The government led by Narendra Modi needs to be congratulated for standing up to the awesome power of corporate might represented by the Facebook global empire and its India-based backers. Despite a torrent of advertising seeking to demonstrate that what is good for Mark Zuckerberg is equally so for India, his effort to get India to join the clutch of countries (many based in Africa) who have allowed him to unroll the Free Basics program has failed. TRAI has had a deservedly dodgy reputation, with several of its luminaries having close, if undisclosed, links with the big names in the global telecom business. However, in the matter of Free Basics, it has clearly adopted the stand approved by Prime Minister Modi himself, which is to enforce equal access to the internet for all citizens, rather than follow Facebook in its efforts at cramming as many millions as possible through a narrow gateway into a web populated only by the few who have been vetted by the US conglomerate, which would also thereby gain eventual access to vast mounds of date on hundreds of millions of citizens of a country which took three centuries to shake off the coils that encircled it courtesy the East India Company. However, this is not enough. To make Modi’s vision of a Digital India a reality on a scale that meets the requirements of 1.26 billion women and men, much more needs to be done by the Prime Minister, who has to move beyond the incrementalism urged on by some of his advisors and focus on the transformative change for which he was elected to office in the first place.
There needs to be a steep enhancement of broadband accessibility so that internet coverage and speeds rise above the North Korean levels of the present. It is a measure of the failure of policymakers in India that this country has less than a fourth of the effective online population that China has, and that it lags so far behind front rankers such as South Korea that India may well have been in the pre-internet era. The government is reported as having, through the banks owned by it, set aside Rs 1. 14 lakh crore in the first instance towards a write-off of loans to business houses. The public interest would have been better served by ensuring that those who swindled such gargantuan amounts from a banking system which was nationalised by Indira Gandhi in the name of “assisting the poor”. Only diehard backers of the Nehru dynasty would call the clutch of conglomerates who are responsible for hollowing out the public sector banking system through loans not repaid as “poor”, even while they luxuriate in their yachts and corporate jets in high-cost locales such as Geneva and London, yet thus far there has been no effort to de-nationalise the banks and thereby raise funds for their recapitalisation from sources other than the much abused taxpayer. Prime Minister Modi needs to sweep away the crooks and fixers within decision-making levels, so that a fair chance be given to young entrepreneurs in their search to discover the next tech giant. He needs to ensure that the universities be rescued from the babus of the UGC and the MHRD. Equally important, the Prime Minister needs to promote the culture of enquiry and free speech that generates new ideas. The TRAI decision is welcome, but it is only a first step towards PM Modi’s vision of a transformed India.