India, and I don’t think a pradhan sevak needs sycophant.
On government monitoring matrimonial sites
The government is not in the business of regulating matrimonial arrangements. A lot of complaints came to the Ministry of Women and Child Development on how the matrimonial sites were being abused. There have been serious issues, the whole thing was examined by both ministries. A committee was formed, there was feedback that these sites should be used only for matrimonial purposes. I am not in the business of banning dating sites but what the regulations enjoin is that those who visit these sites seeking suitors should disclose their identity and ensure that it is used for matrimonial purposes only.
On revamping the dakh khana
Before I become minister of any department, I pick some priorities and the turnaround of the postal department was part of that commitment. The postal department was like an old lady in a ghoonghat in a village, about 150-years-old. I have 1.5 lakh post offices in the country. I pushed them into e-commerce because letters are losing relevance. What is the digital identity of India? One billion plus mobile phones, 1 billion plus Aadhar and 400 million internet — that is the digital profile. I said you have to become digital first and about 22,000 plus branches are core banking solutions, they are being digitised. I am going to give a hand-held device to all my village post offices. As you know, we are going to launch payment banks from September this year. There will be 650 branches of postal payment banks in the entire country. It would be a great platform of financial inclusion in the rural hinterland. We just got the approval, and Barclays of London, Deutsche Bank of Germany, Citibank, and World Bank, all are keen to partner with us.
On the ambitious BharatNet project
India laid down optical fibre for 10 lakh km in 30 years. We have to take seven lakh km in three years. Earlier, it was known as NOFN (National Optical Fibre Network), now it is BharatNet. When I had become minister, only 358 km optical fibre had been laid in three years. We have laid 1.2 lakh km in two years, that is the speed we are working with. Every day, more than 250 km plus are being added. Therefore, we will complete in time. There will be some spillovers. In the second phase, we will contemplate a PPP model also with the state governments.
Digitally, India is changing very fast. A month ago, I learnt about Satamama of Telangana, a bidi mazdoor, who became digitally literate. I tweeted to congratulate, she became a celebrity, TV channels talked to her. She does not know Hindi or English, only Telugu. I talked to her through an interpreter and asked her how she became digitally literate, and her reply is an image of changing India. She said, ‘I have a son who is a plumber in Dubai. I was missing him and my grandson. I was told if you want to see their face, go on Skype. To do that, I became digitally literate.’ That is Digital India.
On government gagging free speech
We, in public life, must learn to enjoy humour, cartoon, fun and youth. It is a part of democratic life. But on the issue of terrorism, extremism and communal violence, the authorities need to intervene to avoid a serious situation.
All of us are active on social media. Our Prime Minister has the largest number of followers. I take complaints on the inaction of the Postal Media on Twitter and Facebook. We are all there on Twitter and Facebook to take complaints and address grievances.
On strident voices from the Right
We say sabka saath, sabka vikas. In Vidya Bharati school in Assam, a Muslim boy has topped an examination. That’s the kind of inclusive conduct we do on the ground.
I don’t think he (MoS Sanjeev Balyan) has joined the clamour (for a case against Mohammad Akhlaq’s family for alleged cow slaughter in Dadri). He is a local MP of the adjoining area, maybe he would have made some comment…he has not joined any protest there per se.
About the beef issue, I am not sitting in judgement of the eating habits of the people. But it is a hard fact that there are issues of sentiment also. Right from the PM to everyone, we have condemned the lynching. What is happening in Dadri is an issue of law and order of the Mulayam Singh and Akhilesh Yadav government.