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SOURCE: HT

A simmering boundary dispute between India and Nepal hasn’t stopped villagers in bordering areas in Uttarakhand from relying on Nepalese SIM cards due to poor connectivity of the Indian telecom service providers. The villagers mainly of Khumti gram panchayat in Pithoragarh district which comprises about 10-12 villages, have to depend on the Nepalese telecom service providers.

They said they are forced to use Nepalese SIM cards as the network of the Indian telecom service providers is very poor in comparison to that of the Nepalese. Param Singh, a villager of Khumti village which is located about 15 km away from the Nepal border said, “We are compelled to use the Nepalese SIM cards because we have no other option. Their network in this hilly terrain is very strong as compared to the Indian ones who have very poor or often no network.”

Singh added, “The villagers who have someone known in Nepal, ask them to arrange a Nepalese SIM card for them on their documents and then receive it here when they come to visit them. It is the only way of communication for any work or emergency.”

He said almost everyone in the village has one Nepalese SIM and one Indian SIM card in their phones. “When in the village, we use the Nepalese SIM and when in the market down with a better network, we use the Indian SIM cards.”

But not all villagers can access Nepalese SIM cards. “Only those who know people in Nepal are able to get the SIM cards, others fail to get any,” said Raju, another villager.

“I don’t have anyone in Nepal, hence I am not able to get any Nepalese SIM card but I wanted one. I have to use the Indian ones only which have a very poor network here. Due to this, we face many problems especially in case of any emergency. This is the reason people here opt for a Nepalese SIM card,” he said.

Gopal Singh, head Khumti gram panchayat said, “The Indian service providers started their service here about two years ago only. Before that people used to avail the WLL services only. Despite the starting of their services, the network is very poor. People have to search for its signals by moving in the village for about 2-3 km. Many hang their mobile phones in trees nearby their house to catch the network,” said Singh.

Singh also said that due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Nepalese SIM cards are now difficult to procure. “As the movement of people has stopped due to the pandemic, the SIM cards are now not available easily. Those who have them, now have to ask their acquaintances in Nepal to recharge their connections.”

He said that usually one could get the Nepalese SIM cards of their Namaste Nepal or Sky networks at Rs 150-200.

“We have urged the administration to improve the connectivity of Indian networks in the area so that we don’t need to use the Nepalese ones any more, but it is yet to improve,” he said.

Experts are divided on the usage of Nepalese SIM cards by the villagers near the border.

MS Waldia, a retired Indian army Colonel, termed the use of Nepalese SIM cards and internet by the Indian villagers a ‘dangerous thing’ for nation’s security.

“The government needs to take special attention towards the communication needs of border villages in the context of recent adverse behaviour of Nepal towards India,” he said.

Ankur Chandrakant, a cyber expert in Uttarakhand, however, claimed that there is no security risk as such by the use of Nepalese SIM cards by Indian villagers.

“It can’t pose any security risk as they are being used for normal calling only. But the government should work towards boosting the connectivity in those areas by installing boosters at mobile towers or new towers.”

The local public representatives including Dharchula MLA Harish Dhami and Almora MP Ajay Tamta under whose constituency the area falls, are also aware of the issue.

Dhami, Congress MLA from Dharchula offered his MLA LAD funds to boost the communication facilities in the area.

“I’m ready to give whatever money required to set up the basic infrastructure for the communication at Indo-Nepal and Indo-China border areas”, he said

Almora MP Ajay Tamta said mobile phone towers will soon be installed in the region. “Public telecom service provider BSNL is conducting a survey in the area keeping the needs of communication facilities. As soon as the survey gets completed, the work of installing towers will be started,” he said.

Vijay Jogdande, district magistrate Pithoragarh said the administration has written to BSNL and even the ministry of defence to take required measures to boost the mobile connectivity.

“The final decision has to be taken by them as installing mobile towers or boosters to improve phone connectivity is their prerogative. Once it is done, we can then maintain it later. Meanwhile, we have provided satellite phones in at least 36 gram panchayats in the border areas to connect to the authorities concerned in case of a disaster or emergency,” said Jogdande.