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July 28, 1997


N Vittal

Techno Politics

Any issue that affects a large number of people becomes a political issue. In a democracy as large as ours, every issue can be made into a political issue.

When it comes to economic concerns we find that in the developed countries such matters are, by and large, tackled in a non-political framework.

Even in such countries, there may be cases where economic issues ultimately become political issues. For instance, the growth of the European Union is a classic example of how economic compulsions in the post Second World War period led to a group of countries in Europe to set up a framework for better coordination among themselves. Any major issue before the European Union has led to a political debate among the participating countries.

Major economic matters which affect a large number of people will ultimately be decided through political consultations.

Nevertheless, economic development can be depoliticised when there is an alternative framework to take care of public interest.

It is in this context that regulatory authorities and legal frameworks become significant. Independent non-political structures and frameworks built for regulating economic decision making can considerably reduce the influence of politics.

In India's telecommunications sector, the National Telecom Policy, announced in 1994, takes a step towards introduction of market dynamics in monopolistic public utilities. The setting up of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India was a major step taken by the government to ensure that the development of the telecommunications sector is not hampered by political vicissitudes.

The TRAI has begun well with its landmark decision in the first case referred to it regarding the Department of Telecommunications' unilateral steep increase in the tariff for cellular phones.

Considering the fact that we are a mature political democracy and also the compulsion that we must feel for developing the telecom sector, I would suggest the following strategy for reducing the influence of politics in matters of technology:

  1. That TRAI should be made more effective and powerful. Two major areas today are outside the purview of the TRAI. The first is regarding issuance and cancellation of licences under the Telegraph Act. The second is the management of the radio frequency spectrum. The powers for both these must be given to the TRAI. Otherwise, there would be an expensive delay in creating a level playing field for government and private players.
  2. On December 31, 1993, the Telecom Commission suggested that the Department of Telecommunications be restructured into four corporations. In my view, unless this is done, we are not going to see a level playing field among telecom service providers in India. I wonder if this issue can be agitated before the TRAI and the government forced to expedite the process to begin the restructuring. In 1994 it was purely a political decision which threw out the recommendations of the Telecom Commission. Now, with the setting up of the TRAI, I wonder whether the political element in decision making regarding restructuring of DoT can be partly influenced by the directives, if any, from the TRAI. I am fully aware of the fact that because of Section 25 of the TRAI Act, the government can still refuse to go by the recommendation of the TRAI for restructuring on the grounds that this is a matter of policy. That is why the issue of licence and interconnect agreements must be agitated before the TRAI and a decision sought instead of taking recourse to politics straight away.
  3. In the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah, the superhuman strength of Samson was because of his hair. The moment Delilah cut Samson's hair, he became powerless. For DoT, Samson's hair is Section 4 of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885. If the Supreme Court, in the light of the Hero Cup case decision, gives a clear ruling that Section 4 of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, is ultra vires, Article 19 of the Constitution, DoT's locks, would be cut. The major issues clouding the growth of the telecom industry like the growth of the Internet, basic telecom services etc will disappear. But this may be possible only if a public interest litigation is filed. No one seems to be in a mood to do this. Incidentally, such a development will also depoliticised further the process of telecom reforms.
  4. There are a set of issues relating to the growth of telecom where the finance ministry is involved. The finance ministry has, by and large, been leading the reforms process and it should be possible to get the requisite concessions so far as the growth of the telecom sector is concerned. There seems to be a political realisation of the significance of telecom as an infrastructure for economic growth and to make the liberal policies of the government a success. Perhaps we will not have the problem of the political process coming in the way of finance ministry related decisions affecting the growth of the telecom sector.
  5. There will still be large areas where political support becomes necessary to get a policy decision to promote the telecom sector. The industry will have to learn to project each proposal in terms of how it is useful in tackling national interest or contribute to the growth of the economy. Above all, every proposal must be projected in terms of how it will benefit the poor, the rural areas and the weaker sections of the population. Political debate today is determined at the popular level by these parameters. The telecom industry must learn to link its proposals with these common denominators of politics. If they succeed in doing this, getting political support will become easier. The tragedy is that the telecom sector is dominated by urban, English speaking Westernised elite. They will have to learn to talk in the desi (rustic country) idiom. If we can establish a nexus between the economy and political decisions corresponding to benefits to the poor, there is a greater chance of influencing the political decision making.

Will the Indian telecom industry learn these lessons and implement a strategy? Business is a win-win exercise. The telecom industry knows its part of the win formula. It must learn what constitutes the political part of the win formula.

Previous columns: Critical mass | T.R.a.I | Santa Clause 11(2) | The Broadcasting Bill | The death of distance | S.O.S, getting the message out of the bottle | Force 7 from FICCI | Of railroads and info highways

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