Telecom czars spar as a farm-bill-fallout

The controversial farm bills in India have not only triggered one of the largest protests yet by farmers against the government, it is also leading to yet another spar between the three largest telecom players

Telecom czars spar as a farm-bill-fallout
Reliance Jio moves court and blames rivals for acts of vandalism. Photo: Reuters

(ATF) Caught amid the farm reform bill protests raging across India, Reliance Jio Infocomm, promoted by billionaire Mukesh Ambani, on Monday moved the Punjab & Haryana High Court seeking an urgent intervention of government authorities to stop what it termed as “illegal acts of vandalism of its towers by miscreants linked to the ongoing farmer protests.”

Jio alleged that Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel, the two rival telecom service providers are running “unethical and anti-competitive mobile number portability (MNP) campaign" amid the protest and targeting its tower infrastructure in a series of reported vandalism incidents in Punjab.

These acts of violence have endangered the lives of thousands of its employees and caused damage and disruption to the vital communications infrastructure, sales and service outlets run by its subsidiaries in the two states, Jio said in a statement.

 “The miscreants indulging in vandalism have been instigated and aided by vested interests and our business rivals. Taking advantage of the ongoing farmers’ agitation near the national capital, these vested interests have launched an incessant, malicious and motivated vilification campaign against Reliance, which has absolutely no basis in truth,” the statement added.

New farm bills controversy

The move comes in the wake of the damage caused to Jio’s towers across Punjab by supporters of the farmers agitation in the past two weeks. Reportedly more than 1,500 towers have been damaged as agitators went on a rampage by snapping the tower cables or sabotaging power supply.

The attack comes amid speculation that the new farm laws allegedly benefit Jio and Gautam Adani’s Adani Group. Neither, however, procure food grain from farmers.

“The falsehood of the campaign becomes crystal clear from the facts that Reliance has nothing whatsoever to do with the farm laws currently debated in the country, and in no way benefits from them. As such, the sole nefarious purpose of linking the name of Reliance to these laws is to harm our businesses and damage our reputation,” Jio’s statement said.

According to Jio, apart from retailing products including food grains and staples, fruits and vegetables, through the subsidiary Reliance Retail, Jio or any other affiliate of its parent company, Reliance Industries, has done any “corporate” or “contract” farming in the past. “(There are) absolutely no plans to enter this business (either),” Jio said.

Jio also clarified that none of group companies have ever entered into “long-term procurement contacts to gain an advantage over farmers” or that its suppliers “buy from farmers at less than remunerative prices nor will they ever do so.”

The protests have also sparked the controversy between Jio and its two rivals telecom operators, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea.

In its letter to the telecom regulator on December 10, Jio had alleged that it was losing subscribers because rival telcos were inciting and provoking agitators involved in tower disruption to port out.

Appealing to the telecom department to suspend mobile number portability in Punjab and Haryana, the letter requested the regulator to, “Take strict action against Vi and Airtel for these unethical unscrupulous practices by their channel partners in violations of the Indian Telegraph Act, and to issue necessary instructions/directions to them to stop such malicious campaigns with immediate effect.”

The Indian state of Punjab where farmers are agitating, has some 40 million mobile phone users, of which 14 million are Jio subscribers, the company claims.

Rivals push back

In retaliation Bharti Airtel slammed Jio's allegations over the weekend, and said , “the baseless allegation made by Jio that Airtel is behind the farmer agitation to “sabotage” their network and to force customers to switch to Airtel is simply outrageous."

Airtel also said that based on past instances, Jio was capable of “going to any length to make baseless allegations, adopt bullying tactics and use intimidatory behaviour to suit their purposes and meet their goals. This is another such instance."

On Sunday, Vodafone Idea joined Bharti Airtel in refuting Jio's allegations and said, “VIL will never be part of any such activity which has impact on network installations of any operator in the country. It (Jio’s allegation) seems a fictional conspiracy theory to implicate and cause damage to VIL”

Meanwhile, hit by the tussle and dying connections, as hundreds of its subscribers port out, Jio has upped the ante against its rivals by making all voice calls on its rival network free from the beginning of the year.

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Mukesh Ambani Reliance Jio Telecom War in India Bharti Airtel Vodafone Idea TRAI India's Farm Bills