This is fast beginning to resemble a punch and Judy show. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), theoretically at least, are supposed to work in tandem to govern, improve and regulate telecom and allied services in the country. But just look at their track records—these two bodies spend more time fighting wars to protect, or increase, their turfs, than on managing the sizzling growth in the country’s telecom industry. This only serves to hold back the sector.Over the last month alone, they have locked horns over fees for renewing the licences of existing operators, over number portability and over the bids for 3G licences. The origin of the obvious animus that exists between DoT and TRAI is not difficult to fathom.
The former—which is required to set the policy guidelines that govern “telegraph, telephone, wireless, data, facsimile and telematic services and other like forms of communications”—has long been used to treating the telecommunications space as its captive turf. So, it is reluctant to cede any authority to the regulator, whom it views as an interloper.
TRAI, on the other hand, has to “ensure that the interests of consumers are protected and, at the same time, has to nurture conditions for the growth of telecommunications, broadcasting and cable services in a manner and at a pace that will enable India to play a leading role in the emerging global information society”. It is, thus, evident that the root of their conflict lies in the blurred demarcation between their roles. In the absence of a consensus on interpreting the rules, such turf wars become inevitable.
The way out, obviously, is to clearly define the roles of both DoT and TRAI. Then, the latter must be given far greater authority than it now enjoys. In the US, for example, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an independent body with a clearly defined writ. Even in India, other regulators— like the Reserve Bank of India for the banking and non-banking financial services sectors and the Securities and Exchange Board of India for stock market-related issues—are independent of and can issue directions to the administrative departments whose domains they regulate.
That is the kind of authority that TRAI needs to have to be able to fulfill its mandate. But the government, and the politicians and bureaucrats who run it, obviously, have other ideas. How else can one explain this duality of authority in a sector so critical to India’s growth? Our appeal to the government: cut the red tape and do the right thing. It’s too important an issue to ignore.