New Delhi: Telecom regulator chairman Ram Sewak Sharma, who was set to retire on Thursday, was re-appointed by a government order for another two years.
The government notification stated that the appointments committee of the cabinet had “approved reappointment of Sharma” as chairperson of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) for a further period beyond August 10, 2018 up to September 30,2020.
Sharma, who joined the civil services in 1978, has dealt with technology-related programmes of the government in various departments. His role in India’s e-governance agenda was cemented when he joined the Unique Identification Authority of India in 2009 as its director general and mission director. People familiar with the subject note that he even personally helped out in writing the first version of the software used for Aadhaar enrolment.
As the chairman of TRAI, Sharma was quickly thrust into several important policy struggles that eventually shaped India’s telecom ecosystem: the net neutrality debate, the regulatory battle set off by Reliance Jio and its crippling effects on the health of the industry, and a series of discussion papers that looked at future technologies.
Critics and supporters have hailed many of TRAI’s decisions under Sharma as being consumer-focused, particularly with regard to net neutrality. Others, however, have raised questions over policy moves taken with regard to Reliance Jio.
“This is not the way to conduct debate or conduct your opinions. It is not correct… it certainly hurts,” he told PTI in an interview in September 2017, with regard to allegations of favouritism levied by the incumbent telecom lobby. “We welcome constructive criticism. It is a free country. People have the right to their views. But some criticisms have gone beyond normal criticism. They have questioned the honesty and integrity of the authority and individuals who are part of authority,” he had then said.
In recent times, policy analysts and industry executives have criticised the regulator for over-reach. In March 2018, Cellular Operators Association of India head Rajan Mathews described this regulatory uncertainty and Sharma’s penchant for issuing proposals to examine old rules and regulations.
“We have never seen so many discussion papers under any regulator…issues that are even outside its ambit. I keep getting calls from nervous investors to explain what is going on,” Mathews told the business newspaper Mint.
Sharma has been an outspoken bureaucrat and has shown a number of times he still has a personal, if not professional, stake in ensuring the success of Aadhaar. In recent weeks, he thrust himself into a debate over whether disclosing an Aadhaar number could lead to security issues. He made public his own Aadhaar number and issued an open challenge to India’s security and hacking community, daring them to cause any harm with the biometric authentication number.
This challenge attracted much criticism because the Aadhaar Act prohibits the disclosure of anyone’s Aadhaar number. The UIDAI in the past itself has discouraged this practice.
As critics noted, while Sharma may not have experienced any direct harm, his challenge was oblivious to the security loopholes in the larger UIDAI ecosystem and had the effect of brushing the very real problems with Aadhaar under the rug.
Writing in the Indian Express last week, Sharma later expressed a tinge of regret.“Having devoted an important part of my life to contributing to the design and implementation of Aadhaar, I do understand how it works and what can and cannot be done with it…While I did reveal my own number, I am not suggesting for a moment that any of you could also publicly share your Aadhaar number. Far from it,” Sharma wrote after the Twitter controversy.
PMO, DPA roles?
Over the last few month, in Delhi’s policy circles, buzz suggested that Sharma would be moved to the Prime Minister’s Office – his equation with principal secretary Nripendra Misra (who himself is a former TRAI chairman) is said to be solid. Other circulating rumours indicated that Sharma would find himself as being appointed as the new head of India’s data protection authority; such a body has been proposed in the draft Srikrishna committee Bill.
It appears that for now, the Modi government wants him right where he is.