TANGLED wires and crossed connections. That sums up the situation inside India's telecommunications industry. The government is getting the blame. For every one step forward, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) seems to be taking two steps back. For nine straight days parliament has ground to a halt and Communications Minister Sukh Ram has faced opposition calls for his resignation as a row over the government's privatisation process escalates. On Friday the Supreme Court put further pressure on Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's government by bringing a temporary halt to its plans to end the state's monopoly over telephones, ordering it not to award any licences to operate basic fixed-line services before January 9. On that date it will announce a final decision on the pleas that have been filed before it by some of the firms adversely affected by the DoT's prevarication. However, the court has allowed the authorities to go ahead with tenders for 13 of the 20 zones that are to be operated by private firms. The first ruling directly affects five licences already finalised, four of which were to go to a consortium led by Himachal Futuristic Communications (HMFC) - the previously nondescript company Mr Ram has been accused of favouring. The imbroglio is certainly a long way from the fanfare of May 1984 when the nation's 'new telecom policy' was unveiled. That policy outlined a plan to throw open the doors of this extremely lucrative sector to private industry and at the same time make a quantum leap in communications in the remaining years of the 20th century. While making basic services more readily available to rural India, which still houses 85 per cent of the country's 880 million population, it sought to introduce value-added services such as cellular phones, pagers and V-Sat to the four biggest cities as well as smaller ones. Today the lines of communication between bureaucrats and a host of multinational players are so twisted that many are wondering when, if at all, the mess will be sorted out. At the centre of this particular spiral of confusion is the DoT, which has repeatedly reversed its decisions and shifted the goalposts. A disgruntled representative of a multinational firm says: 'One is beginning to get the feeling that there may be better places in which to put one's money.' Despite criticising the government for unclear terms and unrealistic financial demands, none of the multinationals have pulled out. The promise of profits-to-be is patently enough to keep them in. Last week's parliamentary shambles pushed Mr Ram into a tight corner following charges of corruption for alleged favouritism towards HMFC, which is based in Mr Ram's home state. In original tenders for basic services, HMFC, in association with Bezeq of Israel and the Shinawatra group of Thailand, bid a massive 850 billion rupees (about HK$215.05 billion) for nine of the country's most lucrative telecommunications areas, known as circles. None of the competing bids came close to the HMFC offers. In some cases, the second-best bids were less than one-third the amount proffered by this little-known company. The basic worry among politicians and the department is whether HMFC can make good on its offer. The company has annual sales of two billion rupees and its collective net worth along with its foreign partners is 40 billion rupees. 'Where are they going to get the money for their projects?' D. Sengupta, adviser at the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India (ICICI), one of the country's leading lending institutions, asked. 'No financial institution is willing to commit money on such an uncertain venture,' he said. Industry circles, including the other 15 bidders, have labelled the HMFC bids variously as frivolous, irresponsible, unbelievable, unrealistic and outrageous. A spokesman on behalf of these bidders said: 'The DoT should ensure that HMFC honours all its commitments, since no other company would like to match the HMFC bid.' Wayne Robbins, president of US West International, said: 'I don't really have words to describe the HMFC bids and would only like to wish them luck, for they will definitely need a lot of it in the coming months.' HMFC seems to have found a few backers. One of them is the international merchant bank Morgan Stanley, which has been appointed the investment banker to help finance the debt and equity part of the venture. Dismissing suggestions that the bids were frivolous, Mahendra Nahata, executive vice-chairman of HMFC, said: 'The bids we have put in are the result of a concerted four-month effort to prepare a business case for each circle. 'I would request my detractors to wait for the dust to settle and then draw their own conclusions.' He admitted he may have made an error of judgment in bidding aggressively for all nine circles, while his competitors bid for one or two. If HMFC is allowed to sign all the licences, it will have to pay 40 billion rupees in the first year. If it is unable to raise the amount, it will forfeit 4.5 billion rupees that it paid as a 'deposit' to the DoT. The government's decision to call for a fresh round of bidding for rights to run basic telecom services in 10 of the 20 telecom circles has attracted maximum flak. This came after the introduction of a cap of three on the number of circles that a company could hold. The condition that accompanied the capping was flawed: that the six circles vacated by HMFC would be thrown open to the next highest bidder only if it matched HMFC's offer. 'Nobody would be crazy enough to match HMFC's bids,' one telecom multinational representative said. 'With the kind of investment it would entail, it would take more than a decade to break even.' With Sukh Ram facing the wrath of the combined opposition in parliament, the indecision is mounting. There is not much time left for companies to make up their minds. Telecom Commission chairman R. K. Takkar said: 'We will give the companies three to four weeks to make up their minds and submit fresh bids.' Once the new bids are in, the commission could take until next year to announce the results. With general elections so close, there is no guarantee that the government will not change the script again.