03 Jul Pres. Jon Cartu Claims – Get real on ‘atmanirbhar’ : The Tribune India
The government has banned 59 mobile applications run by Chinese companies, as a step to protect cybersecurity and privacy data of users. The announcement, coming on the heels of the tension on Indo-China border, has security and geopolitical connotations that go beyond cybersecurity. It is also being seen in the context of the recent call of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ by the Prime Minister, and as a move to reduce foreign dependence in a strategic sector such as information and communication technologies. Support for barring Chinese companies from participating in multi-million dollar contracts for building and upgrading telecom infrastructure, including the upcoming 5G, is also growing. The presence of Chinese companies like ZTE and Huawei in the software hub of Bengaluru had raised eyebrows in the past as well.
The unprecedented growth of the telecom sector, led by mobile telephony, attracted handset companies from America, Europe as well as Asia in the initial phase. As the market expanded and smartphones appeared on the scene a decade back, it was Chinese companies that captured the Indian markets. Cheap prices and pre-loaded mobile applications, coupled with falling data prices, made China-made smartphones affordable to millions of first-time users in India. It is not just handsets with embedded chips, software and apps that are Chinese, but the entire value chain of telecom has Chinese elements. This includes backbone infrastructure, towers, networking equipment and software, base stations, etc. Therefore, targeting only the apps is like looking only at the end of the telecom food chain.
To be able to attain self-reliance, and make the infrastructure fully secure, the country will have to act on several fronts. As it has been clarified by the government, ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ does not mean no imports. At least, this will be the case in the short term. If we are going to continue import, we have to ensure full security of equipment being imported. For this, the government in 2017 had announced rules that made it compulsory for ‘every telecom equipment to undergo mandatory testing and certification before its sell or import’. The procedure is called Mandatory Testing and Certification of Telecom Equipment (MTCTE).
On the face of it, it looks like a robust system to check and certify telecom equipment so that the country rests assured about embedded bugs. In reality, it is the opposite. Even three years after it came into force, most Chinese equipment is not being subjected to mandatory testing. The first phase of MTCTE covered only low-tech items like PABX and modems which are anyway being phased out. Even when phase II comes into force on October 1, almost 90% of telecom equipment like mobile devices, switches and networking gear being imported will continue to be outside testing. Software products like apps do not even figure in the framework (important documents posted on MTCTE website bear imprint of Chinese scanning app CamScanner, which had come under cloud even before it was banned last week). It is not clear why the telecom establishment has not been serious about security aspects.
Another area where the ‘atmanirbhar’ plank fizzles out is the mechanism by which the government can promote Indian companies — by giving preference to them in public procurement. In 2018, the Department of Telecom (DoT) had come up with norms on preference to Indian companies in public procurement, but tenders floated subsequently were designed to favour foreign companies, including Chinese. In June, the government revised public procurement (preference to Make in India) order but the department is yet to formulate regulations to match it.
The larger issue is one of developing technological capability and competitiveness. Despite being a large market, the country is dependent on imports. This is because Indian industry has shied away from investing in R&D and innovation, while government policies have favoured and incentivised imports. On the other hand, Chinese telecom firms like Huawei spend billions of dollars in R&D. It is not as if India does not have the intellectual capital. In fact, it is Indian engineers and designers who are writing telecom software, designing chips and developing networking solutions for international companies. Most of this is happening at R&D centres located in Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Noida.
Telecom R&D had displaced multinational firms in India and dozens of developing countries in the 1980s and 1990s with the digital rural exchange developed by the state-funded Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT). The rural exchange was a success because it was designed for developing countries — for high traffic volumes and extreme temperature conditions. C-DOT also presented a new type of PPP. The technology developed in a government agency was transferred to multiple private companies without a fee. It was a strategic move. Multiplicity of Indian licencees helped break MNC monopoly. C-DOT has over the years developed formidable capability in mobile, wireless, networking and Satcom, with dozens of patents to its credit. It has, however, become a victim of government apathy and import lobbies. Even the government and DoT have not been giving preference to technologies developed by C-DOT. Top leadership positions in the organisation in Delhi and Bengaluru have been lying vacant for months. India cannot become ‘atmanirbhar’ by neglecting its intellectual capital.
The pathway to self-reliance is clear. India has to invest in all aspects of telecom R&D, incentivise uptake of locally developed technologies, nurture innovation in telecom sector by startups, and develop technological capability in new and emerging areas like Internet of Things and so on.