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Farmers’ protest backlash hits Reliance Jio in Punjab, Haryana

With farmers believing that Reliance will benefit from contract farming laws and porting to other telecom operators in Punjab and Haryana, the company’s wireless subscribers have reduced substantially.

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By India Legal Bureau

India’s largest telecom operator Reliance Jio recorded a fall of around 20 lakh wireless subscribers in Punjab and Haryana in December 2020 amid the farmers’ protest, as per data of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). Meanwhile, state-run BSNL increased subscribers in both states during the same month. Jio was the only large telecom operator to lose subscribers in both Punjab and Haryana.

Though it is not possible from this data to establish a correlation between the operator’s fall in subscribers and the backlash that the Mukesh Ambani owned Reliance has received during the farmers’ protest, Jio itself seems to believe that a “malicious and motivated campaign” is to blame.

Since its commercial launch in September 2016, Jio, which is India’s largest telecom operator, had reported a fall in subscribers just once before in Punjab. That was in December 2019 when all major operators but BSNL reported a fall in the Punjab circle.

In Punjab, Jio had 1.25 crore subscribers as of end December, the lowest in the preceding 18 months, falling from 1.40 crore in November 2020. This was only the second time Jio lost subscribers on a net basis in the state since its commercial launch; the only other month being December 2019.

Jio saw a decrease in wireless subscription numbers in Haryana to 89.07 lakh in December 2020 from 94.48 lakh in the preceding month, the first time the state has seen a drop in numbers since its commercial launch in September 2016.

An e-mail query sent to Reliance Jio seeking comments elicited no reply. In a statement issued after its December quarter results, Reliance Jio said: “Higher churn during the quarter at 1.63 percent due to continued impact of Covid and recent malicious and motivated campaigns against Reliance Group in select geographies.”

Though localised protests against the three farm laws have been going on since they were passed in September last year, protestors began converging at the borders outside Delhi by end November. Shortly after that, Jio started receiving port-out requests. On December 11, Jio wrote to the telecom regulator complaining that its rivals Airtel and Vodafone Idea were running “malicious campaigns” leading to the churn in its subscriber base. “These companies continue to remain directly/indirectly involved in supporting and furthering insinuations and false and frivolous rumours of Reliance being an undue beneficiary in the farm bills,” the letter said, adding that a large number of customers cited this feeling in port-out requests.

Many farmers began porting their numbers from Jio to its rivals such as Airtel or Vodafone Idea. This was because the farmers believed that large conglomerates such as Reliance Industries and the Adani Group would benefit from the contract farming laws.

After hundreds of Jio telecommunications masts were attacked in December, Reliance asked government authorities to step in. Reliance said that “these acts of violence have endangered the lives of thousands of its employees and caused damage and disruption to the vital communications infrastructure, sales and service outlets run by its subsidiaries.”

With Reliance continuing to face backlash from the farmers, the group issued a statement on January 4 saying that neither it nor any other company associated with it, including Reliance Retail, had ever carried out “contract” or “corporate” farming in the past and that the conglomerate had no plans to enter this business. The statement was issued after some farmer unions alleged that companies such as Reliance were “purchasing vast stretches” of farmland in Punjab and Haryana to undertake contract farming and establish private mandis. However, Reliance Industries said that none of its affiliates, including Reliance Retail and Reliance Jio, had done any “corporate” or “contract” farming. It also said that neither Reliance nor any of its subsidiaries had purchased any agricultural land, directly or indirectly “in Punjab or Haryana, or anywhere else in India, for the purpose of “corporate” or “contract” farming”, adding that it had no plans to do so.

Meanwhile, Vodafone Idea’s subscribers in Punjab rose from 86.42 lakh in November to 87.11 lakh in December. Airtel, which had 1.05 crore subscribers in November, saw its base increase to over 1.06 crore in December. In Haryana, Airtel’s subscriber base of 49.56 lakh in November 2020 increased to over 50.79 lakh in December. Vodafone had over 80.23 lakh subscribers, which increased to over 80.42 lakh in December 2020. BSNL also saw an increase in subscribers in both states in that month, according to the report.

Later, following vandalism of telecom towers and fibre cables in use by Jio in these two states, the company filed a petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court seeking “the urgent intervention of Government authorities to bring a complete stop to the illegal acts of vandalism by miscreants”.

According to TRAI data for December 2020, Reliance Jio witnessed net additions in wireless users of 4.78 lakh users, while Bharti Airtel added 40.51 lakh users and Vodafone Idea lost 56.9 lakh users. Bharti Airtel Ltd. added the most active subscribers in 14 months as concerns stemming from protests by farmers in northern India affected Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd.’s customer accretion. The Sunil Mittal controlled mobile operator added as many as 5.5 million regularly paying users in December over the preceding month, according to TRAI. Reliance Jio added nearly 3.2 million subscribers, while Vodafone Idea Ltd. lost 1.5 million subscribers.

Bharti Airtel also led the market in active subscriber base. It reported 97.1 percent active subscribers in December. It was followed by Vodafone Idea with 90.26 percent and Reliance Jio with 80.23 percent. Only about half of BSNL’s mobile customer base was found to be active, while in the case of MTNL, it was less than one-fifth in December, according to the report.

Punjab reported the highest decline rate in mobile subscriber base of 3.34 percent. It was followed by Mumbai, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The highest growth rate in mobile subscriber base was recorded in J&K, followed by Assam, Himachal Pradesh, and the NE region.

Reliance Jio led customer addition in the fixed line segment by gaining 2,35,317 customers, while market leader BSNL continued to lose customers. Bharti Airtel, Quadrant and Vodafone Idea also gained fixed line customers.

Read Also: Purpose of law not only to punish, but also maintain peace and harmony, says Allahabad High Court

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