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A Tale of Tangled Lines

Whither Accountability?

T R Raghunandan (trraghu2014@gmail.com) is a former civil servant and adviser to the Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

A Bureaucrat Fights Back: The Complete Story of Indian Reforms by Pradip Baijal, Noida: HarperCollins, 2016; pp xvi +366, ₹ 499.

A Bureaucrat Fights Back, authored by Pradip Baijal, a former civil servant who served as the chairperson of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) during a critical period of its existence, claims to tell the reader the “complete story of Indian reforms.” That is an ambitious and bold promise for an author to make; however, the competency of the author to follow-up and deliver on such vast intentions cannot be doubted. He was a distinguished member of the Indian Administrative Service and held several important positions, eventually culminating in his ascent to the chairpersonship of the TRAI. Earlier, the author served in the Ministry of Power as additional secretary, and then as secretary in the Department of Disinvestment (now the Department of Investment and Public Asset Management [DIPAM]). With this rich experience under his belt, if he cannot tell us the story of Indian reforms, few others can.

The book is rich in detail. Part I relates the reforms story in the telecom sector, Part II contrasts the success of telecom sector reforms with the lack of it in the power sector and describes the successes of the disinvestment sector. In all of these, the author was a critical player and saw plenty. Part IV traverses the history of market reforms, disinvestments, opening of sectors, de-licencing, and privatisation. In Part V, the author speaks of his early years in service, relating how his administrative experience evolved and why he was drawn to the idea of liberalisation and privatisation. The book, therefore, fills a vital gap in the understanding of the reforms process for the average reader. The only fault, if any, is that of form rather than content. The back-and-forth nature of the text and the wealth of detail combine to ensure that the reader’s attention ought not to falter.

Yet, one feels a disquiet in the combative nature of the title. Why should a bureaucrat fight back if there is a general consensus that the nation must move forward on liberalisation? The tone for the overall nature of the book as a defence of the author’s actions, particularly after his tenure as the chairperson of TRAI, is set in the preface. The author reflects upon the dynamics of reform processes and how a reformer is often caught in the trap of either choosing inaction for their own safety or to choose to be decisive and face the risk of having their motives and tactics questioned.

Reforms in the Telecom Sector

Part i of the book takes up the telecom sector as a case study of the typical dilemmas faced by a regulator. The author’s depth of knowledge is revealed through his narration of the reforms that led to the explosion of telephone connectivity in India. Chapter 1, “The History of Telecom, Corruption and Politics,” makes not more than a cursory reference to the latter two matters. However, that is more than redeemed by the depth of detail in Chapter 2, “India’s Unusual Telecom Growth.” This chapter is the backbone of the book; its raison d’être. The author not only details the statistics of the growth, but also explains the dilemmas and choices faced by regulators in the face of fast-changing, high-potential technologies knocking at the doors of India.

By way of background, the author explains that in furtherance of the National Telecom Policy, 1994 that enabled the entry of private sector players, bids submitted by them were too high to make telecom services affordable. The government capped the number of licences issued to each bidder to just three, thus promoting competition, but reduced the earning of revenues from the bids. For several reasons that the author documents, which include stabilisation of the regulatory regime comprising the TRAI and the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal, these reforms did not accelerate the growth of telecom services provision. It was the policy of 2003 that introduced Unified Access Services Licencing (UASL) on the basis of the TRAI’s recommendations under the author’s leadership, that led to the exponential growth in the sector.

The TRAI’s recommendations were to introduce a “unified licencing regime” for all telecom services, with UASL to be implemented in each circle first, as a transitional measure. UASL threw open access of players into all areas in the country, thus freeing the sector from service area monopolies. Even though the unified licensing regime was not implemented, the UASL policy pursued by the government catalysed the explosive growth of telecom services. As the author goes back and forth in time to explain details, the reader may need a notepad to write down the sequence of what happened in that period. That is a necessary investment to understand the crux of the allegations against the author when the 2G scam broke out, long after he demitted office as the chairperson of TRAI, and his defence when the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) turned its cold gaze on him.

From Chapter 2 onwards, the author focuses on addressing the primary purpose of the book: to fight back allegations of irregularities. Following an absorbing description of how policy decisions evolved, the author makes a comprehensive and convincing defence of his decisions, as exemplified in two instances. The first is the policy of “first come, first served,” which was what got the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)–II government into deep trouble. When the 2G scam broke out, the main defence of Dayanidhi Maran and A Raja—union ministers of telecom who were under the scanner for corruption in handing out licences on a first come, first served basis—was that they were following precedent. The Baijal-led TRAI had recommended exactly the same thing, they said. The author points out that this policy was a prudent way of dealing with technology options that were fast evolving in the early 2000s, and that in any case, the policy had been adopted before his time.

The second example is that of “universal access;” the author explains convincingly that the approach to do so was backed by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) cabinet in December 2003 and that the TRAI’s recommendations in this regard catalysed the enviable, steep growth in telecom services, which earned kudos worldwide. The author’s explanation of the modalities of migration of existing “basic licence holders” to the UASL regime is comprehensive. Several passages have to be read repeatedly, but any reader would be convinced of the assertions of the author that both the migration of the existing basic licences and the granting of new UASLs did not favour any party, though some of the late entrants into the game, such as Tata Teleservices, attempted to catch up through the UASL route with other
early birds.

Defence against 2G Allegations

Matters got hot for the author when the CBI turned the scanner on him in the wake of the 2G scam. Raja, the principal accused in the scam, alleged that his actions in 2008 were driven by the recommendations of the TRAI in 2003. While that charge was easily refuted, the more difficult matter to counter was the observation of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), which stated, 

The DOT’s (Department of Telecommunications) action of applying the rates approved for existing operators for migrating to (the) UAS regime, to new applications also, by relying on the clarifications of the Chairman TRAI in his individual capacity was inconsistent with the recommendations of the TRAI (2003) and went beyond the authority given by the Cabinet. (p 57)1

The sole evidence to substantiate this matter is a letter written by the author to the secretary of the DOT, dated 14 November 2003 (reproduced in full on page 59 of the book), in which he interprets and clarifies the recommendations made by the TRAI, in response to a telephone conversation with the latter. In Chapter 3, “The TRAI Cases,” the author demolishes this observation of the CAG, by stating out that his clarification was ratified by the entire TRAI body and was not his individual opinion. The author asserts that the files concerned in the TRAI, which include the minutes of the meeting in which the body ratified his actions, were deliberately “lost” in order to nail him to the cross. It was only his presence of mind of having kept copies of these records in his personal papers that saved him from further action.

There is nothing that can be faulted in the author’s assertion. Though he was put to considerable hardship by the CBI enquiry and raids, the investigating agency did not file a first information report (FIR) on him, convinced of his explanation for the seeming transgression of the cabinet decision on UASLs.

There are two kinds of officers who get into undeserved trouble and face consequences for their decisive actions. The first are those who walk the straight and narrow path, aloof from politicians and pressures, and oblivious of the happenings around them. They work with the firm belief that everybody around them, including the corrupt, are bound by rules of fair play and decency, and that some deep-felt pangs of conscience will prevent them from delivering fatal and undeserved blows to the honest. Such officers are particularly vulnerable when in trouble, because they have no godfathers and no defence mechanisms in case they are subsequently framed for irregularities not committed by them. The case study of Shyamal Ghosh presented by the author and the recent instance of H C Gupta, former coal secretary now languishing in jail, are cases in point. The other kind of officer who gets into trouble has friends in high places, including politicians of all ideologies. It is this insurance, which they buy early in their careers, that enables them to move into the right jobs. Once placed there, their competence carries the day; and the reassuring presence of influential people to whom they can go in case trouble breaks out, gives them the confidence to be decisive. In all fairness, the integrity of such officers cannot be ipso facto questioned simply because of their connections with politicians in high places.

A reading of the book makes it clear that the author fits more into the second category than the first. His competence in decision-making is clear even to his detractors, and he also makes no bones about the fact that he has relied on support from erstwhile political bosses, most of them from the NDA-I era, to fight investigations against him. His dislike of the ministers and the Prime Minister of the UPA decade is open; he accuses them of sighting him in the cross hairs when they trained their guns on political rivals in the NDA-I, as also aiming, speciously, to use his legitimate decisions in the TRAI as alibis for their corrupt actions. While the CBI did not culminate the investigation against the author with an FIR filed against him, the case against Maran, Raja, and their political partner, M K Kanimozhi, is under trial.

Conflict of Interest

Is the author’s innocence irrefutable, or is he a smart, meticulous man who walked on the edge and got away because he covered his tracks well? The one matter that arguably weakens the author’s claims of complete impartiality is that following the expiry of the year-long moratorium on employment after the chairpersonship of the TRAI, he joined Niira Radia’s consultancy firm, Noesis, as a consultant. The CBI’s hypothesis was that the author’s actions as TRAI chairperson favoured the Tatas and that his joining Radia’s firm, which consulted with the Tatas, reeked of conflict of interest. The author has vigorously addressed these allegations of quid pro quo citing four reasons; first, that he joined Noesis after the one-year “cooling-off” period; second, that most telecom regulators worked as consultants after retirement; third, that it was only a part-time consultancy and that he was also a consultant with international agencies; and fourth, that he had resigned from the position of adviser to the Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board (PNGRB), a government body, as it would have been a conflict of interest to have served in that body after having joined Noesis. In fact, the author says that the only taped conversation in the infamous Radia tapes featuring him is the one where he informs Radia of his decision to quit the PNGRB position.

However, to the unbiased reader, the assertions of the author have an amoral ring to it. One does not doubt the author’s word when he says that he was not barred from taking up private employment and that he did so after the cooling-off period. The author is far too intelligent to not follow the letter of the law. The key issue is a more fundamental one; which is, regardless of the rules, whether somebody should actually take up such employment after retirement from the sensitive post of a regulator. The issue is not whether the author avoided conflict of interest by quitting the PNRGB position, whilst in Noesis, but whether he should have joined the firm in the first place, knowing its close relationship with firms that he had dealt with at arm’s length, as the TRAI chairperson.

Does conflict of interest cease on the completion of 365 days of a cooling-off period? Does the shine of integrity get tarnished by the lure of money, even if the latter is legitimately earned? The author is candid enough to admit in the very last page of his narrative that there can be different views on this. He recalls that Arun Jaitley, the current Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs, felt that after the brilliant work done by the author as the secretary of DIPAM and chairman of TRAI, he occupied a pedestal in the public’s mind and that he had made himself vulnerable by stepping down from that pedestal to become a consultant.

Regulators who emerge from the government have been there and done that. They know, not merely enough to become a consultant, but much more that must be preserved for posterity and ought not to be used, even inadvertently, by private interests. At best, they could take up teaching assignments—indeed, they must—because their enormous experience needs to be passed on to the next generation. At the worst, they could take up alternative careers in a sector that bears no connection to the one they regulated. However, to take up a position in a consulting and lobbying firm that dealt with the same companies that he dealt with as a regulator was uncomfortably close to the environment in which the author was a central player as a regulator. One cannot but agree with Jaitley in this regard, that the author diminished his aura and rendered himself vulnerable by doing so.

Conclusions

A Bureaucrat Fights Back is a gripping, if somewhat heavy read for the layperson. The wealth of detail contained in it can become frenetic, as the author veers from describing facts to defending his intentions and actions during a particularly interesting period of India’s technological evolution. Even if some questions still remain unanswered, as they inevitably will, it is a must-read, equally for the budding and the experienced policymaker, as also the conscientious layperson.

Note

1 Para 3.1.7 of the CAG’s report, “Performance Audit Report of CAG on the Issue of Licences and Allocation of 2G Spectrum by the Department of Telecommunications” (2010), quoted verbatim on page 57 of the book.

Updated On : 4th Nov, 2018

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