Will Proposed Amendments to TRAI Act Reduce the Body to Toothless Tiger?

The strong reaction from the community and TRAI may have prompted the DoT to take a long and hard look at the proposed amendments
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In September, the Department of Telecommunications released the draft of Telecommunications Bill 2022. The Bill outlined a few changes and new introductions to governing provisions, development, operation, and expansion of the telecommunications sector. Among the various propositions made, one of the most significant was related to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). In the draft Bill, the powers of TRAI were highly diluted, drawing criticism from several sectors.

As we approach the November 10 deadline for comments on the draft Indian Telecommunication Bill (extended from the earlier October 30 cut off), it is important to understand the impact on the future of TRAI if the draft Bill gets passed in its current form.

Amendments to TRAI Act

Established in 1997, TRAI is the authority that regulates telecommunication – while it is government ordained, it maintains its status as an independent body. The draft telecom Bill seeks to amend the Section 11 of the TRAI Act, 1997 which lays down the measures regarding licensing, spectrum management, and new services for which the government seeks TRAI’s recommendations. 

The new Bill transfers this authority to the government, removing TRAI’s statutory powers. If the draft Bill is passed in its current form, the government may or may not seek TRAI’s recommendation, potentially eroding the transparency of the policymaking process. Experts are afraid that the amendment could weaken the regulatory body, attract interference from the government, hurt consumer interests, hamper investor confidence, and in the long run may decline the quality of telecom services.

“Telecom forms a part of public goods and services. The new telecom policy should have been drafted to serve the masses for easy information access. However, the approach of the new telecom draft Bill is to stifle, question, interrogate and micromanage. The Bill should have approached telecom as the sovereign digital infrastructure to ensure delivery of democracy to all households, which still remains a wish list,” Osama Manzar, founder and director at Digital Empowerment Foundation, told AIM.

Even in its current form, TRAI’s regulatory powers are less than global counterparts in the US, Europe, and even Pakistan.

“The rationale behind removing certain provisions from the TRAI act as given by the Minister of IT was to simplify the processes and minimise the back-and-forth between the two governing bodies. While the intention behind coming up with this provision is good, it is also important that these two bodies work together to enable growth and innovation in the market. The to-and-fro between the two governing bodies is important to ensure checks and balances,” Ayush Tripathi, programme manager at The Dialogue, told AIM. He further added that as an independent regulator, TRAI plays a critical role in ensuring fairness and accountability and that any change in its constitution must be done only after consultation with the authority itself.

As per an Indian Express report dated October 17, TRAI was planning to approach the Prime Minister’s Office to present a detailed presentation to show how investor confidence and ease of doing business would dwindle if DoT goes ahead with the proposed amendments. The regulatory authority reportedly wrote to the DoT, highlighting its issues with several clauses in the new Bill, which is poised to reduce the body’s stature to merely a rubber stamp of the government.

An afterthought

The strong reaction from the community and TRAI may have prompted the DoT to take a long and hard look at the proposed amendments.

In a recent interview, Ashwini Vaishnaw, the minister of electronics and communications said that the intent to remove the provisions of the TRAI Act was not to make the body weak but to simplify the process that usually takes ‘too much shuffling back and forth between TRAI and DoT’. He added that the issues with TRAI have been resolved and that the government intends to continue with the existing provisions ‘as of now’.

On the heels of the criticism levied against the draft telecom Bill, there has been a lot of chatter regarding a complete revamp of TRAI. Quoting an anonymous top official, Mint reported that TRAI will now become a permanent technical body through a separate draft law that the government may soon introduce. This will allow the body to exercise more authority and even penalise companies that do not uphold quality standards. This overhaul will put TRAI in the league of UK and US communication authorities like Ofcom and Federal Communications Commissions.

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Shraddha Goled
I am a technology journalist with AIM. I write stories focused on the AI landscape in India and around the world with a special interest in analysing its long term impact on individuals and societies. Reach out to me at shraddha.goled@analyticsindiamag.com.

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