IN THE backdrop of an estimated Rs 200-crore advertising blitz by internet giant Facebook for its Free Basics campaign in India, coupled with intense lobbying by many telcos, India’s telecom regulator TRAI’s decision on Monday to prohibit differential tariff and calling it “discriminatory” is quite a bold one. And the man behind taking such a decisive stand after withstanding all pressure and preserving what’s called net neutrality is none other than a bureaucrat — a 1978 batch former IAS of Jharkhand cadre Ram Sewak Sharma. A former Mission Director of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) or Aadhaar and ex-information technology secretary, this tech-savvy bureaucrat is now the chairman of TRAI — Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. In BoI’s list of 5 Most Powerful Bureaucrats 2015, Sharma is…ranked No 2. (Read below, the No 5, No 4 and No 3 in BoI Power List, 2015). Regulators always have power, but it depends on the individuals concerned to exercise that power. And there are a few bureaucrats, former CAG Vinod Rai being one, who stopped being loyal to those who had appointed them either to a regulatory or to a constitutional post. BoI received opinions from bureaucrats, politicians, journalists etc. on India’s most powerful bureaucrats during October and November last year, and many had suggested the names of Sharma and Central Vigilance Commissioner KV Chowdary as the ones having independent minds. BoI chooses Sharma after his decisive opinion on net neutrality without caring who all are lobbying against it.
Whether it was in UIDAI or DeitY (department of electronics and information and technology) where he was the secretary, Sharma did not allow any lobby groups to rein in. UIDAI, for example, was a humongous exercise with huge amount of money involved, but Sharma ensured a fool-proof system in awarding contracts to the right firms.
In fact, when former Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani handpicked Sharma in 2009 to be UIDAI’s director general and mission director (Nilekani headed that mission as its chairman), Sharma was a principal secretary in Jharkhand government. He was then handling the department of information and technology. A product of IIT-Kanpur where he did his masters in mathematics before joining as IAS, he later took sabbatical to complete another masters degree — this time in computer science from the University of California, USA.
Sharma was allotted Bihar cadre and he took up assignments such as deputy development commissioner in Saharsa, district collector in Begusarai, Purnea and Dhanbad. Later, when Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar and made into a separate state in 2001, Sharma was shifted to the newly-created Jharkhand cadre.
At the Centre, Sharma served as director and then joint secretary in the department of economic affairs (DEA) under the ministry of finance in 1990s. He was in the North Block when Dr Manmohan Singh was the union finance minister in PV Narasimha Rao-led government.
Sharma also served as chief secretary of Jharkhand in 2013-14 before returning to Delhi and joining the information and technology department as its secretary. In August last year, he joined TRAI as its chairman.
With Sharma as telecom regulator, it’s unlikely that the telcos and internet giants would be able to expand without caring to listen to the vast majority of ordinary citizens and small businesses.
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