The magazine India Today, in a cover story on the system, put it somewhat differently: "The truth of the matter is that the world's worst telephone system is also the world's most profitable."
Until last January, the telephone system was run by the same ministry that ran the money-losing postal system, and its profits were used to support the mails. Now the two are separated, and the government recently permitted the Delhi and Bombay branches of the phone system to sell bonds to raise money for improvements. The bonds--the first of them are to go on sale this fall--will pay an interest rate of 14%, and 10% of that will be tax-free.
Moreover, the telephone system has caught the eye of foreign investors, who are encouraged by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's relatively open attitude toward foreign investment. Beginning Sept. 5, a U.S. trade delegation that includes senior officers from 12 communications companies, including AT&T, Southern Bell, Rockwell, Comsat and ITT, will visit India for two weeks to look into direct sales and joint ventures.
According to phone company statistics, Indian telephones break down about once every three months. Repairmen are regular visitors at private homes.
Foreign residents quickly become accustomed to visits from smiling repairmen on the holidays--Hindu holidays, Muslim holidays, even Christian holidays. Holiday tips are a way of life. Failure to tip can result in mysteriously disrupted service. But overtipping can have drawbacks too, as an American learned after being visited by seven unsolicited repairmen in a single weekend.
As cartoonist Enver Ahmed's phone buzzes and chimes with callers for the Punjab State Bank, the phone company has responded not by dealing with the problem but by publishing what amounts to an anthology of his comic strips.
"You have to have a sense of humor," said P.K. Roychoudhury, a deputy director of the Ministry of Telecommunications.
Sangal, the ministry chief secretary, agreed. At his office, decorated with photographs of prime ministers and national heroes chatting on the telephone, he showed a visitor another cartoonist attack on the company, this one by The Times of India's R.K. Laxman.
It shows Prime Minister Gandhi at an exhibition of scientific wonders, peering into a display case that contains a telephone.
"It is a working model," his guide is explaining.
Sangal said: "The P.M. gave me that one. Of course, I already had it."