An open letter to new IT and telecom minister Ashwini Vaishnaw – The Economic Times

Clipped from: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/opinion/et-commentary/a-letter-to-ashwini-vaishnaw/articleshow/84561625.cmsSynopsis

Finally, coming to telecom, the two major issues are the entire adjusted gross revenue (AGR) mess. So that we are not reduced to a duopoly and that the upcoming 5G auction is conducted transparently, you might want to lean on 2020 Economics Nobel laureates Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson, recognised for their work to improve auction formats, to help design the 5G auction.

Srivatsa Krishna

Srivatsa Krishna

The writer is an IAS officerDear Honourable Minister,

It is indeed a moment of pride and joy for me that I do not start this letter with ‘My dear Ashwini’. As your former colleague and batchmate, it is also a moment of reflection to see you climb directly to the high office of a Union minister of the emerging ‘New India’, where it is an honour and a privilege to serve. I don’t hesitate to say that you are perhaps one of Narendra Modi’s best headhunts, and it speaks volumes of his determination to bring out transformational — not the till-now incremental — change through you.

I recall the four big risks you took, which most of us would not dare do, including quitting from a secure IAS career and moving to the private sector, and then on to competitive politics. An innately risk-averse administrative system needs risk-taking political leaders like you. What sets you apart from most others in the Cabinet is your innate decency and high competence.

I take the liberty of highlighting five principal challenges in the IT and telecom sectors, and offer some suggestions for your consideration.

First, India’s startup ecosystem has beaten Covid-19, but not our stifling rules and lower bureaucracy. You are the ambassador for startups inside GoI. You must conceive a ‘Stay in India’ policy to make it attractive for companies to incorporate here, as also ‘List in India’, without which we would lose wealth and talent. Series C and beyond, startups face better incentives to incorporate in Singapore or the UAE. Falcon Edge, emerging rapidly as one of the world’s most respected technology investors, runs Abu Dhabi’s magnetic Alpha Wave incubator programme. This is eminently worth replicating here.

According to Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT) 2020 data, of the 36,106 startups, 34,267 have self-reported employment data of a total 4.2 lakh jobs, which is a significant increase from the 1.9 lakh such jobs created in 2016. Various projections indicate that by 2025, India may well have 100,000-plus startups, employ 3.25-plus million, and produce 100-plus unicorns, with a total market value well above $500 billion.

Please find a lasting solution to the problems of ‘flipping’, allowing employee stock ownership plan (Esop) grants to advisers/independent directors, tax payment only on sale of Esops (and not exercise), and allow differential voting rights for promoters delinked from shareholding as is common elsewhere.

Second,Digital Indiahas so far tapped into the private sector only in an ad hoc manner with the development of Aarogya Setu, MyGov 1.0, etc. What is needed is a formal partnership framework where the tech sectors can engage through utilisation of their prodigious talent with GoI across ministries and agencies, on tap. Once such a partnership is devised, wading through our sometimes-arcane procurement rules, it is possible to have good tech talent available, say, via GeM (government emarketplace) through gig platforms like GitHub, Fiverr, Appen and TaskRabbit, which enable one to pick code and coders.

India won’t be able to achieve Digital India through the narrow, restrictive talent pool of the National Informatics Centre (NIC). Instead, it needs to engage deep private talent to work on specific projects across ministries, with guidance through the ministry of electronics and IT (MeitY). Making Digital India NIC-mukt, by retaining some of the latter’s good talent but putting the rest to pasture, is essential.

Urgently audit every citizen-facing service of each department and agency, and make them truly user friendly. Today’s digital technologies allow easy garnering of multiple back-end channels to reach GoI through a unified front-end, and friendly, affordable and scalable response platforms.

Third, MeitY’s hard task with social media would be to make them share International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI)/location/timestamp data without breaking their encryption, which stalwarts from IIT have shown can be done. Doing so without it becoming a media song and dance will be a challenge. Also, you need to pilot the critical Data Protection Bill and make its regulatory authority happen.

Fourth, Aadhaar, eKYC and Unified Payments Interface (UPI) are the jewels of India’s trunk digital infrastructure. Their proactive use for the delivery of various private goods and services has been stymied through unimaginative rules and a pusillanimous bureaucracy, under the garb of the court judgment. You must conduct some key policy design changes to enable their expanded use across the board.

Finally, coming to telecom, the two major issues are the entire adjusted gross revenue (AGR) mess. So that we are not reduced to a duopoly and that the upcoming 5G auction is conducted transparently, you might want to lean on 2020 Economics Nobel laureates Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson, recognised for their work to improve auction formats, to help design the 5G auction.

You have got the opportunity of a lifetime to make ‘New India’ — powered by values but driven by technology — come true. I predict that you are still only in your political semifinals, while the finals are likely in 2024. May the force be with you.

Warm regards,

Vatsa

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