M D NalapatFriday, April 17, 2015 - As is the norm in India with state agencies, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has been the preserve of bureaucrats serving and retired, many of whom have functioned not on behalf of the consumers they are supposed to protect but Big Business. Internet penetration in India is among the lowest in Asia in percentage terms, placing this country in the same dismal league as Afghanistan. Bandwidth is low and speeds are so slow that most downloads are impossible. In such a situation, it would have been expected of TRAI that it ensured universal access to the internet and made the same free of cost or at a very low cost.
Such a development would empower tens of millions of ordinary citizens - or “netizens” as those using the world wide web are called - and boost the country’s productivity and hence GDP. However, should the curbs on net usage now seen in India persist into the future, such growth would be absent and the country would continue to have the doubtful distinction of having more people without internet access than such unfortunates in the rest of Asia combined. The reason for such a dismal state of affairs was evident when TRAI released a “discussion paper” which in effect would choke access to the internet for hundreds of millions rather than open out the system to more. However, this time around, netizens refused to accept such absurd suggestions supinely, and mobilized to protest. The Telecom Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, who comes from a wealthy family, is now in a dilemma: whether to disappoint the big telecom companies who want access to the internet to be controlled by them, or ensure “net neutrality” in India,whereby any site can be freely accessed through a portal. When battling to first emerge as the Prime Ministerial nominee of the BJP and subsequently to gain a majority for his party in the Lok Sabha (House of the People), Narendra Modi had on his side an army of netizens who flooded websites with complimentary references to him and adverse mentions of his Congress rivals, notably Sonia Gandhi. These millions of motivated individuals will be hoping — indeed expecting — that Prime Minister Modi will rein in the Big Business lobbies within his team, and ensure both that the internet spreads to the nine hundred million citizens without useful access to the system as well as ensure increased bandwidth at reduced cost.
However, rather than a person who understands technology and the power of the internet, the Prime Minister chose a lawyer as the Telecom Minister, with an inevitable bias towards regulation. It was Ravi Shankar Prasad who ensured, for example, that the Modi government followed the line of Manmohan Singh by defending the notorious Article 66A of the Internet Act, which gave powers of arrest to any policeman on the most flimsy of grounds. Fortunately for the prospect of democracy in the country, this provision was struck down by the Supreme Court. Of course, Prasad is reportedly planning to bring into force a new law which would fill in the gap in untrammelled state power caused by the string down of 66A. Prime Minister Modi has total faith in the bureaucracy, and he has continued with the time-worn practice of giving bureaucrats and ex-bureaucrats a near-monopoly in top positions. Posts that in other countries are usually filled from those in Civil Society, not the Civil Service. For example, there are only bureaucrats in a committee the Prime Minister has set up to “review” the Official Secrets Act, that graveyard of facts inconvenient to those in power. Not a single representative from Civil Society finds a mention in such a committee, despite the obvious interest of the citizen in ensuring that the British-era fetish of secrecy get replaced with a more 21st century construct.
At present, within the portals of government, secrecy is the norm and disclosure the exception, whereas the reverse ought to be the case. Rather than “Make in India”, what is being seen in a flurry of contracts awarded to countries and companies across the globe is “Make for India”. Any visitor to Silicon Valley would note that close to a third of the companies functioning there are run by individuals of Indian origin. Why is it that, despite such talent, India has been unable to come up with a challenger to Google or to Facebook? Why has India not been able to follow the lead given by China, which has its own versions of Twitter and Facebook? Instead, the effort within a section of the bureaucracy (which coincidentally has several of its offspring working abroad and many in the very platforms which have a monopoly within India) is to drive away any chance of a domestic competitor to platforms from abroad.
Whether it be the Zuckerbergs of Facebook or the Gates of Microsoft,what they are really interested in is cash,lots of it,as well as the promotion of the interests of big corporates in the US through “charitable” programmes such as those involving vaccines (of course manufactured by huge pharma companies charging extortionate prices). The tens of millions who backed Narendra Modi over others in 2014 are still hopeful that the Prime Minister of India will finally implement what he promised, and ensure both Net Neutrality as well as universal internet access for a country that has 300 million destitutes and 900 million without effective access to the internet. For this, he will need to involve within his government those who are expert in the field, rather than in bureaucratic procedures and with the framing of regulation upon regulation.
Modi will need to bring to TRAI and other such agencies those with a record of fighting for the ordinary citizen rather than promoting the interests of Big Business, especially foreign monopolies eager to lock out domestic competition from the growing market in India. As it is, steps such as Aadhar are making data on citizens vulnerable to external interests, while within the country, platforms hosted from outside have close to a monopoly in coverage. Unless the telecom authorities ensure that Net Neutrality is promoted and protrude rather than cast aside, India’s immense potential will go unrealised. Faster access to the internet at low or zero costs would boost productivity and therefore production in such a significant manner that taxes - even if at low rates - would jump upwards as they do in every country with fast rates of growth.
Ufortunately, all that bureaucrats seek is control, control and more control, for they know that there exists a direct correlation between such regressive steps and the bribes they covet. Thus far, the record of the Modi government has been as dismal as that of its predecessor. However, many are looking towards the day when the Prime Minister “walks the talk” and delivers the 21st century system of governance he promised voters in 2014.