You can stand up to ministers

Written by Rishi Raj | Sunil Jain | Updated: Nov 18 2010, 04:41am hrs
So why did Dr JS Sarma leave the telecom appellate tribunal (Tdsat) to move one step down to become the Trai chief, the body whose recommendations he sat in judgement upon while at the Tdsat, indeed trashed just before he move to Trai last May. Did his recommendation of putting a cap on the number of telecom service providers end up benefiting ex-minister A Raja who was facing flak in the STel matter in the Supreme Court Why did he talk of taking back the 800 MHz spectrum from users once the licence period gets over (refarming, in jargon, since the spectrum is to be then used for 3G services), or even talk of a 2G vs 3G pricing (2G spectrum in the 800 MHz band to be valued at 1.5 times 3G spectrum) when he hadnt even done a consultation on it the questions keep piling up, so a lunch with Sarma is long overdue.

We meet at the favourite of Delhis bureaucracy, the IIC, where theres a bit of a mix-up; we SMS Sarma to say well be 15 minutes late, but arrive at the original time, and then end up keeping him waiting a bit since the dining hall has at least three bureaucrats/ex-bureaucrats who have stories to give. Sarma is nice about it, even offers to share his vegetable au gratin with us [he makes a crack about how there are two types of vegetarians, veg hee (only vegetarian) and veg bhee (also vegetarian)] though we cant return the favour with our grilled fish. This is after weve torn into him, over soup, asking him whether he has gone out of his way to help Raja. None of this fazes Sarma who answers everything, not entirely to our satisfaction, and is smart enough to go one betterhe dishes out stories to distract us!

On his relationship with Raja, Sarma says the government cannot be seen as a pariah and, as in the case of all stakeholders, it is his job to take into account its views as well. Being civil, he says with an old world charm, isnt quite the same thing as being subservientin case we dont get it, he says were entitled to our views, but that doesnt mean hell stop talking to us.

So, wasnt the Tdsat judgement he wrote, we ask, completely gratuitous when it said Trai should never have come up with a no-cap policy; and didnt he allow Raja an out when, as Trai chief, he recommended a cap (After STel won its case, the Supreme Court said the government would have to give it a licence, so Trai wanting to cap the number of telecom operators would help Raja). Sarma refuses to acknowledge he wrote the judgement, saying there were two others on the panel. As for his Trai recommendation, he says this very specifically said it applied only to new applicants, not to the STels of the world; as for its being faulty, he says the judgement gave reasons for why it said what it did. Whether we agree or not with the logic is a different matter. In fact, he adds that it is not right for him to discuss a judgement as thats not the practice.

On his throwing the industry into a tizzy when, at Geneva last year in September, he said telcos should offer one-second pulse plans (this saw share prices crash as this would lower telecom rates, which were already so low that, realistically speaking, they had no place to go), Sarma insists he just wanted this to be an option. It didnt have to be the only option. Why talk of how the extra spectrum would be priced at the 3G rates when there hadnt even been a consultation on thisunder the original licence, telcos were allowed only 6.2 MHz of spectrum, but got more after the government notified a subscriber-linked spectrum policy from time to time. Sarma insists, unconvincingly, that he said very clearly there would be a fuller consultation. A statement like that, Sarma is canny enough to know, is enough to distract most journalists, and so we switch track and try to get details of the consultation (its almost over, were told, but the one on taking back 2G spectrum after the initial licence period is not yet complete).

Is there no way that bureaucrats can resist pressure, we ask in the context of telecom secretaries mostly doing what Raja wanted After all, Siddharth Behura signed the files granting the individual licences and current incumbent R Chandrasekhar wrote to CAG saying the law ministry had opined that CAG had no locus standi in the matter. Sarma has been around too long to fall for this, and says he doesnt know the specifics of the case though he had read FE on the subject. On a general note, he says, there are enough checks in the systemeven if a minister overrules him/her, a secretary is entitled to circulate the file for comments all over again, for instance. What if the minister still insists I have found that if you make your argument logically, he says by way of reply, ministers tend to understand. Not quite. Since, when DS Mathur refused to do Rajas bidding, Raja simply ensured the file got cleared when Mathur was out of town. But we get the point Sarmas making.

Isnt it strange, we ask, that while CAG says theres a huge scandal in the way the licences were awarded and this caused a huge loss to the exchequer, he does nothing as a regulator How can he, comes the expected rebuttal, when he has no powers I have only recommendatory powers, he says. So why dont you recommend I am going to, he says. Were examining the data to see which of the new licensees have defaulted and which havent. While some firms say theyve started services, this data needs to be verified, to see if they actually have base transmitting stations on the ground. What if the government doesnt accept his recommendation, we ask. Thats a possibility, but then it will have to explain why it never accepted the recommendations. Given the circumstances, thats the understatement of the yearit also underscores his point about re-circulating the file if the minister doesnt agree; it just makes life that much more difficult for the minister.

We talk of the lacunae in Trai law. It doesnt have the power to enforce even the limited powers it has. So if, for instance, a cable TV firm doesnt do what Trai says, it can only go to a local magistrates court and file a case. Other regulators have the powers to enforce their writ, so hes written to the government asking for such powers.

We move on to how the ailing BSNL can be fixed. Article 12 of the Constitution, which treats PSUs as instrumentality of state, is a huge problem and then theres the issue of oversightDelhi Metro is also a government undertaking but the level of oversight there compared to BSNL is a lot less. On the government agreeing to increase his tenure from 3 years to 5, he says, Thats a decision I dont have to take, so Im not concerned. Whether thats true or not, it sums up Sarma pretty well: dont worry too much about things you cant do much about. It is what he can do though, once the consultations on pricing of the extra 2G spectrum and on refarming are over, that is worrying industry for now. Big time.