Mid-week, 12:45 pm, at the Mahangar Telephone Nigam (MTNL) telephone exchange in Navi Mumbai. The exchange looks more like a college campus, given its size and the open gardens all around. But there are just nine people, including two security guards, manning it. The broadband division is occupied by one official who is mediating a quarrel about attendance between four contract linemen. He ends the argument by simply marking everyone present for the preceding week.
A little further is the main customer care centre, where four women employees have started an early lunch. It takes them until 2 pm to finish their food and conversation, after which they hand out dated brochures for almost every enquiry. A man in the queue wants a plan from a newspaper advertisement, but they can’t find it in the system and advise him to come again a few days later. Disgruntled, he stomps away, muttering about finding an operator who will offer doorstep services.
Unfortunately, scenes like this are all too common across various MTNL exchanges in Delhi and Mumbai, and the impact on the state-owned telecom company has been devastating. From being a money-spinner that had cash reserves of over ₹5,000 crore just three years ago, MTNL reported a loss of ₹2,801 crore in FY11, and, in spite of its efforts to stem the bleeding, is likely to have closed FY12 with a loss of over ₹3,000 crore. The new chairman and managing director, AK Garg, who moved from BSNL in December 2011, agrees that MTNL has “issues”. “But we’re synergising operations and working towards making the most of our assets,” he defends.
What ails MTNL is pretty much what ails most public sector companies in India: excessive interference from politicians and bureaucrats and a demotivated and bloated workforce. But, despite the lashings of red on the balance sheet, MTNL may yet attempt a comeback. Can broadband offer the telecom giant that opportunity that it badly needs or is it time to hang up on the company?
As things stand, nothing seems to be going right for MTNL. For a company that has operations in only two cities — Delhi and Mumbai — it has a staggering 44,910 employees on its rolls. Compare that with rival Airtel, which services all of India as well as 17 African nations with 20,675 people. While MTNL has managed to slash its