The main reason why the telecom sector has been a policy mess for the last decade is that our policy governance structure is fatally flawed. A healthy sector is predicated upon coherent and fair policies, which in turn are derived from defined principles and objectives. These can happen only if policy-making resides in a body with the requisite expertise and character.
In the last decade, we have sometimes been blessed to find expertise and character come together, usually it has been the one or the other, and often both have been conspicuously missing. This is an unfortunate but inescapable outcome of our policy governance model. Unless we address the root cause, our next decade will be as bleak as the last. While we are in an emergency, mere Band-Aids will only deepen the mess.
Telecom is not rocket science. Yet, policy making in telecom, because of its unique features of inter-connect issues, spectrum issues, and technology change, challenge even formidable minds. Seniority is not a substitute for expertise. The Union Cabinet may be made up of very senior persons. But the majority of them would not know a radio wave from a radio jockey. They are not supposed to, that is not their job. We should not kid ourselves that if our policy is directed from the Union Cabinet or the judiciary, it will solve our problem.
Telecom Ministry in our country is an anachronism. No other advanced jurisdiction has the equivalent of what we have, and for obvious reasons. The first thing we should do is draw up a time-table to shrink the role of the Telecom Ministry. It should be restricted to sovereign and national security matters and interfaces with other departments for development projects.
All advanced telecom jurisdictions, like the US and the UK, which spearheaded telecom privatisation, have telecom policy flowing directly from the Regulator. The R in our TRAI stands for Regulatory, and A for Authority. Actually, it does neither. The regulations are drawn by some other body, and the TRAI carries no authority. The name of the body itself defines what it is supposed to be, alas, it is not. So, we need a re-enactment of the TRAI Act. Just as there is a demand to snip the umbilical cord between the CBI and the Home Ministry, there is even greater merit in severing the umbilical cord of the TRAI (and the TDSAT) from the Telecom Ministry. The finances, salaries, appointments, and talent pool need an overhaul, to make these constitutional bodies truly independent and world class.
How can the short-term emergency be married to a long-term vision. The SC order has tossed the ball to the TRAI and the government, without providing them the luxury of time. Both these bodies are also burdened by certain infirm positions taken in the past, some before the courts, which they feel obliged to defend. One smart option for the PM would be to quickly appoint three eminent non-governmental persons, a la Satyam, as additional members of the TRAI for a limited 12-month period (names like Kiran Karnik, Prof. Rekha Jain, B.K. Zutshi being only illustrative).This will provide strength and latitude to the TRAI, and also a buffer against criticism, while the reinforced TRAI goes about embedding short-term solutions into a robust long-term policy and governance structure. (The author is the former CEO of a telecom company)
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(This story appears in the 02 March, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)