The United Progressive Alliance’s uber-enthusiasm for collective responsibility appears to have rubbed off on the bureaucracy. How else does one explain the Telecom Commission’s decision to leave it to the empowered group of ministers (EGoM) to decide the reserve price of telecom spectrum in the upcoming auctions? The 23-year-old body, set up by an administrative notification, was given a sweeping mandate over the telecom industry; policy formulation is one of its critical functions. And, given the controversies convulsing the issue right now, there is little doubt that pricing telecom spectrum is a critical component of policy-making. The Commission, however, appears to have abdicated the function for which it was set up; instead, it took a “non-decision” last weekend by leaving the decision on reserve price for spectrum auction to the EGoM and then recommending that the sector regulator, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), should present before the EGoM its analysis of the cost impact of the reserve prices. This is puzzling if only because the whole idea of setting up a Telecom Commission was to leverage its expertise to provide the government with options that are based on sound, technical judgements, free of political considerations. And sound, expert, objective reasoning has been in short supply in the sector since the Supreme Court cancelled spectrum-bundled telecom licences sold in 2008. It is also difficult to understand how an EGoM, headed by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who already heads myriad EGoMs and GoMs of various descriptions, will be better equipped than the Telecom Commission to decide on so technical a matter.
If the issue attracted little comment, it is because governance by EGoM has become such a standard operating procedure in both stints of the UPA as to escape notice. Although collegiate decision-making has its merits, the UPA’s excessive reliance on it has enabled ministers to abdicate individual responsibility — former civil aviation minister Praful Patel, for instance, had insisted the decision for Air India to buy 111 aircraft was a GoM decision, and former telecom minister A Raja claimed likewise for following the first-come-first-served system for spectrum sales. Ministers, however, are elected politicians, who may need to dissemble for the benefit of the electorate. Members of the Telecom Commission are not thus constrained — at least on paper. So why this reticence?
The answer perhaps lies in the fact that the Commission is chaired by the telecom secretary and all its members (full- and part-time) are ex-officio secretaries to the government. Lack of independence, therefore, is implicit in the institution. This is hardly novel, considering that most of India’s sector regulators are headed by former bureaucrats who are yet to surprise the industries they regulate by their independence of action. But in the Telecom Commission’s case, it is worth wondering whether it has outlived its utility. It was formed when telecom was a public sector monopoly. Now that the private sector dominates the industry and a regulatory body is in place with the ability and expertise to deliver policy options, is there a need for a separate commission? Especially one that is loath to take decisions?