The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recently issued recommendations on leveraging AI and big data in connection with the National Digital Communications Policy, 2018. Among other things, TRAI suggested that the regulatory framework ought to centre around an independent statutory body for the purpose of developing AI responsibly.

TRAI, set up in the late 90s, has expertly shepherded India’s booming telecom industry. Before TRAI, the regulation of telecom services was overseen by the central government.  However, the draft Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022, released late last year, has sought to dilute TRAI’s role.

At present, the central government has to seek TRAI’s recommendations on introduction of a new service provider, including the terms and conditions of its licence. But the draft Telecom Bill had removed this requirement, retaining the government’s power to licence on its own, eschewing the benefits of TRAI’s subject-matter expertise. Although recent reports suggest that a revised version of the bill has restored TRAI’s role, this appears to be part of a wider trend where domain expertise and regulatory autonomy are increasingly side-lined in favour of centralisation.

Take the freshly-minted Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2023 (DPDP). Its prior iterations had vested regulatory powers with a data protection authority. The data protection board that DPDP proposes will essentially operate like a tribunal with minimal regulatory powers. And, the specific rules that need to be framed to instrumentalise DPDP’s broad principles will be done by the centre alone, although the board is expected to have subject-matter experts in data governance, ICT, digital economy, techno-regulation, etc. The question is: why waste this talent on adjudication alone?

At present,  the Ministry of Power relies on the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE), a statutory body, to design India’s carbon credit trading scheme. The Department of Telecom continues to rely on TRAI. Similarly, at a time when the ministry of electronics and IT is poised to champion India’s ‘techade’ via laws such as DPDP and the proposed Digital India Act, it is hoped that independent, expert-filled bodies are allowed to define a clear path under the country’s executive apparatus.

The writer is a lawyer with S&R Associates, a law firm.