In their new book, TN Hari and Hari Menon chronicle the work of bureaucrat RS Sharma who, with his deep knowledge and love for technology, has not hesitated to question the status quo and shake things up in many important spheres like net neutrality.
We had been following the work of RS Sharma, Chairman, Telecom Authority of India, for a while now, and were very impressed with what he has been doing. We were equally impressed by his humble beginnings, subsequent success, and his continued pursuit of the simple rustic life of his childhood.
I was a panelist at a conference organised by the University of Maryland and Birla Institute of Management Technology where he was the keynote speaker. After listening to him, it was evident that he was exactly the kind of person whose story we wanted to tell. On returning to Bangalore I requested Nandan Nilekani to make an introduction. And Nandan, in his usual style, had made the introduction in less than ten minutes!
Very few bureaucrats have been in the headlines for so long, and remained as grounded and unassuming as RS Sharma. He first made headlines by driving the immaculate implementation of Aadhaar.
Aadhaar was India’s most complex, controversial and impactful technology project with far reaching socio-economic implications for the lives of a billion-plus Indians. He again made headlines globally, and became Facebook’s enemy number one, after his ruling on net neutrality. He's again in the limelight for taking on telecom operators over call drops as the chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.
When Sonia Verma, in an NDTV interview, asked, “You clearly seem to like taking on powerful corporates, because your current battle is with India's cell phone operators who seem to say that they should not be made to pay for call drops. Why have you taken on this battle,” his response was in typical RS Sharma style:
“I don't know whether you would like to call it a battle. Essentially, what we are doing is to ensure a balance of interest of all stakeholders - the TSPs, the government and the people. And what we are trying to do is to ensure a quality of service to the telecom consumers. Some people may see it as anti-industry or taking on this lobby. But I don't see it that way.”
While he did not hesitate to take on anyone to enforce the law, he was careful in dealing with violations that did not break the letter of the law even though they may have transgressed the spirit with which the law had been formulated. When Reliance Jio extended its promotional plan, he realised there was nothing in the law that prevented a Telecom Service Provider (TSP) from doing so, even though, according to Sharma, “it did offend my sense of what is proper”. TRAI was able to block Jio when they extended the offer a third time because this time they had bundled a tariff plan with it. Every episode like this is a lesson for smart policy makers, and TRAI is in the process of making the required corrections.
Giving a billion Indians an identity
Born in 1955 in a small village near Firozabad in Uttar Pradesh, Sharma had to struggle to complete his early education as his village had no primary school. However, his zest for knowledge, especially for science, took him to the University of Allahabad where he pursued a Bachelor’s degree in the subject. Following this, he joined IIT Kanpur in 1974 to pursue a Master’s in Mathematics. In 1978, he joined the Indian Administrative Services.
As the collector of Begusarai district in Bihar, he personally wrote a programme in DBASE that enabled record keeping for all stolen firearms in the crime-prone district. As soon as the firearm would be found, the programme would run a search query among thousands of age-old records. In less than a month, 22 difficult cases were cracked! In 2000, at the young age of 45, he took a mid-career break to fulfill his long standing dream of pursuing higher studies and went to the University of California, Riverside, to do a Master’s in Computer Science!
knew that the benefits of most government programmes never reach their intended recipients, and leakages were rampantknew that the benefits of most government programmes never reach their intended recipients, and leakages were rampantSharma has, never for a moment, forgotten his humble beginnings. He is a simple man who loves the simplicity of the life in his village to which he goes back every now and then. At every official home, the Sharmas have kept a cow and slept on charpoys! He is comfortable in three languages: English, Hindi and Brajbhasha. And you guessed it right if you figured out that Brajbhasha is the language his heart resonates to.
In 2009, on the back of very strong recommendations, he was handpicked by Nandan Nilekani to serve as Director General of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) and was largely instrumental in bringing Aadhaar to life in record time. He even wrote the first version of a client-software that was used to enroll people into the Aadhaar database.
Nandan describes Sharma as “a bureaucrat who could write code as well as the best software folks I know.” Nandan further told us: “Sharma’s understanding of technology is deep and he has a lot of experience in implementation and execution. I was extremely lucky to have him.” Srikanth Nadhamuni, Head of Technology at UIDAI, said “I have yet to work for a CEO who did any coding, even in the private sector.”
What drew Sharma to the UIDAI project was the opportunity to help the poor and marginalised. Having spent his childhood in a village, he had a deep understanding of the problems faced by the poor. Somewhere deep inside him there was always a quiet determination to do something about these problems. He knew that the benefits of most government programmes never reach their intended recipients, and leakages were rampant. The poor found it difficult to register and avail the benefits. Migrant workers found it almost impossible to open bank accounts because their documents, which were difficult to verify, were not accepted by banks. Use of biometric data would eliminate the possibility of fakes and give migrant workers access to a wide set of services, including a bank account, with this unique identity number.
If Nandan was the architect and visionary, Sharma was the one who played the key role in the Aadhaar implementation. He knew how the government worked and helped the UIDAI team navigate the labyrinth of government channels and procedures at every step of the project.
Sharma has never hesitated to speak his mind or call a spade a spade. From time to time, the scare of security beaches in the Aadhaar Database have been making headlines. Sharma demolishes the scare mongering by clarifying that in the seven years of Aadhaar, not a single biometric data has leaked. The anti-Aadhaar lobby has been misusing public ignorance on what constitutes a breach and to spread fake news. Sharma pulls no punches when he says that as long as Aadhaar was used by the poor to get their entitlements, it was deemed alright. Now that it is being used by the government to check tax evasion and benami properties, it has begun to hurt people. Sharma is confident that Aadhaar is here to stay and explains that like an evolving organism, it continues to make improvements by adding new features and security layers.
Decisive action on the Free Basics controversy
In the months before Facebook went public in 2012, the company was seeing the number of users in America and Europe plateau. The Facebook Board was worried. On both these continents, nearly three-fourths of the population had internet access and a good number of them were already on Facebook. China had closed its doors on Facebook. So, India was the new hope. And, it was a big market. With more than 700 million literate Indians, the opportunity was huge. But there was a problem: the internet user base in India was abysmally low.
As a strategy to boost internet usage in countries with low penetration, Facebook was quietly working with mobile phone companies in some of these countries. The idea was to give people, who did not have data plans, free access to Facebook. Facebook convinced these phone companies that the lure of free access to Facebook would result in an avalanche of new users who would eventually be willing to come online and pay for data plans. This approach led to a roaring success in the Philippines, where Facebook’s telecom partner ‘Globe Telecom’ saw a steep increase in market share. Globe Telecom raced ahead to the pole position by beating the market leader.
Mark Zuckerberg had been laying the groundwork for this grand plan through well articulated and exalted statements like “connectivity is a human right”. In February 2014, Zuckerberg explained his grand vision at a conference in Barcelona and sold the idea of ‘Internet.org’ to the telecom companies. ‘Internet.org’ would provide free basic internet services to entice the whole world online. But the fine-print revealed that ‘Internet.org’ actually provided access to Facebook and a handful of other sites. These other sites were chosen carefully to create a façade of philanthropy. Interestingly, Facebook itself would decide which sites were included on the platform! ‘Internet.org’ would allow specific commercial sites to be available free and not allow others (including those that were competing with sites that were available for free). This clearly violated the idea of net neutrality.
Let’s just demystify this a little since it is not fully understood by a lot of people.
Sharma explains: “Let’s assume that India Post has a banking licence, and so does Airtel. Unlike Airtel, India Post has no pipes. If Airtel decides that they won't charge customers for accessing the Airtel Payments Bank but will charge a hefty fee for accessing the India Post Payments Bank, then Airtel can essentially kill, or at least throttle, India Post.
“However, if Facebook decides to sponsor a few websites and has an arrangement with all the TSPs that Facebook will pick up the cost of their customers accessing these websites then it does not violate net neutrality. A1-800 architecture for data would enable seamless billing, because the sponsor, in this case Facebook, could pick up the tab. TRAI is actually working on such an architecture. So, net neutrality really means that networks should be agnostic to what flows through them. They are just carrying data and should be paid for carrying data.”
Sharma says that “from a regulation perspective, we don’t want to over-regulate things, but we also shouldn’t be silent on things that we should regulate.”
Opposition to Facebook’s ‘Internet.org’ was gradually building up. But the debates were low-key, patchy, and inconclusive. Facebook was cocky and confident that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would support their plan. But Facebook had misread Modi’s friendliness and his fascination for technology. They would soon dicover to their chargin that Narendra Modi's love for doing the right thing was far more than his love for any particular global tchnology company!
In August 2015, RS Sharma was appointed as the new Chairman of TRAI. Things began to happen immediately thereafter. Sharma brought his amazing clarity on how to drive decision making on contentious issues that touched the lives of a billion people. He had the ability to cut to the chase, see through the smoke and noise, and get to the root of an issue. He had done this before as the Director General of UIDAI. TRAI asked the Indian public to comment on three specific questions relating to net neutrality and expanding internet access. The deadline for responding to these questions was December 30, 2015, and it was later extended to January 7, 2016. The questions were centred on net neutrality and there was no mention of Facebook or Free Basics. By resolving the larger issue, TRAI was certain that the Free Basics question would sort itself out.
Facebook knew that RS Sharma meant business. They unleashed a marketing campaign whose budget by various reliable estimates ranged from $30 million to $50 million to mobilise support. Hundreds of billboards, and full front-page ads in news dailies, urged Indians to support Free Basics. There were pictures of farmers and ordinary Indians in these ads that made a strong emotional appeal and tried to subliminally impute a motive of philanthropy to the campaign.
Facebook users in India were greeted with: “Free Basics is a first step to connecting 1 billion Indians to the opportunities online. But without your support, it could be banned in a matter of weeks.” There was a button that users were encouraged to click and send their support to TRAI. And, apparently, just staying on this page long was enough to activate a message to your friends that you endorsed Facebook’s request and had sent a mail to the regulator supporting Free Basics! No one knew if this was true, but this perception stuck. There was widespread outrage at these heavy-handed and unfair tactics.
Behind the scenes, Zuckerberg even got NASSCOM to endorse Free Basics by promising NASSCOM that they would have a strong say on the content that would be available for free on Free Basics. Ironically, the year before, NASSCOM had supported net neutrality.
In less than 40 days, on February 8, 2016, TRAI passed an order banning services such as Free Basics without a single mention of either Facebook or Free Basics. Penalties for violation were also specified. Marc Andreessen, a Director on the Board of Facebook and a rockstar Silicon Valley VC, tweeted that India continued to display irrational opposition to new technology that smacked of anti-colonialism. He went on to claim that this had resulted in economically catastrophic consequences for India. In less than 24 hours he had to apologise publicly.
Sharma’s passion for driving transformational change through leapfrogging in policy and technology continues. Sharma explained to us that policy making in India has its challenges. But there were opportunities too. The challenges are largely around a) incredibly large variations in language, culture and contexts, b) India didn’t have some of the infrastructure that developed countries do, and c) existing institutions are under resourced. The opportunities being a) India offers scale - offers the second largest open market in the world, b) No old systems to worry about, thus creating a playground for innovation, c) opportunity to apply design thinking in policy, build, fail fast and iterate faster on platforms.
He draws a simple sketch to explain to us that globally, world-class products have been built on world-class platforms. In India, too, he says world-class products are being built on ‘India Stack’, which is a set of open API-based public platforms. India is truly at a cusp in its history. Innovative use of technology with the courage to cut through the Gordian knot on policy matters is crucial.
Sharma has taken TRAI into the digital age. New initiatives such as WANI provide safe space for entrepreneurs to innovate and, if successful, scale rapidly. He has driven the idea of “data by the consumers, for the consumers” through crowd-sourced analytics of call quality and data speeds made available on TRAI portal and mobile apps. Under his leadership, TRAI has been in incessant battle against providing fake financial tips and OTP phishing, amongst others. “Malevolent fraudsters adopt digital and so we cannot protect consumers by ignoring digital,” he adds. And finally he tells us that “we cannot content ourselves with only looking under the streetlight, when we know that larger dangers lurk in the shadows.”
Leaders like RS Sharma have the perfect combination of skills and leadership traits to drive this transformation. With people like him at the helm we can feel confident that we are living in the right country at the right time.
(An edited excerpt from ‘Cutting the Gordian Knot - India’s Quest for Prosperity’ by TN Hari and Hari Menon, published by Bloomsbury)