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Opinion | Vandalisation of Telecom Towers in Farmers' Protest and China's 5G Designs

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Crucial to China’s plans of dominance in the virtual world is that 5G networks in South Asia and Europe be provided by Chinese technology giants like Huawei. However, these plans have run into serious competition from India’s Reliance Jio.

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Kulbir Krishnan

The Covid-19 pandemic has dominated 2020. It has led to significant changes in daily life and made telecom services the lifeline of millions of people, including students taking online classes, professionals working from home, people going for online health consultations, etc. It has also led to a sharp increase in online cash transactions and online purchase of goods and services.

According to many strategic analysts, Chinese companies have made massive investments in several countries to spread a 5G network for “a digital encirclement of the world”. Just as the BRI (Belt and Road) initiative aims at physical domination, the 5G network aims at complete domination of the virtual world. Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE will build the 5G infrastructure as 5G is the most efficient enabler of the ‘Internet of Things’, that will have the ability to access and control the data of individuals, groups or even nations.

With peak data rates up to 100 times faster than what current 4G networks provide, 5G has been held out as the connective tissue for the Internet of Things, autonomous cars, smart cities and other applications establishing the backbone for the new industrial internet. China has sought to be the leader of this new technology seeing it as a key pillar in its efforts to battle the US for economic leadership along with other emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence.

China launched 5G services earlier this year and it is estimated that there are about 7,18,000 stations nation-wide that transmit and amplify 5G signals to about 170 million devices. In a bid to accelerate its aim for global leadership in key technologies, China has prepared a US dollar 1.4 trillion master plan backed by President Xi Jinping himself. It calls for the nationwide laying down of 5G networks, installation of camera and sensors and development of AI software till 2025 that will drive automated factories and mass surveillance. As a part of this plan, China announced on December 28 that it will setup an additional 6,00,000 base stations next year.

Crucial to China’s plans of dominance in the virtual world is that 5G networks in South Asia and Europe be provided by Chinese technology giants like Huawei. However, these plans of President Xi have run into serious competition from India’s Reliance Jio. Its Chairman, Mukesh Ambani, announced in October this year that it will be rolling out indigenous 5G in the latter half of 2021 once it is able to get additional spectrum.

In October, Reliance began trials for its 5G technology along with US-based Qualcomm and claimed to have achieved a speed of 1 Gigabite (1GB) per second. Jio also has plans to roll out 5G enabled smart phones in collaboration with Google. In case it succeeds, it will be a severe blow to Chinese companies like Xiaomi and Vivo which presently dominate the Indian smartphone market. The Indian government has also announced (December 16, 2020) that it will be auctioning spectrum in March 2021. This creates the possibility of Reliance JIO becoming a serious player in the rollout of 5G technology next year and thus pose a serious threat to Chinese ambitions.

The farmers’ agitation has been going on for almost five weeks without garnering much public support. Most of this agitation has been led by farmers from Punjab and Haryana backed by political parties like the Congress, AAP, Akali Dal and Communist Parties and ultra-Leftist organisations. Initially, the farmers had squatted on the rail tracks in Punjab but finding that suspension of goods trains was harming Punjab economically, Captain Amarinder Singh, the Chief Minister of Punjab, encouraged them to shift the protest to the Delhi border.

While farmers no doubt have the Constitutional right to protest, they do not have the right to block roads and public transport indefinitely. As per industrial body ASSOCHAM, the farmers’ protest is resulting in a daily loss of Rs 3500 crore and hurting the economies of Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. The lavish arrangements made at the protest sights for farmers at the Delhi border has raised eyebrows and called into question the source of the funding of these protests. It has been claimed that many of the farmer organisations are receiving funds from NRI and Sikhs based in Canada, UK and other countries.

It is suspected that some of these funds are coming from pro-Khalistani organisations abroad. That the so-called Khalistan movement was organised and funded by Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency the ISI is no secret. Even now the Khalistan movement is being kept alive in Pakistan, Canada, UK, Germany, etc by the ISI is well known in defence and security circles. Pakistan itself has become a basket case and is looking desperately for funds from the IMF, friendly Islamic countries, etc. However its biggest benefactor and source of funds in the last few years has been its ‘all-weather friend’ China.

That it has already fallen into a debt trap and will not be able to repay its loans to China is becoming increasingly evident. It is in no position to resist China and if China supplies funds to Pakistan for onward funneling to Khalistanis or farmers, then Pakistan would have no hesitation to do so.

Of late some of the protesting farmers and their supporters have resorted to violence and targeted Reliance JIO telecom towers in Punjab. More than 1500 telecom towers in Punjab have been damaged by them and vandalised with power supply being snapped and cables being cut in several parts of the state. This has led to disruption of telecom services. In some cases even the generators used for standby power to the telecom tower have been looted with the police and the local administration being mere bystanders. It is only on December 28 that CM Amarinder Singh has directed the police to take strict action against the perpetrators.

Most of these actions have taken place in the Doaba belt which have large number of immigrants abroad. Could it be possible that such action has been funded by Chinese interests under the guise of farmers protest and the cloak of deniability? Political parties backing the farmers protest must ponder.

The author is a former Director General of Police and IG (Operations and Intelligence) of Sashastra Seema Bal. Views expressed are personal.


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