Trai demand for more powers is absurd

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (Trai’s) wants an amendment in the law so that it is allowed to impose penalties up to Rs 10 crore on mobile operators and imprison their executives for terms up to two years for any violation of the regulatory framework. The regulator’s suggestion for more powers to itself is grossly wrong.

The first and foremost objection relates to the intended overreach of Trai as an institution. Trai is trying to exceed its mandate and brief. According to the regulator’s own website, it came into being in 1997 “to regulate telecom services, including fixation/revision of tariffs for telecom services which were earlier vested in the Central government. Trai’s mission is to create and nurture conditions for growth of telecommunications in the country in a manner and at a pace which will enable India to play a leading role in emerging global information society.”

Further, the website goes on, “one of the main objectives of Trai is to provide a fair and transparent policy environment which promotes a level playing field and facilitates fair competition.”

This is de rigueur for any regulator. But now Trai wants to be more than a regulator. In its recent communication to the Department of Telecom (DoT), it said, “In order to be an effective sector regulator TRAI needs to be statutorily empowered to enforce its direction, orders, regulations as well as terms and conditions of license issued to service providers through imposition of penalties for contravention of such regulations directions, etc.”

It Trai’s request is accepted, it will become something else. It is like the judiciary seeking to make laws and prosecute the accused, the government intending to adjudicate important matters, the legislature seeking to direct government officials; the Trai view militates against the very principles of democracy.

Thankfully, the government has rejected—well, almost rejected—Trai’s recommendation. Telecom Secretary J.S. Deepak told PTI that penal powers cannot be “one and final solution” for call drop. “Business-as-usual cannot happen [after this]. I am not sure penal power will be one and final solution to this. In my personal opinion I do not agree that for every call drop a person has to be sent to jail… It is more sophisticated and more difficult. But we will take a view on what Trai has said.”

He also informed the news agency that mobile operators have committed to install 60,000 towers to improve service quality. “Government believes in the telecom sector. The quality of service must improve and industry has responsibility. They have committed 60,000 towers. Each tower cost about Rs 20 lakh which is around Rs 12,000 crore. The industry will make this investment in next three months,” Deepak said after his first review meeting with industry players.

The second objection to the Trai suggestion is that there are already competent bodies—the DoT, economic offences wings of police departments, other law-enforcement agencies—to initiate penal action against the errant telcos. Why should Trai be so keen to enter into an area in which it has no expertise and for which it has no mandate.

It needs to be mentioned that the Trai suggestion is indicative of the general malaise of the Indian polity, the malaise that is oriented around power. Everybody wants power, and more power—from politicians to bureaucrats, from the Centre to state governments (even the government of not-a-full state Delhi), from regulators to taxmen. Some time ago, the income tax department got powers to seize and search. Often there is talk and demand to further empower the market regulator, Securities & Exchange Board of India (Sebi). In March, Sebi too sought the power to conduct search and seizure operations without needing to first get a court warrant.

Everybody who is somebody in our country wants power, especially the power to prosecute; this makes them important, at least important enough to make the lives of others miserable. And, of course, it opens up enormous opportunities for rent-seeking. After all, extortion is regarded as a perk of holding high office by many people.

The Telecom Secretary has already rejected Trai’s recommendation, though he has called it his “personal view.” Hopefully, his view will become government decision.