Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Langur Initiative: Other Bipartisan Possibilities

Or: extending the bipartisan approach to governance and infrastructure.

Shyam Ponappa / New Delhi January 6, 2011

At this difficult point in our hapless trajectory as we thread our way through the divine comedy, there is a sudden burst of light, cutting through the gloom of the new year: an uncharacteristic but effective bipartisan effort by a group of parliamentarians in dealing with a practical problem. This is the saga of the hapless and troublesome monkeys of Raisina Hill and its environs, booted out by the Brits to build the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Central Secretariat, and the parliamentarians who live on Mahadev Road nearby. Press reports say that BJP Spokesman Prakash Javadekar adopted a problem-solving approach by suggesting to six of his neighbours (five Congress MPs and one Independent) that they collectively hire a langur patrol to shoo away the monkeys that have been marauding in their gardens. Five of the six responded positively, and so they have a langur patrol, as do a number of government buildings there. And the monkeys stay away.

Why is this important? Because of how powerfully it illustrates the obvious: that collective, goal-oriented action can be very effective in achieving results. Now, if this could be extended to bipartisan initiatives (in the sense of government and the Opposition in the context of our fragmented politics), e.g. in building national assets like infrastructure, then constructive, forward-looking policies can be framed, and we can start building on what has gone before. This will take us past the blight of being in a perpetual stall. One example is resource-sharing for countrywide broadband and communications services. Another is our approach to energy production and supply. And so on.

The Bipartisan Imperative

I have written earlier on the rationale for spectrum- and network-sharing for broadband and telecommunications.

The framework for this kind of resource-sharing and organisation cannot be done without bipartisan efforts at the policy formulation stage for conceptualisation and during implementation, because various state and local governments will be involved, as will many central government ministries and departments. A bipartisan approach is also essential for devising supportive tax policies, including the development and execution of uniform, inexpensive rights-of-way charges at the state level. Not least will be the question of spectrum pricing, a matter muddied by so much contention and confused thinking regarding the economics and the technology, aggravated by opportunists seeking to make a killing, together with the well-intentioned but ill-informed flailing of strident advocates urging counterproductive measures like cancelling licences without due process and/or holding more auctions, all supposedly in the national interest, oblivious of the consequences.

To appreciate the compelling logic, consider the network of an organisation like RailTel, with over 35,000 route km of optical fibre cable (OFC) network (see figure)

RailTel's OFC Network


or Gailtel with about 14,000 route km of OFC and planning close to 19,000 OFC in the next few years (interactive maps at:

BSNL has over 67,000 route km in the southern region alone, and other PSUs and private operators like Bharti Airtel and Reliance have their own extensive networks. Combining or integrating these will shift the focus to the tasks of last-mile access and spectrum deployment to achieve potential connectivity for most households and users.

Imagine the potential with some (three or four?) consortiums of wholesale service providers for the country having access to the combined networks of all or several such owners, including the collective capacity in terms of spectrum, access, aggregation and backhaul. These, in turn, could enable access to many retailers for local services to end users.

A second substantive aspect of such a bipartisan initiative is in structuring the national backbone facilities organisation, e.g. on the lines of Singapore’s OpenNet*. This may be an opportunity to capitalise on the BSNL and MTNL networks and revive them, perhaps as the anchor investors (possibly with other PSUs, such as RailTel, GAIL, and Powergrid). This anchor investor consortium could hold, for instance, 30 per cent of the equity in the venture. Other participants could include international companies like Axia, which design, build and operate next generation networks. Axia started out in Canada over 10 years ago and now has projects in France, Spain and Singapore, and has bid for a project in America. Other participants could be like Spectrum Bridge, a US company which runs centrally managed spectrum networks in America in the TV “white spaces”, the digital dividend from TV spectrum reallocated for telecom purposes. Their database-driven approach could be applied to the entire pooled spectrum of a large network with the participation of systems integrators like Infosys, TCS, Wipro, or IBM.

A third potential initiative is to encourage R&D and applications, perhaps seeking the development of local standards for wireless communications in the long term, even the Holy Grail of inexpensive “cognitive radio” (self-managing end-user equipment) with open spectrum. The size of our market offers the potential for such ambitious and potentially beneficial development. This will need policy support, especially for collaboration between defence and the private sector, with the creation of sustained support over a long period.

We know the apocryphal tales like that of the four bulls and the lion: the bulls are safe as long as they stay united, but when they squabble among themselves, the lion picks them off one by one. There is Aesop’s fable of the old man who shows his sons that while they can easily break one stick at a time, the same sticks bound together cannot be broken. Or the Mongolian story of the five siblings, the ancestors of the Mongolian clans, whose mother shows them that while each can easily break a single arrow, the five arrows tied together are unbreakable.

Despite this knowledge and evidence that the comforts of civilised living for all Indians require dedicated collective effort, we refuse to work to this truism of the need for collaborative effort. Suddenly, Mr Javadekar’s can-do Langur Initiative changes the game.

Even as the due process of law continues with regard to past wrongdoing, our parliamentarians should be grappling with substantive issues of nation-building such as those described above, instead of wasting time on tearing each other down.


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