PM Modi Endorsing Reliance Jio May Not Be Illegal, But It’s Wrong For Many Reasons

Posted on September 6, 2016 in Politics, Society

By Abhishek Jha:

What appeared to be a full page Reliance Jio advertisement was, on the face of it, only a dedication to Digital India. It is, therefore, unlikely that Reliance will invite any legal proceedings under the Emblems and Names Act, should they be initiated. Moreover, it has been said, it is unlikely that the ad, which is now running on television as well, could have included the PM without his approval. By the time of writing this article at least, neither the PMO, nor Reliance Jio representatives seemed to have responded to any media queries on whether any approval was sought or given.

Allegations Of Favours To Reliance

This tacit understanding between the PM and Reliance however keeps the question of propriety alive. There already is a perception that Reliance is being favoured. A CBI inquiry was sought in a PIL, for instance, challenging the 4G spectrum allocation to Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd. (RJIL). The PIL was filed after the CAG alleged that Reliance had been favoured in the allocation by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) in a draft report.

Infotel Broadband Services (IBSPL), a company with net worth of Rs 2.49 crore, had made an Earnest Money Deposit of Rs 252.50 crore and later won the bid for one pan Indian slot by paying Rs 12,847.77 crore. Soon after the bid, Reliance had acquired its shares and renamed the company Reliance Jio. The CAG alleged in the draft report that the government did not verify whether confidentiality conditions were violated by IBSPL. It also said that the DoT not clarifying whether voice services over spectrum were permitted could have reduced demand for the spectrum, thus favouring IBSPL.

While the PIL based on these allegations was turned down by the Supreme Court this April, new allegations of favours have been made more recently by the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI). The COAI has accused the DoT and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) of favouring Reliance by keeping guidelines ambiguous. This has reportedly allowed Jio to run extended free trials, which while helping the company get some three million customers might have possibly caused losses for the government.

Suit, Boot, And Sarkar

These aspersions on the transparency with which Jio has established itself though are only half of the bit on which the PM’s participation in the ad can be questioned. The current government has been accused of favouring the rich, powerful, and privileged from the very beginning. If there was any kind of understanding between the PMO and Reliance, the ad further shows how insensitive they are to worker, poor, and disenfranchised, because the ad came out on a day when an all-India strike against the government’s labour policies was taking place. The strike, in even its symbolic capacity, was against the government’s labour policies, against corporate exploitation of labour, and against their alleged collusion. All these three came together in the ad.

The PM participating in a corporate ad might appear harmless but one must note that this also gives a kind of sanction for what big companies do for profit when not monitored and regulated. Jio itself, for instance, has been reportedly procuring its Lyf brand smartphones from the China’s ZTE Corporation, although this is not officially declared by ZTE. ZTE was among the 16 multinational brands that were accused in an Amnesty International-African Resources Watch (Afrewatch) report this January of sourcing cobalt from mines in Democratic Republic of Congo that exploit workers. Cobalt is used in the batteries used in the electronic equipments these brands make. The report said that the workers were sometimes as young as seven and made to work in mines for long hours without protective clothing.

Fuchang Electronic Technology Co., a supplier to ZTE, also faced workers’ protests in October last year after it unexpectedly shut down factories. Closer home ZTE has recently announced plans to open manufacturing units for VoLTE (Voice calls over a 4G LTE network) smartphones in India, cashing in on the Make in India initiative. Given its own history and the manner in which labour laws operate in India, we can imagine the future of these plans. A factory of ZTE, which opened in 2005 is in Industrial Model Township (IMT) Manesar. Land acquisition for this township also allegedly took place in a dubious manner. This is now part of a CBI inquiry too following court orders. This is only with respect to Jio. Reliance’s own exploitation of labour is relatively well-known.

Despite all this, it can perhaps be argued that the PM appearing in the ad is no surprise, for the above is a criticism that that he does not seem to care about. The development of the nation- an entity bound more by imagination than anything- is apparently of more significance to him than the real lives of the people who inhabit its geographical boundaries. However, we should also know that concessions have been wrested from the BJP’s party line by popular politics. When we criticise the ad, we demand that he withdraw the state’s approval for those who ran the ad.

Featured image credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images
Banner image credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images