Government finances versus public interest

In an op-ed in Business Standard (I think) yesterday, Praveen Chakravarti (he’s with Anand Rathi now, used to be with UIDAI when I met him at the Takshashila Conclave last year) argues that fixed price allocation of telecom spectrum wasn’t such a bad thing since it kept prices for customers low and reasonable. As part of his argument, he mentions that due to the auction of 3G spectrum and licenses, prices of 3G services have been really high, way over the reach of the common man. Similarly, after the auction of the 4th telecom license in 2001, mobile telephony prices remained high, and came down only after the backdoor entry of Reliance and Tata Teleservices a couple of years later.

One of the points that the CAG mentioned in his report on Air India a few days back was about the granting of “sixth freedom” rights to international carriers flying from India. For example, twice this year I flew west (once to the US, once to Europe) from Bangalore, stopping over at Dubai. For both trips, Emirates sold me a single ticket (i.e. I purchased a Bangalore-New York ticket, not separate tickets for Bangalore-Dubai and Dubai-New York). The granting of this sixth freedom to carriers such as Emirates, points out the CAG, has resulted in substantial loss to Air India since no one flies Air India for international flights anymore. I didn’t believe it when I read it but one of the recommendations for the CAG was to cancel sixth freedom licenses to carriers such as Emirates. Another report around the same time recommended that “interior markets” (Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, etc.) be made Air India monopolies in order to protect its finances.

Now, there is a fine balance that needs to be achieved between government revenues through grant of licenses, and the economic impact on the general public because of the grant of such licenses. For example, the government (through Air India) may have lost significant amounts of money thanks to the grant of sixth freedom licenses to carriers such as Emirates. That has been counterbalanced with lower fares and easier flying options for travelers from hitherto less connected sources like Bangalore or Hyderabad. The government may have lost significant revenue by granting backdoor entry to Reliance and Tata Teleservices, but that was compensated by sudden drop in charges for mobile telephony, and the subsequent growth of the sector.

Given Air India’s history and performance, the government could have never invested enough to make Bangalore and Hyderabad as well connected with the rest of the world as, say, Bombay or Delhi. In that sense, granting of sixth freedom rights to Emirates was a cheap way for the government to provide international connectivity to these cities. Similarly, it would have been hard for the government to invest in MTNL or BSNL in order to take mobile telephony to the masses. Backdoor entry to two operators was a “cheaper option” to achieve this objective.

So what was the problem with what Raja did, you ask. The problem there was the creation of a playing field that was not level. He blatantly favoured certain players against others, and made hefty kickbacks from the process. That is the real tragedy of a non-auction process – in that there is “consumer surplus” left over with some of the companies after they’ve paid the fixed price for the resource, and some of this consumer surplus can be channeled in the form of kickbacks to government officials. I don’t know the parallel for this in the aviation space so I’m not able to comment on that.

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