“Perform or perish,” minister tells BSNL staff
At the end of last month, the Indian government cleared a $20.5 billion relief package for beleaguered Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), hoping to revitalise the company as it rapidly loses market share to Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel.
The government said it expects the funds to be used to destress the company’s balance sheet as well as to expand its fibre network and improve existing services to keep pace with its private sector rivals.
The level of competition that BSNL is facing from Jio and Airtel cannot be underestimated. At the start of this year, Reliance Jio reported 4.3 million fixed broadband subscribers, overtaking BSNL’s (4.2 million subscribers) to become the country’s largest broadband provider for the first time.
Airtel is hot on BSNL’s heels too, reporting 4.08 million subscribers.
But while these subscriber numbers alone may seem relatively innocuous, perhaps being interpreted as a healthy and competitive three-player market, in truth they betray a near catastrophic collapse for BSNL. Back in 2019, the BSNL recorded 8.7 million subscribers, meaning it has lost over half of its subscriber base in just three years due to the intense competition and low prices of its rivals.
The company continues to haemorrhage customers at an unsustainable rate, meaning the relief package represents a final desperate attempt to turn the company’s fortunes around.
As such, this week has seen India’s telecoms minister Ashwin Vaishnaw deliver a stern diatribe to BSNL’s workforce, telling them that they must improve dramatically or else their jobs could be at risk.
"You [BSNL staff] are working in a competitive industry, and only your work can save you. In the next 24 months, we want to see results. We now want absolutely superlative performance from each and every person, neat and clean offices, and you should promptly take customer calls, and provide 100 times better response than private telecom companies," he said.
If staff do not perform to expected levels, they could be forced to retire.
“You have to do what is expected of you. Otherwise, pack up. You should not have any doubt about this. This will be the norm, and this will be the new normal – perform or perish,” said Vaishnaw.
“Those who don’t work can go home by taking VRS [voluntary retirement scheme],” he added, noting that those refusing to take VRS could be compulsorily retired via a Fundamental Rule called 56J.
BSNL’s workforce is roughly 62,000 strong and has been criticised by the government not only for being inefficient, but even for running unhygienic offices and telephone exchanges.
“Whatever the issues were, we solidly stood behind BSNL. And now we are asking for the same level of commitment from each and every one of those 62,000 employees,” said Vaishnaw.
In tandem with the financial relief package, the Indian government has also announced that BSNL will be merged with Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), the special purpose vehicle created to operate the nationwide BharatNet. The operator will also be allocated additional 4G spectrum to assist its planned launch of nationwide mobile services.
The Indian government is clearly not ready to give up on BSNL just yet, but, in the face of ever more ferocious competition from Jio and Airtel, the company’s future is far from secure.
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