Time and again bureaucrats, regularly and routinely, blow up technology self-sufficiency initiatives, defying Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public professions of atm nirbharta in high technology. This is so for one of two reasons. Firstly, because the PM’s directives are simply ignored, especially by “technical” departments of government — such as the telecommunications ministry under cabinet minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. Or secondly, as I argued in my 2015 book — Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), because each ministry and every agency within Government of India feels free to act as a soverign entity, the PM of the day — Modi — and his directives be damned!
In the case of the 5G technology, both these factors seem to be at at work. This is further to my statements on this subject on Defensive Offence forum (in my last post) where I mentioned that for the telecom ministry atm nirbharta apparently means keeping the Chinese majors Huawei and ZTE out, but handing over India’s telecom domain to Ericsson of Sweden, Nokia of Finland, and Samsung of South Korea. These foreign companies have set up units in India to assemble mobile phones from components imported from here and there but mostly from the parent firms. This screwdriverng level of technology the defence public sector units have specialized in, apparently satisfies the atm nirbharta standards for the generalist babus, in this instance, secretary and ex-officio Chairman of the Digital Telecom Commission, Anshu Prakash, IAS (Union Territory cadre) running the Department of telecommunications (DoT). Prakash, it is plain, has not the faintest clue about 5G or anything remotely technical relating to telecom. Lucky for Prakash his career, like those of other secretaries in GOI, does not depend on his knowing anything he pronounces on.
If Anshu Prakash has some slight knowledge in anything, it is Health. He was Health Secretary in Delhi government. So, how did this fellow become telecom secretary? For one of two reasons. One of them being luck of the draw — the reason why Prakash’s predecessor for the same reasons Aruna Subramanian was hoisted into the post. This is the value-neutral explanation. In that post she proved herself partial — as news reports and a previous post of mine related to her biases based on news reports, etc from her time in the ministry reveal, to China and the People’s Liberation Army offshoots Huawei and ZTE for the 4G+ systems in the country transitioning to 5G gear and systems. Huawei and ZTE have since been banned from the Indian market despite Subramanian’s best efforts, only to have the vacated space occupied, in her successor Prakash’s tenure as secretary, by Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung. This is as acute an internal security threat as when Huawei and ZTE were monopolizing India’s telecom scene. It is a danger the DoT-WPC are actually nurturing!
The other reason for babus getting prized secretary posts is because what the person did in his previous post pleased the central government, reason enough for empanelling him/her for promotion. This is a motivation for babus in contention to conduct their duties with an eye to pleasing the PM/central government of the day. What may have helped Anshu Prakash to be rewarded with DOT Secretary post is his clash as Chief Secretary, Delhi Government, with the elected Aam Admi Party (AAP) chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, when he claimed in end-February 2018 that he was attacked by AAP MLAs. Some weeks later he mobilized the UT cadre officers in the Delhi govt secretariat and led a “candle light march” to protest the physical danger they apprehended from the AAP. It certainly got Prakash noticed by Modi’s BJP govt which has been going hammer and tongs against Kejriwal eversince his re-election for a second term. This possibly got Anshu Prakash into DoT.
So, welcome to the Government of India world where generalist civil servants, such as Prakash, act in contravention of worthwhile measures ordered directly by the Prime Minister. So much for the systemic change affected by the Narendra Modi regime over the last 6 years and the power and authority exercised by the Prime Minister and his PMO run by the superannuated Gujarati-speaking Gujarat cadre IAS officer and Principal Private Secretary to the PM, PK Mishra, who is trying to emulate his namesake from Vajpayee’s time, Brajesh Mishra, in being at the master controls of the over-bureaucratized GOI. This last is something Modi in his 2014 election campaign promised he’d remedy, but hasn’t!!
What is it about Anshu Prakash and 5G that has got me — as it should every Indian — so incensed? The Economic Times on May 11 carried a story 9 ( https://telecom.economictimes.com/news/telecom-secretary-puts-on-hold-5g-trial-spectrum-allotment-to-saankhya-labs-iisc-bengaluru/82545622 ) of how the telecommunications ministry ostensibly headed by Ravi Shankar Prasad but actually run by the IAS babu, Anshu Prakash, has put on hold the allocation of spectrum to Saankhya Labs and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore — the institution founded by the Physics Nobel laureate CV Raman and funded by the Tata’s, and the only Indian science institution that consistently ranks among the top scientific research organizations in the WORLD, for the testing of their separate, entirely indigenous, 5G technologies developed by them. Why, pray?
Well, because Saankhya supposedly did not follow due bureaucratic process. So what did Saankhya Labs do? Did it do something heinous such as jerry-rig the process so its technology being tested could take undue and unfair advantage? Or because it tried some other underhand means? NO, NO, but actually because Saankhya did something lot worse! It followed the laid down rules a little too scrupulously!!! But let’s follow the story.
The ET report based on info from “Government and industry insiders” suggests that Saankhya and IISc erred by not applying for the spectrum directly online to the Wireless Planning & Coordination (WPC) wing of DoT, as mandated by the rules, but chose to approach “DoT’s Standards, R&D & Innovation (SRI) division”. “Minutes of an internal April 29 meeting of DoT’s SRI division show that specific directions were given to WPC’s Regional Licensing Office (RLO) in Chennai, ‘to issue experimental 5G spectrum licences to Saankhya Labs and IISc without any further delay by April 30’ itself. The RLO-Chennai was also ordered to grant such trial 5G spectrum to both applicants for six months, extendable upto 1 year. ET has seen a copy of the minutes of the meeting that was attended by senior officials of Saankhya Labs and IISc. Subsequently, Saankhya was granted in-principle experimental 5G airwaves in the premium 700/600 Mhz bands in Bengaluru to run trials for convergence of broadcast and broadband networks, while IISc was offered trial airwaves (in the 3.5 Ghz/2300-2400 Mhz bands) for testing in its campus lab.”
IISc, more experienced than Saankhya in dealing with GOI, tried to separate itself in this process, explaining to ET via its spokesman that “We have obtained a provisional license which was approved and signed by the Deputy Wireless Advisor, WPC …we are awaiting the grant of the final license, which is expected to happen in the coming weeks.” Saankhya, per ET, did not respond to its queries, which the pink newspaper took to mean confirmation of WPC’s charge that it had, in fact, done something wrong. This even though ET also informed its readers that “According to the meeting minutes of DoT’s SRI wing, Saankhya needs trial 5G spectrum as it has IPRs [Intellectual Property Rights] and its products have global appeal and also recognised by US Federal Communications Commission’. The SRI Division, DoT, apparently was impressed by the fact, as ET also reported that “Saankhya has reportedly received a certification from the FCC [Federal Communications Commission in the United States] for its broadcast radio head (BRH), which enables convergence of broadcast and mobile networks and helps digital terrestrial broadcasters boost their reach and market share.”
Meaning, Saankhya, a proven chip-designer, has developed a technology, for which it has secured US and other international patents and which tech America is keen on buying and incorporating into its telecommunications grid in order to advance it. It was reason enough for SRI Div in DoT to speedily approve a spectrum license for Saankhya, which action irked WPC because it was bypassed. In this internal, intra-agency, DoT turf war WPC, it would appear, packs bigger clout, with head babu Prakash, whose technical knowledge extends to near zero!
Notwithstanding SRI Div’s good reasons for issuing Saankhya the license, the ET story continues thus: “But government insiders said the hasty manner in which such trial 5G spectrum was issued to Saankhya and IISc did not go down well with top officials in the DoT’s WPC wing, and the matter was put on hold after a review by telecom secretary Prakash and Wireless Advisor G K Agrawal.” The ET quotes from a May 5 “internal [DoT] communication“ by Agarwal which says “As directed by Secretary (Telecom), when Joint Wireless Advisor (JWA) along with myself were also present, the matter (pertaining to decision on experimental licences) is to be kept in abeyance till further orders, and JWA, RLO (Regional Licensing Office)-Chennai be informed for necessary action.”
Let’s flesh out the issue some more of the trial spectrum allocation to Sankhya-IISc, which got derailed, which the ET story didn’t do. What follows is known to everybody and his uncle in the telecom field, in the industry at-large, and certainly beyond DoT in the rest of the government which, incidentally, leaks information like a sieve. Indeed, there’s no national secret not spilled by motivated government officials when it serves their purposes.
In 2019, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) set up a Committee under Dr. Abhay Karandikar to decide on the rules for the issual of experimental 5G spectrum. Karandikar is Director of IIT, Kanpur, and earlier was Head of the Electrical Engineering Department IIT, Mumbai, head of its Research Park, and previously worked with ISRO and with the High Performance Computing Group at CDAC (Centre for Development of Advanced Computing), Indore. The Karandikar Committee — not headed by a babu and hence not intent on creating new bureaucratic bottlenecks which is what most such committees in any ministry end up doing, decided reasonably that if the Wireless Planning & Coordination (WPC) Wing of DoT — incharge of issuing licenses, failed to act on an application within 8 weeks of its submission, the license would be deemed as granted. It was this provision that WPC led by the above-mentioned GK Agrawal objected to vehemently. He may even have put down WPC’s objection on file.
But Saankhya, following the Committee’s rules, assumed that because they had not heard from WPC or anybody else in DoT that everything was go and it could proceed. It sought the license from the SRI office, Chennai, which was quickly given for the reasons of its acceptability in the US, the sort of American Good Housekeeping seal that has cleared bureaucratic logjams in GOI in other policy areas in the past in a jiffy.
In Nov 2020 Saankhya applied for “a radiating outdoor experimental license as per the policy” in the unused 700Mhz and 580Mhz bands. Per articulated policy, it did not require any such permission because this was way past the 8-week deadline for WPC decision imposed by the Karandikar Committee. But the company owning the towers on which the Saankhya tech systems needed to be installed insisted they get clearance from the WPC as it feared trouble without it. Repeated follow-ups up until March 2021 yielded no response from WPC. So, it is said, in early March 2021, Saankhya decided to approach the SRI Div within DoT. To resolve matters, in April 2021, Member (Technology), Telecom Commission, K. Ramchand called a meeting of all stake holders. [Correction: originally the text mentioned Peeyush Agrawal as Member Telecom. Agrawal, a lateral entry official, unfortunately, died within months of assuming office in 2018 and was replaced by Ramchand.] WPC head Wireless Advisor GK Agrawal, was also called for the meeting chaired by Ramchand but, conveniently, didn’t attend. The minutes of the meeting were circulated and an in principle approval given to both IISc and Saankhya, who attended this meeting, to start the trials for 6 months.
It brought a huffing and puffing GK Agrawal — the non-attendee at the Ramchand meeting, more interested in asserting and protecting WPC’s control of the licensing bottleneck — to secretary Anshu Prakash to whom this was all gobbledegook anyway. But to be fair to Anshu Prakash, GK Agrawal perhaps because of his objection on file — notings by stakeholders are sacrosanct and no secretary dares over-ride such objections put down on paper by even the junior most under-scretary in his ministry, and Prakash did not, but rather played along with the WPC head. Incidentally, the power of the officials — as in most GOI bureaucratic processes lies precisely in postponing/delaying decisions until, well, some potential beneficiary or the other coughs up … well, we know how that goes from umpteen such cases, don’t we?! So the inevitable happened, GK Agrawal on the basis, one presumes, of his noting prevailed on Prakash to stop the licensing process in its tracks under cover of a reexamination of the process, a usual time-consuming tactic, when all the secretary needed to do was read the report of the empowered Karandikar committee and throw out GK Agrawal’s objection which, considering his decision, Anshu Prakash didn’t do.
Meanwhile — and this reveals how a willing media is often used by officials in their intra-agency bureaucratic turf warfare, the Economic Times, having got the dope from someone in the DoT — who that source is, is fairly clear from the above exposition, published its story on May 11, which revealed the decisive meeting called by Ramchand, which as per the Karandikar Committee Report provisions, over-rode WPC. It was after the ET story falsely vilifying IISc and Saankhya became public that DoT formally informed these two spectrum allotees that their licenses were stalled pending inquiry. In other words, ET’s so-called investigative story was the hook on which DoT tried to hang its decision. Once the ET story came out there was one other casualty. Ramchand resigned a fortnight before his retirement possibly to avoid all the muck attending on this Prakash decision.
None of this could have escaped PK Mishra at the PMO. Why didn’t he take up the cudgels on behalf of the atmnirbharta policy that’s supposedly dear to the Prime Minister, and pull up Anshu Prakash, and especially GK Agrawal, and so send the right message to other babus up and down the GOI system gumming up the works on Modiji’s agenda that such obstructionism won’t be tolerated? Is it because IAS solidarity is so strong that PK Mishra didn’t want to collar Prakash, and get him transferred to public sanitation or some such department where his Health background would be put to better use?
“Daal main bahut kucch kala hai”, Modiji. If you don’t want these IAS babus and technical bureaucrats, who have grown fat, rich and lazy in their sinecures from saying no to all homegrown technology, and making a complete monkey out of you, and a nonsense of your atmbirbharta programme, you’d do well to pay attention to atleast your flagship policies, and see that the confusing welter of rules and regulations are streamlined and such bureaucratic barriers arbitrarily erected don’t hurt homegrown high tech, that incessant turf wars are curbed, and babus,such as GK Agrawal and Anshu Prakash, are punished for their recalcitrance and tardiness in realizing your aims and ambitions for a tech-wise self-sufficient and self-reliant India.
At a minimum, an investigation into just how and why the indigenous 5G technology is sought to be torpedoed, will be a good and salutary beginning.
It is not too late for you, PK Mishraji, to do the needful, before Modi rounds on you. There’s too much accumulating debris from policy and systemic failures in recent years that you may end up having to answer for.