Dialling change

Trai undoes some of the damage of the last 17 months. Now follow it up with a big diesel price hike.

So far, given the $175 billion or thereabouts that FIIs have invested in Indian stock markets, the relatively modest $2.4 bn outflow in August suggests that investors still believe in the India story. Or, equally likely, the collapse in the rupee has forced them to stay put exiting at a lower Sensex value and a lower rupee only multiplies their losses. Whatever the reason for their staying, the government needs to move fast if it wants to restore some of India's lost shine. After doing little for several years, repairing the damage is not easy, but some progress has been made, for instance, with the telecom regulator finally lowering the base prices for the 2G auctions that will take place in another few months.

While the industry was bleeding anyway, the previous telecom regulator had recommended an absurdly high base price for the auctions, and a CAG-scarred government dared not reduce the price. As a result, for 17 months, there was no auction, the industry continued to be starved of spectrum and the government missed its revenue targets, a substantial portion of which was to come from spectrum auctions. An added complication was brought in by the fact that, with little consultation, the telecom regulator had also suggested that existing telcos be asked to give up their more efficient 900 MHz spectrum refarming, in jargon once their licences expired. All telcos are in court over the matter.

In short, it has been a period of intense turmoil and mutual suspicion hardly the most fertile grounds for an industry to prosper. What the telecom regulator, with a new chief, has now done is cut through much of this with some sensible pricing suggestions. For one, keeping in mind the economic realities a sub-5 per cent economic growth, as well as the precarious finances of several players he lowered the base prices for the auctions by around half in critical areas. And since none of the telecom players who were being asked to surrender their 900 MHz spectrum argued that they wouldn't pay market prices for it, the regulator has made it easier to bid in this spectrum band as well. As in the 2G case, the base prices have been cut dramatically it has to be kept in mind the final price could still be much higher as there will be an auction. Given that the government is showing signs of moving on clearing stuck projects through the CCI process, and how it has overcome eight months of inertia to clear the way for multibrand retail, finally allowed FDI in pharma, and passed the pension bill, it needs to keep up the momentum with a big diesel/LPG price hike.

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