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Back to Smoke Signals?

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We, the Government

By Hugh & Colleen Gantzer

We seem to be heading Fast Forward into the past: thanks to Mussoorie’s telephone czars!

Way back in 1876, Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell spoke to his assistant Thomas Watson. He said, “Mr Watson come here. I want to see you.” That was the first verbal communication over Bell’s invention. He also got the first patent on his invention which we now know as the telephone. Long before that, however, Native Americans (aka Red Indians) and, the Chinese, had done long-distance visual communication by Smoke Signals. The way things are going with Mussoorie’s sarkari telephone system, we had better start taking lessons in smoke signalling!

Here’s how our phone system has been steadily deteriorating over the years.

The Mussoorie Exchange is housed in an elegant old building in the heart of town. Before Independence, the ground floor held a self-contained manual exchange staffed by operators under a supervisor. The first floor was the official residence of the officer in-charge of the exchange. In those days, there was no Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, no Indo-Tibetan Border Police Academy, and only a handful of hotels. And yet the officer-in-charge of the exchange was of the rank of a Sub-Divisional Engineer.

Then the manual exchange was changed to an electronic one. Speaking to a telephone official, at that time, we were informed that an electronic exchange would take up very much more space than a manual one. We wondered why he was attempting such a barefaced bluff. There had to be something fishy behind it.

Our suspicions proved to be correct. The official in charge of the exchange was asked to move out of the building and live elsewhere in Mussoorie. Then the first floor of this centrally-located building was converted into a holiday home for senior telephone officials and their families!

It is clearly disgusting to see public facilities being misused in such a blatantly feather-bedding manner. It is also sad that a telephone official, otherwise held in some regard by his fellow citizens in Mussoorie, should be forced to fib to conceal the self-serving conduct of his superiors.
Many other questions arise out of this move.

1. Was the designation of the official in-charge of the Mussoorie Telephone Exchange deliberately downgraded from Sub-Divisional Engineer to that of Junior Engineer to justify the misuse of the residential quarters?

2. Does a Junior Engineer have the authority to fend off the encroachments of the private telecom players? We subscribers have faced frequent breakdowns of telephone services because our lines have been disrupted by private servers digging them up. We have never been told of the action taken against such culprits. Why not?

3. Can private contractors dig wherever they like? Does our telephone department have no authority to protect our lines in public interest? Do they have no map of where our lines have been laid? Do the legendary deep pockets of the private operators have anything to do with our telephone officials’ benign tolerance of their depredations?

Last week our phone went dead. The technician who arrived to restore the service told us that lightning had fused a small, but essential, part of our connection. But a spare was not held in the exchange in Mussoorie and their store in Dehra was locked and the key was not available! Why were adequate spares not held in Mussoorie?

Had even this essential storage space been taken over by self-serving senior officers and their holidaying families?

We don’t know why such things have happened, or who was responsible for this deplorable state of affairs. There may be perfectly valid reasons for these apparent wrong doings. But till our telephone officials take us into confidence, rumours will continue to grow. Credibility gaps are, invariably, filled by speculation. If any of the statements made in this commentary are factually incorrect, tell us. We have the right to know. We will acknowledge it in this column and comment on it. That is how democracies should run.

During these lockdown days, telephones are our lifelines. We pay our taxes. Our taxes pay sarkari salaries. We are the Government, and the officials who run our public telephone services, are Government Servants. Do not, ever, forget that.