Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL) is accusing persons unknown of acts of vandalism that have blacked out sections of its network in Delhi. Whatever be the provocation — in this case the said acts of vandalism coincided with a strike by MTNL employees demanding better pay — disruption in telecom services should not be taken lightly, considering the amount of business that is conducted through telecom wires and over cell towers. Delhi and Mumbai are the most evolved markets for telecommunications in India and a strike at even a bit player like the state-owned MTNL disrupts flights, health services and government operations, let alone the hardship faced by a citizenry accustomed to never leaving home without their cellphones.
MTNL employees join their brethren in other public sector enterprises demanding parity after the Sixth Pay Commission announced its award for central government employees last year. Decades of grappling with pay-parity among administrators and the employees of the companies it owns should by now have convinced the government that wages are best set by market forces, where they are in play. The way the government goes about giving out raises is quite an HR fiasco. Every pay commission brings in its wake a chorus of disgruntled voices. The clamour among the 1.4 million public-sector people engaged in running the 250-odd companies the government owns is needless. It should not require the spectacle of snapped telephone and internet lines in the country’s Capital to drive home the point that public enterprises must be allowed to set their own wages.
A market economy predicates labour costs principally on profits, which the 150 profitable State-owned companies are eminently capable of undertaking, as their counterparts routinely do in the private sector. The productivity gains accompanying market-determined wages are well documented and, perhaps, the reason why pubic-sector employees themselves resist them. MTNL, listed on the New York in 2001, brings up the rear in most service quality studies conducted by the country’s telecom regulator. The unedifying sight of snapped telecom cables pulls down what was once a state monopoly’s brand image a good couple of notches. Relegated to the sidelines of India’s telecom revolution, MTNL should not be making news for all the wrong reasons.