While all eyes are trained on the war of attrition playing out between India’s telecom operators, another battle has gone less noticed. This struggle, which has dragged on for the better part of two decades, is between the sector’s regulator—Trai, or the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India—and its parent body, India’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT). Trai’s fight is for greater autonomy from its overbearing parent.
At least five Trai chairpersons have written confidential letters to the government highlighting the regulator’s lack of functional autonomy. According to multiple DoT sources, these letters made the case for amendments to the Trai Act of 1997—the legislation that defines the ambit of Trai’s powers.
Trai’s demands range from how it is funded, the rules governing the appointment of its members, and the ability to penalise the telcos it oversees, among other things. Most recently, the issue was discussed in a cabinet meeting six months ago, a former senior Trai official told The Ken.
This push isn’t hard to understand. The Trai Act provides negligible penalisation powers to the regulator, making it hard to truly crack the whip on a space that is already poised precariously on the brink of a duopoly. The regulator also lacks financial autonomy, depending on DoT’s approval for its budget.
Even in hiring, DoT has the final say in matters of employment. This has resulted in three of Trai’s five leadership roles lying vacant. Among these vacant roles is that of a full-time member from a technology background—a crucial requirement in a fast-evolving space. The position has been vacant since 2018, even though the Trai Act states that these positions must be filled within three months of being vacant.
This absence will only be felt more acutely as India readies for the rollout of 5G. With 5G, the lines between telecom and digital tech will blur faster than ever before. Regulating this will require a different skill set—one Trai lacks. Many of its middle managerial and leadership team come from public sector enterprises in telecom or the DoT. They are unlikely to have kept pace with evolving tech.
Despite these very real and pressing problems, DoT has remained unmoved. It hasn’t responded favourably to the proposed amendments even once. Consequently, these proposals never saw light of the day, said multiple Trai officials The Ken spoke with. Trai is a dependent autonomous body—a mere extension of DoT—said a top Trai official.
DoT’s reluctance is born of Trai’s own missteps over the years. The regulator has been criticised criticised The Ken Telecom regulator’s 5-year legacy: unforgettable and unforgivable Read more for, among other things, perceived partiality, the decimation of sectoral revenues, and losses to the exchequer.