The Comptroller and Auditor General of India seems like a strict sort of person. I don’t mean the person (who could be a plump jovial fellow who likes crayons), I mean the office itself. The position has an eerie sense of gentle menace about it, like the Ministry Of The Promotion of Virtue, under The Taliban, but in a milder Indian 70’s Socialist sort of way. Not quite a tax raid but close, maybe just the men in safari suits showing up for questions. It’s those words next to each other that gives it a feel that if you don’t behave with Mr Comptroller, (who is clearly so much more than just a controller, because he has a P in his title), things will be taken away from you or no one will play with you. Lately, that office, under the abbreviated, cooler hipper title of CAG (which sounds less ominous and more like a Dutch Formula 1 sponsor) has been messing with your phones. I mean this literally.
Some years ago, when the Indian economy was supposed to grow at the same pace of an IPL run rate, many foreign cell phone companies started salivating at the idea of a billion new users when everyone else on the planet had pretty much bought a phone. So they rushed. The CAG determined that several thieves within our government (no new news there) sold spectrum – which is literally bands of air – for a very low price, allowing several companies to make a profit. Politicians went to jail (a familiar place if you delve in Indian politics, often a 2nd home). In a genius move, our courts took away the licenses of foreign companies (who’d entered India on joint ventures and invested loads). This allowed for a sensational Catch-22 situation only possible in India.
Our courts said, “You gave bribes”. The foreign companies said, “Yes but your minister took the bribes”. Our courts said, “Um, yes, but you gave the bribes”.
“Yes but if the highest authority on the matter is taking a bribe, then how are we to differentiate between a bribe and government policy?” To which our courts, like a nine-year-old girl playing Eye Spy, said, “I can’t hear you. I can’t hear you. Na na na na na na…” Flummoxed, some foreigners appealed, some shut businesses, some fought with their joint venture partners whom they said were the culprits. In a telling image, while all this was going on, I saw a goat chewing on a poster of Uninor (the joint venture between Telenor and Unitech, a cell phone company in the eye of the storm). Us the public, generally buoyed by the media screaming that a huge crime had been committed (no one knew what), thought a huge crime had been committed.
One headline said the government lost Rs 8000 crore, another Rs 15000 crore, another Rs 30,000 crore. The numbers kept getting so big that after a while it felt less like we’d been cheated and more like the newspapers were trying to outdo each other in some auction.
Naturally, none of this could ever be proved because, regardless of how many pedantic debates old serious looking people have on TV about it being x.5 crore and not x.35 crore, the point is, and like all complex things really simple and understood by a 5-year-old – that there is no fair price for air. Which is what they are selling. The thing outside your window. O2 with Nitrogen. A band of air.
All of this naturally will lead to (has led to) fewer cell phone companies bothering to set up shop in India, creating glee for those that remain, but most importantly, causing your cell phone bill to soar. One doesn’t have to be a PhD in Economics to know that more companies mean cheaper prices.
The courts naturally wanted to act. There were thieves in the government (as there always are) and something had to be done, given the ominous sounding whistleblower had blown a loud whistle (when they said loss=50, 000 crore, I wondered if the guy calculating was on some narcotic and couldn’t stop himself from throwing out higher and higher numbers). Still, heads had to roll. Air has to be brought under check.
Kapil Sibal, our telecom minister, said (and I paraphrase) that the reaction of our courts was a bit much. They were getting too involved in cell phone companies by determining a minimum reserve price for the new auction. Oh yes, after scrapping licenses they decided to have another auction, which is like inviting someone to dinner, and once they show up with a present, telling them their present is crap and throwing them out, then calling them 20 minutes later and saying, you’ve changed your mind but can they come back with a better present?
A week back, no one bid for the revised 2G licenses except for one company. It wasn’t big news. It couldn’t fight with Stephen Spielberg and Amitabh Bachchan for headlines, no one cared anymore, it was a news item buried inside another news item. The thieves were out of jail, air shrugged and kept blowing, the Comptroller kept quiet and didn’t throw out another gazillion crore number. Maybe he’d been sedated.
I wrote this not because spectrum auction prices are sexy things to talk about but because I wanted to see how stories end. And they do, as TS Eliot said, “Not with a bang but a whimper”. The tragedy of every news headline’s bluster and shouting is that it never ends the same way in some glorious blaze, it just peters out through the back, sneakily quiet. Leaving us with more to pay every month and lies and accusations no one will check back on. We’re not big on history, we’ll move on. So perhaps if our courts were so keen on stopping crime and want to decide how many rupees for every megahertz of air, maybe they will pay my phone bill also. Next month’s bill I’ll send to my high court and see what happens. The only crime is how high it is.
Anuvab Pal is a playwright, screenwriter and stand up comic. Sometimes he wonders aloud in columns about the state of things.