Last Monday (12th December 2016) Cyclone Vardah devastated Chennai City, pulling down thousands of trees and throwing normal life off track for days. Unlike during the floods of last year (Dec 2015) the local authorities had done a good job of issuing timely warnings about the cyclone and disseminating information about precautions to be taken. The damages to power lines and overall electricity infrastructure have been significant, TANGEDCO (Electricity company of Government of Tamil Nadu) workers have worked tirelessly and restored power to most places across the city in few days. I got power back in my house within 72 hours after the cyclone. Similarly Chennai Corporation had brought in conservancy workers from other municipalities across the state and done cleanup of fallen trees quickly. Chennai citizens owe a big appreciation to all of them.

Night book reading without electricity in candle light

A let down in the aftermath of cyclone was communication services. While Public sector undertaking BSNL had their mobile networks working in many places, private players networks went down in most places at the start of the cyclone. In my household we have mobile connections from Vodafone, Airtel, Reliance Jio & BSNL – the last alone continued to work whereas it took more than 72 hours for the others to restore services even partially. This was the same experience I had during last year floods as well. Both the natural calamities (Flood and Cyclone) were devastating for most infrastructure to break down. But  in many cases it is due to cost cutting by having little redundancy, poor adherence to rules on tower constructions quality and keeping low diesel storage for backup power, are reasons I suspect private player’s network went blank while public sector BSNL continues to work in most cases. I am not arguing here BSNL is great, they have their share of poor service but in times of emergency private players have let their customers down.

In this background, I had written last week to Hon’ble Prime Minister’s Office (PMO India) requesting them to have appropriate authorities to look at why private mobile networks failed during recent Chennai cyclone vardah and also during last year floods, while BSNL landlines and mobile worked in most places. The learning from this can be used by regulatory authority like TRAI to put in place processes that will improve service across the country. I didn’t expect any follow-up on this. Today morning I got a call from DGM Chennai of BSNL India, thanking for my compliments to BSNL sent to PMO.

In general I believe market economy is the best way to ensure quality services to consumers, but because of incidents like this I will have to rethink. In emergency services like communication there may exist a role for one non commercial player. Having said that I still see less reasons for Government to be running Hotels / Airlines / Retail and FMCG manufacturing. What do you think?

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