Government extends TRAI chief RS Sharma’s tenure amid controversy over his Aadhaar dare

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NEW DELHI: The government on Thursday extended the term of RS Sharma, the high-profile chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), by another two years, a day before he was due to demit office. This is the first time that aTrai chairman has been given a second term since the inception of the authority in 1997.

“The Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) has approved the re-appointment of Ram Sewak Sharma as chairperson, Trai, for a further period beyond 10.8. 2018 up to 30.09.2020 i.e. the date on which he attains the age of 65 or until further orders whichever is earlier,” a notification issued by the Department of Personnel and training (DoPT) said on Thursday. Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents all major telcos, was guarded in its response.

COAI Director-General Rajan Mathews said that mobile phone operators hope “the Trai chairman articulates his major focus areas over the next two years for the industry to look forward to a predictable and stable regulatory environment which is essential for growth and to attract investments”. Sharma, a1978 batch (retired) IAS officer of Jharkhand cadre, who was recently in the news for his ‘Aadhaar challenge’ had assumed office on August 10, 2015.

During his three-year tenure as Trai chairman, voice calls became almost free and data tariffs crashed to all-time lows. Under his watch, Trai also ushered in a host of regulations, ranging from formulating strong rules to back net neutrality and tightening norms around quality of services as well as around checking pesky calls to controversial ones such as mandating telcos to compensate users for call drops and the predatory pricing tariff order.

“Re-appointment of a Trai chairman is unprecedented, but given the complexity of the Telecom market and the regulatory regime, continuity always helps, especially at a time when India is implementing a new Telecom policy and mulling the first 5G spectrum auction,” said Telecom industry veteran Sandip Das. Sharma’s first term coincided with the entry of Reliance Jio Infocomm in September 2016 with free voice and data offers, triggering the bitterest of fights between the Mukesh Ambani-controlled 4G newcomer and the older carriers — Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and Idea cellular — in the market-place, and off it.

The older operators were often at loggerheads with Sharma over a variety of issues, many of whom are still pending in courts or with the Telecom Disputes Settlement & Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT).

The earliest skirmish was over the regulator’s move to force telcos to compensate users for call drops. COAI challenged this order in the Supreme Court and it was struck down by the apex court. There were numerous other battles too between them over the regulator levying penalties on the three older telcos for denying Jio points of interconnection, giving a clean chit to Jio’s promotional offers, proposing sharp cuts in local and international termination charges, as well as over the latest tariff order which changed the definition of significant market power needed to identify predatory pricing.

While all these issues prompted India’s incumbent carriers to level allegations of bias, Sharma steadfastly defended himself and Trai on the grounds that all were taken in the interest of the consumers. India is now one of the cheapest voice and data markets in the world. On the flip side, all the older operators are making losses because of the bruising tariff wars and some such as Telenor, Maxis-owned Aircel, Reliance Communications and the Tatas have exited the Telecom sector.

“The incumbent operators would be disappointed (by the reappointment) as they have consistently disapproved of Sharma’s approach to call drops, spectrum pricing, content, net neutrality and data privacy amongst others. Given the acute challenges facing the Telecom industry, it would have been worth bringing someone from outside of the bureaucracy,” Mahesh Uppal, director, ComFirst (India) told ET.

Sharma,an MSc in Mathematics from IIT, Kanpur and a PhD from IIT, Delhi, has developed a reputation in government circles for being more of a technocrat and less of a bureaucrat. Prior to becoming the Trai chairman, he served as the IT secretary. Before that he was the director general of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) and was part of Nandan Nilekani’s core team that implemented the ambitious Aadhaar project.

It was his close association with UIDAI that prompted him to disclose his 12-digit Aadhaar number recently on twitter and challenge people to show how the mere disclosure of this number could harm him. While he was heavily trolled for this, Sharma said no one had been able to discover any information about him because of the disclosure of his Aadhaar number

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